Understandable Grumbling or Extravagant Grace?

[The sermon was preached for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY, on 9/20/20. The texts: Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:1-8.]

On a whim, my wife brought home a young pumpkin plant from The Garden Factory when she went to get garden plants and seeds last spring. We hadn’t planted a pumpkin plant before. Rachel is the master of our veggie garden and I am the day laborer. So I had to find a place for the pumpkin, which spreads quite a bit. There was an unsightly corner behind our shed, so I cleared the weeds and turned the soil—and in went the pumpkin plant. By early summer we saw four very small, still green pumpkins forming. By mid-summer they were larger and becoming orange. A few weeks ago I noticed that they had stopped growing and were just the right color so I decided to harvest them for decorating in our home. They were still small, but bright orange. I lifted the first one, and found that it has rotted on the underside. Three to go. The second one also was rotting. And the third one. And the fourth one.

I guess I made some rookie errors, particularly in not checking them by hand daily and in waiting too long to pick them. A good grape farmer knows better. There is a right time to pick grapes. Too early and their flavor is not mature. But a day too late may be too late. Grapes are dependent on weather conditions, liking cool nights and warm days. When it is time to pick them, they are to be picked. It may turn too cold or too warm or to windy or rainy tomorrow. To make fine wine, the grapes must be picked at the right time.

This parable of the day workers in the vineyard is probably not anyone’s favorite parable of Jesus. Do you have a favorite parable? I wonder if it’s the parable of the prodigal, or the lost sheep, or the lost coin. I love those parables. Only Matthew records this parable and it causes some head scratching. It runs against our well-developed sense of fairness.

The parable depends on knowing the setting: the vintner needs extra workers today. There was, and is today, a place in Jerusalem where day laborers go to get what work is available. My dad was a union carpenter and had a regular job, but he knew there was a carpenters’ union hall where unemployed or underemployed carpenters could go in the morning and see if day workers were needed, where he could go if he needed work.

The landowner has a crop of high quality grapes ripe and ready for picking today. There is urgency in this. He goes to the grape-pickers’ union hall to get some day workers. He finds a crew at 6am and employs them for a fair day wage, say about $100. Soon he realizes that the grape crop is a bumper crop and he needs more workers today. He goes back to the grape-pickers’ union hall at 9am and hires a few more. And again at noon. And again at 3pm. Still, he sees that he will need more help before sunset, so he goes back to the all at 5pm, probably thinking there wouldn’t be anyone there, but he was desperate. Aha! There are a few workers hanging out at the hall at 5pm, probably having a beer and playing darts. They don’t look very motivated, probably content with some unemployment checks. He hires them for the rest of the workday, which is precisely one hour.

These five waves of workers get the job done. Since they are day workers and not salaried, they are to get paid at the end of the work day. The landowner now does two things no one sees coming. First, he says to his business manager, pay the last workers first. That is the wrong order: you should pay the first ones to arrive, the ones who worked all day, first. Second, his manager pays the one-hour workers the full day’s wage, $100, and all the others can see it. When they saw the one-hour workers getting such a generous wage, they did the math and figured they would be getting 12x$100=$1200. But they all get $100, the one-hour, three-hour, six-hour, nine-hour, and 12-hour workers. The 12-hour workers are irate. This isn’t fair. The 12-hour workers grumble and complain, and for good reason. It isn’t fair.

Jesus sets a tension before us: will it be understandable grumbling or extravagant grace? With which day workers are we identifying now? The one-hour latecomers or the 12-hour exhausted workers? Are we with the one-hour latecomers, smiling all the way to the bank or are we with the 12-hour workers with sore backs and sun burnt brows?

The landowner makes his defense to the grumblers. “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? . . . .  I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Are you envious because I am generous? Ouch!Extravagant grace can be a tough pill to swallow when we have a sense of violated fairness. This isn’t how the game is supposed to be played.

Let’s be clear. This parable is not about marketplace economics, minimum wages, or union rules. Jesus takes an everyday situation, one his hearers could easily picture, and uses it to make his point. And it is a staggering point: in the economy of God’s grace, the old ways of bookkeeping don’t apply. The ledger can’t handle this. There is something about God’s grace in Jesus that smashes old categories and throws our old sense of fairness out the window. As the hymn has it:

            There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;

            There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty. . . .

            For the love of God is broader then the measures of the mind

            And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. (Frederick William Faber)

And the 12-hour workers grumbled. If we have lived any length of time, we know there is much in life that simply isn’t fair. This person smoked heavily for 50 years and is cancer free and is golfing three times a week, while this other person who never smoked has lung cancer and can hardly walk. Unfair! This single mom worked to open a small business she had dreamed about only to see COVID-19 cause it to close, while this other person got a huge inheritance and bet it on a race horse that won big and ended up wealthy. Unfair! You get the picture: there is unfairness all about us. Sometimes we seem to be on the upside of it and sometimes on the downside. It’s like Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, in the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” Charlie Brown sees this list and despairs over his sister’s greed. Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” (I found this in notes on the passage by Scott Hoezee in The Center for Excellence in Preaching.) Do we choose understandable grumbling or extravagant grace?

And the 12-hour workers grumbled. Maybe they took their cues from the people of Israel right after God delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. They had cried to God for deliverance. God heard and answered. Then one month removed from Egypt, on their way to the promised land, they started grumbling. “At least in Egypt we had three meals a day. Better to die there than live like this.” They grumbled against Moses and against God. The word grumbling or complaining is found seven times in this short passage. God had every right to send them back to slavery or let them starve in the wilderness. But, instead, God showed extravagant grace and provided them fresh bread for every day of the journey. Do we choose understandable grumbling or extravagant grace?

I said earlier that this parable of the workers in the vineyard is probably not anyone’s favorite parable of Jesus. Except, maybe, it is the favorite parable of Jesus for one small group in every church: the latecomers. I don’t mean people that arrive for worship 10 minutes late every Sunday. I mean people for whom the grace of God in Christ dawned late in their lives. I mean people that lived years and decades away from grace, either because they wanted to live their own way or they just didn’t know about Jesus until late in the game. I am also talking about church people that once lived by the old bookkeeping system, keeping track of who was there every Sunday and who put an envelope in the offering plate every Sunday, and keeping count of people with too many tattoos and body piercings—and then finally saw that God’s grace couldn’t be contained in their old containers. I am seeing good news in this surprising parable about God’s lavish, extravagant grace. Do we choose understandable grumbling or extravagant grace?

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