My father is a retired art teacher, having taught art to middle school and junior high students for four decades. In his career he was greatly committed to education—perhaps too committed. Because at one point he was teaching full-time, serving as vice president of the school board of the district in which we lived, and serving as the President of his teacher’s union in the district where he taught.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 2 in the Series “St. Matthew Wants You to Know“
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1–16
Even though he was simultaneously involved in management and labor, his heart was always on the labor side, and he endeavored to share that perspective in his role on the school board.
I learned a lot about contract negotiations, grievance procedures, and other union-related issues. I learned about the astonishing power of an alternative to striking called “work to rule,” in which teachers do only the work they are required to do under the contract. It’s a sobering thought to learn that if teachers only do what they’re paid to do, it can have the effect of slowing down the work of the entire system. That school districts—and by extension all of us—depend on teachers going beyond what they are compensated for.
But one other thing that I have learned from my unionist father is that he hates the parable we heard read from Matthew’s gospel a little bit ago.
In the text Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven as being like a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire some day laborers for his vineyard. He offers them the usual daily wage and they agree.
He goes back out again at nine o’clock and finds more laborers and tells them that he’ll pay them “whatever is right”—which could also be translated as “whatever is fair” or “whatever is just.” He goes out again at noon and at three o’clock, and even at five o’clock and finds laborers who’d been standing idle all day and hires them for the final hour of the day.
When the day is over he has the manager line them up in reverse order to be paid. To the ones who’d only worked an hour, he gives an entire day’s wage—one denarius. But when those who’d worked the whole day arrive he also gives them a day’s wage—one denarius. They’re outraged:
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”Matthew 20:12
It’s not hard to see their point. Especially if we update the money. The average wage in the U.S. is currently is $11.35 an hour. 1https://www.statista.com/statistics/216259/monthly-real-average-hourly-earnings-for-all-employees-in-the-us/ So, given a twelve hour work day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., a daily wage under this system would be $136.20.
When the laborers who’d worked only one hour get their full $136.20 you can imagine the math that’s going through the heads of those who’d worked longer. Those who were hired at 3 p.m are imagining $408.20. Those at noon, $817.20. Those at nine, $1,225.80 and those who’d been working all day a whopping $1,634.40. That’s almost CEO money. (Well, maybe in 1965 when CEOs earned 16 times more than their employees, but given our current reality that CEOs earn 265 times what their employees make,2 https://www.statista.com/statistics/424159/pay-gap-between-ceos-and-average-workers-in-world-by-country/ that would be $36,093.00 for a day’s work. But, I digress.)
Now, even if they don’t expect the $136.20 to be the hourly rate, basic fairness would dictate that they receive something more than that. And so, when you have a higher number in your head and the manager hands you $136.20 you feel outraged. This is why, as a union guy, my dad hates this parable.
But the landowner’s response is interesting:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?”Matthew 20:13–15
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus then concludes the parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
So, what on earth is going on here? Are the laborers right to be upset? Is the landowner being unjust—despite his guarantee that he will pay what is “just” or “right”?
St. Matthew’s Community
As I mentioned last week, we don’t know that much about the author of the gospel that bears Matthew’s name. But the prevailing consensus is that it was written by a Jewish Christian, likely in Syria, probably in Antioch, to a congregation that identified strongly as a Jewish Christian congregation. The gospel’s emphasis on Old Testament prophecy, its organization of Jesus’ teachings into five “books” like those of the Torah, its insistence that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”(Matthew 5:18) shows a concern with continuity from the Israelite tradition into the emerging Christian one.
But while Jews might have been the first Christians, they weren’t the only ones. Fairly early on, Gentiles—Syrians, Greeks, Arabs, Ethiopians, and Romans—were drawn to the message of the Gospel. Much of the early debates in the church centered around whether to become Christian, a person must first become a Jew. That is, is Christianity a sect within Judaism or is it something separate or perhaps overlapping Judaism?
According to the book of Acts, this question was resolved by the Council of Jerusalem, who sent a letter to the Gentile converts of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia that read:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.Acts 15:28–29
So, there you had it. You didn’t need to become a Jew to be a Christian—that is you didn’t need to be circumcised, or eat only kosher food, or observe the Sabbath and special days, you merely needed to abstain from idols, food with blood in it, and from fornication (which might be another reference to idolatry, as it frequently is in the Bible).
You can imagine some members of Matthew’s community saying, “Wait a minute—that’s it?!? Abstaining from idols, blood, and fornication and they’re in? We’ve been praying three times a day, fasting, eating only that which is kosher, observing the sabbath, having our male children circumcised, offering sacrifices, observing the festivals and the days of mourning, and we’re treated the same as these Johnny-come-lately pagans? How is that fair? What is just about these folks who’ve shown up at the very end being treated the same way as us who have been faithful for so long?”
Why St. Matthew Wants You to Know that God’s Grace Is Free
In answering the objections of the community in this way, you can fall back on the contract identified in the parable: you got paid what you contracted to do, what do you care whether I decide to be generous with my money?
But the bigger point is this: all of the laborers are the beneficiaries of grace. None of the laborers is on staff. All of them were in the marketplace looking for work when the landowner first came by. All of them received the benefits of the gracious invitation by the master. An invitation freely given.
We’re so suspicious of grace precisely because it is freely given. For years on campus, I would table during winter finals and on the table would be bowls of chocolate kisses—milk chocolate, dark chocolate, mint, peppermint, candycane, caramel, almond—Hershey’s peanut butter cups, and other chocolate minis. The sign in front of the table would say, “Spiritual Therapy for Finals: Free Chocolate.”
Some students would snag a piece as they walked by, almost as if they were getting away with something. Some would come by and say, “What do I need to do to get the chocolate?” “Nothing,” I’d answer. “It’s free. Help yourself.” I’d even bring my laptop and try to look busy so that they wouldn’t think I was about to pounce and try to get them to sign up for something. Finally, I placed another sign on the table that said, “Free Chocolate: if you had to do anything to get it, it wouldn’t be free, would it?”
Free grace seems to be such a hard concept to get our heads around.
St. Matthew wants you to know that God’s grace is free because we keep forgetting that.
BUT WE DESERVE GRACE
Oh, we might imagine that grace is given to other people; but we like to imagine that we’re in God’s graces because we’ve earned it.
You see this all the time in our social and political thinking where people will talk about how they “lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps” but neglect to mention that they received an education in public schools or even in private schools that their parents paid for. Everything I’ve got I earned. Everything you got is a handout.
This attitude is epitomized by a comment made by a reasonably well-known actor who was objecting to social welfare and government aid and said, “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No.”3https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTwpBLzxe4U His obliviousness to the fact that food stamps and welfare are people helping him out is right in line with our inability to see ourselves as having received just as much grace as those we think are getting by too easily.
And here’s where Matthew’s community might have gotten off track. Because if they’re thinking that they’ve earned grace because they’ve been following the Law all this time when the pagans have been off worshiping other gods, then they have forgotten that the Law itself is the response to grace already received.
The Israelites receive the Law at Sinai after God has delivered them from captivity in Egypt, not before. The story of the Exodus is not the story of Moses bringing the Law to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and telling them that if they observe all these commandments God will rescue them from their captivity. It’s the story of Moses bringing the news to the Israelites that a God they barely remember is going to deliver them from their captivity for the sake of a gracious promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that was itself freely given for God’s own reasons.
God continues to show grace to the Israelites in the wilderness, providing them with food and drink, caring for their needs before even a single letter of the Torah had been revealed. What that means is that observance of the Law has never been a way to earn grace, it is a way to respond to a grace that has already been given.
It’s the same with us. We’re so inclined to believe in our own merit and in our own ability to determine our own destiny that we miss the abundant grace we have already received.
St. Matthew Wants You to Know God’s Grace Is Free
Saint Matthew wants you to know God’s grace is free because it’s only when we understand that, that we allow ourselves to be the recipients of grace and are freed to extend grace to others.
We cannot share that which we have not received and if we do not count ourselves as having received grace, then it becomes harder to share it with others. It is only when we come to see just how dependent on grace we have been that we become vessels of grace for others.
And in so doing, we also change how it is we see the work that we have before us. No longer need we feel oppressed by the demands of discipleship.
For we toil in the vineyard not because it is how we receive God’s grace, we toil in the vineyard because we have already received God’s grace. We toil in the vineyard because there is work to be done and in so doing we work alongside those who’ve been with us in the struggle since the very beginning, and those who only just now joined in—all fellow recipients of grace.
We toil in the vineyard doing because so is a testimony to the Master who graciously extended the invitation. And doing so responds to the words of that same master who said, “Blessed are those servants whom the master will find at work when he arrives.” (Matthew 24:46)
Exodus 16:2–15 • The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.
Matthew 20:1–16 • “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”