September 18 2011 -- 14th Sunday after Pentecost -- Janice Hicks

posted Sep 19, 2011, 1:12 PM by   [ updated Sep 19, 2011, 1:14 PM by Terry Brady ]

14th Sunday after Pentecost

September 18, 2011

Janice Hicks


Matthew 20:1-16

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 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…”


In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.




What is it about this story that irks us? Gets under our skin, with indignation, scorn even.  I’ve been working in this vineyard all day – since before sunrise!  It has been so blazing hot!  My back hurts!

And these guys come along at 5 o’clock and work 1 lousy hour and get paid the same as me!  That is so unfair!  There must be a law!  Equal pay for equal work – something like that.  I’m going to my bargaining unit!

Who are these guys?  Who do they think they are!  Are they from around here?  Who are these latecomers?  Latecomers to the vineyard!  Latecomers to the church?  Latecomers to God’s Kingdom?

Are they immigrants?  Are they undocumented workers?  Are they people of a different color than us?  People that speak a different language?  Are they women?  Are they gay?




Who do you identify with in this parable?  I asked a few friends – well adjusted ones with a few years of therapy under their belt (good self-esteem) – and invariably, we identify with the long, hard-working grape pickers.  Why is that?  I even had an actual grape picking job – back in my 20’s when I was backpacking around France – and I actually got paid MORE than I was expecting!  Due to my bad French, I understood that I was working for room and board.  But when I left after 2 weeks of work in the beautiful autumn sun of southern France, the vineyard owner handed me a roll of Francs, about $80 US. I was thrilled!  A bonus!  Kept me going a few more weeks in Europe!  It was a great feeling! 


Maybe we are the latecomer.  We were travelling, and just got into town, and we heard this landowner needed more bodies in the field.  When grapes are ripe, they have to be harvested promptly, before any rain comes that could cause mold. So we signed right up! And dove right in!  Good thing too, because with our extra help, we finished the job before the storm, before all the fruit went bad on the vine. 


Maybe latecomers help finish the job.  Maybe we can’t do it without the latecomers.  Maybe that’s why the landowner is generous with the latecomers.  And it doesn’t take away from what the others have already done with their 12 hour days.




It’s so human for us to compare our lots to each other and to succomb to jealousy.  The good fortune of others seems to lessen our own situation.  Darn! Why is that?  But - my life is between me and God.  How you live your life is between you and God.  I should not really concern myself with your business with God, nor you with mine.  We should not fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to each other – who worked longer or harder.  Who got this or that.  Who has an easier or a harder time.  Whose burdens are lighter or heavier.  Your working only 1 hour to my 12 doesn’t take away the value of my 12.  Too often we get into each other’s business and waste time there. 


Legal immigrants get angry when they see undocumented immigrants.  Why?  Does it make them less legal?

Opponents of gay marriage get angry that gay marriage will take away from their marriages.  How exactly does that work? 


All gifts come from God whether they are for you or for me.    All gifts are cause for rejoicing.  The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says to take our joy from the success of others.  In this way, our joy will be limitless.




How many times have we gotten the good end of God’s bargain?  Too many to count.  Where by any accounting we are due 1 hour’s worth, we get 12.  We don’t stop and complain and get indignant – about a spectacular sunset, about a new job, a new baby in our community, the opportunity of a great trip. The beauty of flowers.  The stars, the favorable conditions on earth of light and air, water and soil.  Our rich history, the diversity of people, our religions, cathedrals, our science.   The mysteries to contemplate.  The basic goodness of people.  We drink it in!  God’s illogical, non-legalistic, no-accounting-for – bonus!  Generosity! 


Wouldn’t you say that in every moment of our lives –even the tough ones - we are so generously overpaid?  It so speaks of God’s love for us – by this, as Rumi says, we are ground sweet as sugar.  Coming from this place of abundance, we are much more able to give others the benefit of the doubt.  We avoid making quick assumptions about others (that are too often wrong.)  Those latecomers are not so bad.  To them we can whisper, without resentment, “friend.”






This parable says to me we don’t always have to be so perfect, so diligent, so hardworking.  God will still love us.  It was a huge breakthrough for me at a turning point in my life to realize that nothing I could do would make God love me more.  I have heard that key message from this pulpit for many years.  It didn’t matter if I wrote a book or scaled a mountain in Nepal.  If I raised a family or taught or became a missionary.  You don’t have to work all day to get accepted into God’s kingdom.  It’s not a matter of how much you work, how much you accomplish.  Just love, and get in.




“The first will be last and last will be first.”  Today’s parable speaks to many dualities – us and them, early and late, fair and unfair, first and last.  Many stories in the Bible are paradoxical.   This story about the vineyard workers has shades of the Prodigal Son story.  The good son works for his father for many years, yet it is the philandering son who gets the big party and welcome when he returns home.   Today’s parable also has what seems like a reversal to us – the latecomers get paid for a full day’s work, and the early-birds get the same wage.  Using our values, these outcomes don’t add up.  But, as the commentaries say, this is not a story about economics.  One of the commentaries said, “God is a lousy accountant.” 


I think Jesus is trying to shake us up here to get a glimpse of the bigger picture.  You either come to God’s Kingdom or not.  You can arrive early or late – but the important thing is to arrive.  There is no part-time kingdom.  God’s kingdom is not a timeshare.  You can’t split it in any way that seems “fair.”  God will not have shared custody.  It’s all or nothing.   There’s a party going on there.  You can come if you want to – but either way, the party will go on. 



From the hymn: 

What love is this? What love is this

That from eternity,

Before I had done right or wrong,

Had made its choice of me?