Sunday Night Worship – 9/21/08

5 o’clock People

Matthew 20: 1-16

John Wesley and the early Methodists were inspired by this parable ( A lot of people – especially a lot of middle- and upper-middle-class Americans – are annoyed by this parable. What do you mean, they’re all getting paid the same thing? Something about this smacks of being unfair and we democracy-loving Americans, we hard-working-earn-the-grade college students, we sinners… get irked.

But Wesley liked it and, obviously, Jesus liked it, so that’s enough reason for us to at least do more than give into automatic rejections of it as illogical, unfair, backwards, or whatever other things it may be.

I’ll say from the outset that it is illogical and unfair and backwards and probably a few other things, too. But isn’t that what we know the kingdom of God to be like?

With the first verse, Jesus sets it all up for us: “For the kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20: 1). We have to move away from trying to play a match-up game with parables, trying to equate characters with God or Jesus and sticking so close to our analogy that we miss the big picture. There are some obvious analogies we can make but tonight I’m going to stick with how Jesus frames it. He doesn’t start out saying Here’s what God’s like or Here’s how you get into heaven or Here’s how to respond to God’s grace. Jesus starts out by saying that the kingdom of God is like…The kingdom of God is like the whole story, everything else that follows in this parable.

What follows? Well, there’s a landowner who heads out early to hire workers for his vineyard. He offers the usual daily wage and sends them out to work. Around 9 o’clock he sees some other workers still waiting in the marketplace and sends them out to work, offering to pay them what’s right. The landowner goes back at noon and at 3 o’clock and does the same thing with the people waiting for work at those times. He even goes back at 5 o’clock – almost quitting time – and sees some folks waiting around. He asks them why they’ve been idle there and they answer, “Because no one has hired us.” He sends them on out into the vineyard to work, too.

In the evening, the landowner has his manager pay everyone who has worked that day, starting with those hired last. When the 5 o’clock people come up for their pay, he gives them the usual daily wage. When they see this, the early morning folks – let’s call them the 7 o’clock people – think to themselves, Well, if he’s giving those latecomers what he originally promised us, we must really be getting some decent pay today! Wonder how much it will be! When the 7 o’clocks get up to the pay line and they are handed the usual daily wage – exactly what they were promised that morning – they grumble.

Why do they grumble? They say, These 5 o’clocks only worked for one measly hour and you have made them equal to us – we who’ve been here all day and worked the hardest. The landowner says I gave you what we agreed upon and did you no wrong. Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give the last ones here the same thing – aren’t I allowed to choose what I do with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? And if that’s not harsh enough for you, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible notes that this last verse (v.15) should really read like this: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (Mt. 20: 1-15; NIB Bible, p. 1782).

So what does the parable tell us about the kingdom of God? What is the kingdom of God like? The kingdom of God is a reality in which all day long, all life long, there are continual invitations to participate. The kingdom of God has work and a place for everyone. In the kingdom of God what is promised is fulfilled; promises are kept. The kingdom of God is an experience of generosity. Expectations are upturned in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, there are choices to be made about giving and receiving.

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? How can we be annoyed by generosity and fulfilled promises and invitations? But when we hear it told in the story, we start to expect certain conclusions and we identify with certain characters and we recognize “the way things work” in the marketplace.

I think most of us identify with the 7 o’clock people. Besides gleaning apples yesterday, most of us probably haven’t done a lot of harvest work. But we’ve all had to start early and work hard to get paid or to get into UVA or to maintain a GPA. We know what it’s like to work in the vineyard all day long in the heat. I happen to think the 7 o’clocks are the most interesting folks in the parable because they show us so clearly how we trap ourselves.

Bill Mallard, a clergyperson in our Conference and one of my favorite seminary professors, preached a sermon once about how we are all “5 o’clock people.” No matter your experience of hard work, generosity, jealously, or unexpected gifts, we are all 5 o’clock people. We all sin and fall short and we are all invited into the kingdom on a par with everyone else anyway. We all arrive late and we are all welcome. But it’s hard to keep that mindset, isn’t it?

Imagine if you had applied and been accepted to UVA, planning your whole previous year around getting in here. Then, on the first day of class, that day you’ve been planning for and preparing for most of your high school career, you walk to class. And on the Lawn President Casteen is meeting with a bunch of 18 year olds who are milling around, looking longingly at Cabell Hall and telling him they want to learn. And then, instead of sending them away and telling them to apply next year like everyone else or try to transfer in from a Community College, he says, “Go on in and find a seat. You can look on with someone else today until we get your books sorted out.” Imagine! Some of them barely graduated from high school and now Casteen thinks you’re going to sit next to them in class – after all that struggling and scraping and resume-building you did to get yourself here on your own merit?!

Well. What would that be like? Would you think Good for them! or would you feel cheated out of your accomplishment somehow? In observing how they “didn’t deserve it” would you be able to clearly see how you have prospered when you didn’t deserve it either? Would their presence in class next to you, on a par with you, change anything? Would it change everything?

I find it most interesting that the 7 o’clock workers are not upset with the landowner for hiring other people or for paying them well. They are upset because they want to preserve a social ranking that benefits them. This is not even a case of Robin Hood “generosity” – the landowner doesn’t lower everyone’s wages in order to have enough to go around. The 7 o’clocks are upset because, even though they agreed on a daily wage and they get exactly that, once they see the 5 o’clock latecomers getting it, they think their wage will increase accordingly. They aren’t interested in the fulfillment of the original promise but in the preservation of a system that keeps them on top. Is your eye evil because I am good?

If new faces showed up on the first day of class and, without “deserving” or working for it, they sat right next to you as students of equal standing in the class, would you allow that to alter what it meant for you to have made it to that class? If, without changing anything about your admission status or course requirements or dorm assignments – without any changes to your own life as a student – Casteen had found a way to include some 5 o’clock students, would you have seen it that way?

Last week we talked about Jonah and about the parable of the slave who, after receiving forgiveness, does not reciprocate and forgive the debt of his fellow slave. We are all forgiven and the recipients of such extravagant grace that there is no way we could ever employ a Protestant work ethic enough to earn such wonders. We are all 5 o’clock people. Whether we started working at 7am or 5 pm, we are all 5 o’clock people when it comes to God. Thank God we don’t get what we deserve. Thank God that God is God.

The evil eye is in comparing ourselves to others. It is massively hard not to do. Our culture is replete with comparisons from before we even leave the womb. We measure how fetuses develop and compare one pregnancy to another. We measure babies and toddlers against each other and standard growth charts. Parents display bumper stickers on their cars – either the version that crows about their honor roll student or the other version avowing that their kid can beat up the honor students. We strive and suffer through SATs and class rankings and GPAs. We check out what other people are driving and wonder, unkindly, how they can afford that car. We wonder who in the world would want to date that person. We are raised up in a toxic mix of comparison and then here’s Jesus telling us that there isn’t room for that in the kingdom of God.

I grew up with my brother, David, who’s two years younger. I have the best brother a sister could have but there were a lot of times growing up that he annoyed me. Actually, there were a lot of times growing up that my eye was evil. I had a little tally of all the things David got to do at an age earlier than I had gotten to do. Once I had the privilege David usually had it too. I used to complain that – if it were legal – my parents would let David drive at 14 and vote at 16.  And I was jealous. We had the same allowance and the same bed times and I had a sense that, because I was older, I should have some extra privileges. I liked the sound of a system that would keep me on the top of the sibling heap. But my parents were generous with both of us and, even though it didn’t take anything away from the bed time or the allowance or the other privileges I got, there were a lot of times I wanted my brother to have less.

That evil-eye, uncharitable comparison is how the world is much of the time. But that’s not what the kingdom of God is like. And that’s the place we are called to live, right now. The thing is, the kingdom of God is not just another phrase for “heaven.” The kingdom of God is the “already-not yet” reality of the reign of God. It’s the way in which God calls us to life in all its fullness. The kingdom of God is the feast we are invited to taste each week in this meal and which we will enjoy at God’s heavenly banquet.

This meal is our weekly invitation – early in the morning, at 9, at noon, at 3, and at 5 – to taste and see, to follow, to give up comparison and jealousy.   We are not called to become expert players in the games of the world while praying that “by and by” we’ll be in the kingdom of God. We are called – right here and right now, right here in the middle of life at college – to live out of the “already” of the kingdom of God, to live now as if that is our only reality.

God is keeping the extravagant promises God made to you – rejoice! Stop looking around to see what kind of deal anyone else has. Stop checking the clock to see who shows up at 5. And rejoice that all of us 5 o’clock people are called in from the fields, paid along with everyone else, forgiven our unspeakable evil-eye jealousies, called to abundant life, and welcomed to the table!

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008