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This morning’s text finds us in chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. At this point in the story, Jesus is getting closer and closer to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crowds around him are growing in both size and enthusiasm. Amid the crowds and his rising popularity, Jesus is not distracted by the attention - he is not distracted from his usual habit of noticing the overlooked and prioritizing the rejected ones. He continues to notice the ones who others struggle to see.
Many who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first he repeats several times to ears that struggle to understand.
On that hot dusty Judean road, people began to bring their children to Jesus. The disciples see this and they are offended by the impropriety – surely this rabbi’s time is more important than to be spent with these children! Of course, Jesus saw things differently. Jesus saw these children as exactly the ones to whom the Kingdom belongs, equal in importance to everyone else in that crowd. The least shall be the greatest he says.
Further along the road, in the middle of the noise and chaos of the growing crowd, Jesus noticed two blind men calling out to him that they might be healed. And this time the whole crowd was indignant, telling these men to be quiet. The teacher doesn’t have time to deal with your problems, who do you think you are? We have places to be, important people to meet, revolutionary things to do! And of course, once again Jesus saw things differently, when he looked at the two blind men he didn’t see an interruption to his journey. Instead he saw two men in need of compassion and healing, and he took the time to offer them both. Many who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
Right in the middle of these two episodes, Jesus tells us a parable to help us think about this mystery, which brings us to our passage from 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. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Recently I heard an interesting interview with a behavioral economist who has spent way too much time studying how humans behave while they stand in line. Out of his research, he has developed a strange theory to put forward. Because he understands a line to be a problem of scarcity – a problem that happens when demand exceeds supply - his proposed solution is to regulate demand. His theory (which is too complicated to fully explain here) basically boils down to newcomers to the line to go to the front and not the back - for the last to be first, and the first to be last. This way, he suggests, the length of the line will regulate itself and nobody will waste too much time standing around because waiting will not be something that necessarily pays off.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like this idea. The last ones to the line get to go first? Even when you’ve already invested the time to wait? It’s frustrating enough when one person cuts in line, can you imagine if everyone did? There’s something that feels fundamental about learning to wait your turn and the fairness of our waiting to be rewarded in due time -- and we bristle when others don’t follow the same rules. This is probably why Jesus’ teachings about the last being first were so hard for people to hear and understand.
But of course, our parable this morning is about much more than the order in which people are rewarded for their work and their waiting. The impact of this parable isn’t that the last workers got paid FIRST but that they got paid the SAME, the workers who worked one hour were made equal with the ones who had worked all day.
Isn’t this unfair? This is not what equal pay for equal work looks like.
Maybe it’s important to notice that nobody here was underpaid, but some were surely overpaid! So if anything, this seems at the very least like a case of bad economics, a parable of a foolish landowner with an unsustainable business model.
And while we’re on the subject of this foolish landowner - what was he doing hiring workers himself anyway? That was the job of the manager? The manager, who knew exactly what work needed to be done that day probably would have hired the correct number of workers in the first place!
Perhaps this is actually the parable of the foolish micromanaging landowner.
Parables often leave us with more questions than answers, and a good parable finds a way to make us uncomfortable or leave us scratching our heads and seeing something new every time we read it, and in that respect - this one does not disappoint. There is a lot going on here.
A famous rabbinic saying about Hebrew scripture suggests that it is like a gem with 70 faces which looks different every time you read it, turning it in the light again and again. That’s what parables are like.
So what happens now, if we turn this parable in the light and read it not as about a foolish landowner, but as a story about a generous employer? Not about economics, but a story about compassion.
Perhaps then we will see the landowner in a new light.
Perhaps we will see that this landowner has a good eye – that like Jesus, who saw the children for who they were and saw the blind men in the crowd in need of healing, this landowner actually notices the ones who have been left without work in the marketplace, and not only does he notice them, but he goes a step further and takes the time to stop and ask them why.
How easy is it for us to walk on by the suffering of others. Or to send the manager out to deal with it instead of going ourselves. How easy to avoid eye contact with those whose problems seem beyond our ability or capacity to help. Or, even easier, to not even notice at all in the first place, much less ask questions about the burdens others carry. Or, scarier still – to ask questions about the injustice of systems that perhaps we benefit from. But the landowner in this parable does exactly this. This landowner who clearly benefits from the current system, asks these men why they are still standing around unemployed in the marketplace.
And they’re answer is: “because nobody has hired us” - an obviously simplified answer to a complicated problem.
And why haven’t they been hired? The text doesn’t tell us. We can imagine that the earlier hired workers had family connections to the best employers, connections to a stronger social network. Perhaps others had privileged access to the best training, or maybe other workers arrived earlier in the morning with access to the front of the line because they could afford to live closer. Or maybe still, perhaps the unemployed workers remained unemployed because the color of their skin or the religion they practiced became an obstacle in a system stacked against them.
There are a million reasons besides laziness that explain why these workers were still standing around waiting for employment.
And I’m guessing the landowner was already aware of this before he even asked, so perhaps his question about their situation had more to do with why they were still standing around waiting at the end of the day. Perhaps he was asking: How have you not given up yet? Perhaps the landowner in the story recognizes the depth of their desperation that keeps them waiting even at the end of the day, hoping against all hope for even one hour of work in order to earn at least the smallest amount to bring home to their hungry families.
I wonder, if in his five different trips throughout the day to unemployment corner, the landowner noticed the desperation rising for those who continued to not be chosen. I wonder if he felt in his own stomach the same knots of anxiety and despair, the heavy burden, the feelings of fear and inadequacy that wracked the unchosen workers, growing each time the possibility of employment showed up and then drove away leaving them hopeless in the hot sun.
Seeing this, the landowner is moved with compassion and offers these workers the dignity of work to do and a day’s wage to bring home.
But where the landowner saw the unfairness of a system that left people hopeless, vulnerable, and unemployed, the other workers saw something quite different. What they saw was others getting a free ride, a handout, benefitting from the system without working to earn it. What they saw was a case of scandalous generosity, and it offended them – causing them to cry out to 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”
Those with ears to hear at this point might notice echoes from the prophet Jonah in the complaints of these workers. Jonah, who was furious to see his undeserving enemies receive God’s mercy, cries out to God, stewing in the scorching desert heat saying, “O Lord That is why I fled from you at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah’s overly-dramatic, angry response to the good fortune of the Ninevites is meant to be comical. But it’s also meant to capture a deep truth about the human heart that fails to see the image of God in others and struggles to love our neighbors as ourselves and with the same compassion that God has shown to us.
God responds to Jonah, asking “Is it right for you to be so angry? …Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
It’s the same response the landowner gives to his complaining workers in our parable: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Or more literally translated: “is your eye evil because I am generous?” …asking all of us an important question about how we look at the world. About who we notice and what we see. Is your eye evil because I am generous? Do we, like Jonah and the complaining workers, look through a lens of envy, scarcity, and competition? Or do we see through the lens of abundance, compassion, and grace? Are we able to see only our own burdens or are we able to see with compassion the heavy burdens that others carry? When we see the last going first, do we see with jealousy or do we look with wonder at the compassion of God?
The landowner in this parable shows us what it looks like to notice - what it looks like to see with compassion and to take the time to stop and ask questions about the burdens other people carry. In this parable we also see what it looks like to be as generous and compassionate to others as God has been to us in Jesus Christ - the one who welcomes the children, restores sight to the blind, and invites each one of us not only to work in his kingdom but also to eat at his table. May this parable capture our hearts and imaginations, may we learn to notice, and see, and ask questions with compassion, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen