Creekside Church
Sermon of September 20, 2020

"At Last "
Matthew 20:1-16

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! We are still making our way through Jesus’ teachings, and especially his parables in the gospel of Matthew. This one from Matthew 20 is a bit longer than some, but I couldn’t think of a way to abbreviate it for you, because an important part of the story is that the action takes place throughout the day, from sunrise until evening. You are probably familiar with this parable, almost certainly with the last line of it where Jesus says, “And so the last will be first and the first will be last.”

In my decades of life within the church, I have most often said that tables are being dismissed to get in line for a potluck or other meal, or heard it said by folks who end up at the back of the line. It’s kind of a wry acknowledgment that there’s enough food for everyone, and perhaps license to help yourself to dessert on the first trip through, rather than going back later. But there is a lot more to unpack from this parable. Some really important questions -- some of which would have been in the minds of Jesus’ original hearers, and others which may be informed by our 21st C experience. Here are two questions which I’d like to wrestle with, and I don’t think they have simple answers. 1. Does God treat everyone equally? And 2. Is God fair? My first impulse is that the answer to both of those should be “Yes,” but I’m not sure that’s the teaching we can take away from this parable.

Of course, how you receive Jesus’ teaching depends a lot on where you’re standing -- with whom you identify. Most of Jesus’ listeners would have been poor, like the day laborers in this parable. Although we know that some of Jesus’ disciples were wealthy, Matthew’s gospel in particular has stern warnings from Jesus about serving God and Mammon (wealth), a command to sell all of your possessions, and a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven more difficult than trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. Jesus makes it sound like wealth can make it more difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the 20th Century, theologians from Latin American countries -- particularly in Central America -- developed an entire theological structure around God’s preferential option for the poor: that is, God giving better treatment to those in need. These were countries where land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population, many of whom were working in cooperation with huge multi-national corporations. This meant that there was essentially no middle class: just a few wealthy landowners, and nearly everyone else working for them and living in crushing poverty. Conditions like this foment revolution, which is of course what happened in the 1980s in countries like El Salvador. Oscar Romero was a Catholic priest who stood with the poor in his country and in the tradition of liberation theology: good news for the poor. He became a voice for the people through a series of radio broadcasts, and became Archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated in 1980 as he was preparing to serve mass in a small chapel in the hospital where he had spent the day ministering to the terminally ill. No one was ever convicted of his murder. Romero believed that the Church was incarnated in the poor people of his country, and that cost him his life.

In our own country, the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer has raised questions about systemic injustice in our police departments and the broader society. Questions of equality and fairness. Trying to step into those difficult and often fraught situations doesn’t always go the way we might hope. I was taking to my hairdresser -- who is now also Betty Kelsey’s hairdresser -- last week. She grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in Ohio, and went to an integrated high school, and has been making an effort to educate herself about racism and white privilege. She told me this story:

She has a favorite BBQ place in Elkhart; often most or all of the other patrons there are black. She was there a few weeks ago, and another couple and family were in the restaurant. She was the only white person there. A uniformed police officer walked in, also black. She told me she knew he had to be at least 21, but he looked like he was about 16. She thought he had probably been at the intersection of some difficult conversations and situations in his community in the past few months -- a lot to handle for young man. So she went up to the cashier and said, “I’d like to buy this man’s dinner.” The officer said, “Oh no, you don’t have to do that.” She said, “Please let me pay for your meal as a thank-you for your service.” He got his food to go and stopped at her table and said, “M’am, I can’t give you a hug like I’d like to, but I want to say thank-you.” After he left, one of the patrons in the restaurant said, loud enough for her to hear, “I guess she thinks that buying a black man dinner means she’s not a racist.” And someone from the other table said, “Yeah. She didn’t pay for our food.”

Equality and fairness are tricky things -- and they are not necessarily the same thing. Does the landowner -- who seems to be representing God -- treat everyone equally? Well, yes . . . I guess. All the workers in the parable get paid the same amount:, so I guess that’s equal, but that means the ones who worked all day in the heat got paid the same as those who came late in the afternoon and only worked an hour. Is that fair? No, not really. The laborers who worked all day don’t think so, and they complain. And the owner of the vineyard says, “I’m doing no wrong: I paid you the wage we agreed to at the beginning of the day. Take your money and go: what’s it to you if I’m generous with what belongs to me?”

I would like to live in a world where everyone is treated equally and hard work is fairly rewarded: those are values which I have inherited, have tried to embody, and have taught to my children. But the world is more complicated than that, and so, apparently, is the kingdom of heaven. Those who show up early don’t get special privileges; folks who come later are still fully included. I don’t think this parable is promoting procrastination--recommending that we all wait until the very end of the day, the end of our lives, whatever, to get on board with the kingdom -- first of all, because we don’t know when the end of the day is, and second, because there is a lot of work which needs to be done in the meantime. What if my participation now helps to make this world a fairer and more humane place for everyone? Why wouldn’t I want to make that happen sooner, instead of later?

I know I have raised some questions which I didn’t answer this morning: I did that intentionally, because that’s what this parable does for me. I do want to leave you with a final thought, one which is pretty clear in my mind. It’s this: God and God’s kingdom don’t run according to my expectations. God is allowed to do whatever God wants with what belongs to God. God’s generosity to other people -- especially the poor, the oppressed or the historically excluded, does not diminish the generosity of God welcoming me into the kingdom of Heaven, nor does God’s generosity diminish the need for me to work on behalf of the kingdom of heaven. God’s generosity should be cause for humility -- because it is more than any of us can earn, and beyond what any of us deserve. God’s generosity should be cause for celebration, because it is for everyone who is willing to show up in the vineyard. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

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