Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 20:1-16 The Laborers in the Vineyard
‘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 market-place; 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.’
Have many of you seen the list of UCC Firsts? Those of you who have joined the church since I became the pastor definitely saw it in your new members’ class. And, the confirmation classes have seen it, too. For those who haven’t seen it or didn’t memorize everything in their new member class, the list of UCC Firsts is a list of historical events where Christians from one of the denominations that would eventually form the United Church of Christ where among the first folks to do something. The list includes affirmation of the leadership of people from historically marginalized groups, acts of civil disobedience, the creation of schools and mission societies, support of civil rights movements, and comparatively early steps of acceptance of LGBTQ people.
The UCC Firsts list is certainly not an exhaustive list of important events in the history of our denomination. But, it’s a list that some people decided was important. It is one of the things that people new to the denomination see when they want to learn more. It’s a list that can help long timers learn something about a part of our history that they might not know. Also, importantly, by listing these firsts- firsts that have a lot to do with justice and equality- demonstrate both who we are theologically and who we want to be going forward. Some people will act like a Christian push for social justice is some brand-new behavior dictated by the politics of this era. In pointing to historical firsts going back to the 1600’s, we are showing that a Christian commitment to justice has been around for a long time.
And, we are calling out these justice firsts as exemplars of our historical behavior... we are naming them as some of the best things we’ve ever done as a religious community. And, we are claiming them to be behaviors we should repeat in our present time and the future, based on both our historical commitments to justice and to the demands of justice relevant to the present day. If Rev. Samuel Sewell wrote an early pamphlet about the sinfulness of slavery in 1700, we can and should speak to the racism rooted in the practices of chattel slavery that still exists in our time. Sometimes we need to look towards the examples of the firsts to inspire us in the now and push us towards the next. The first we lift up show us who we hope to be.
It can be challenging, though, to only pay attention to the firsts. It may be tempting to feel that because we or a member of our denomination took a stance first, we did it best. Or, we may concentrate too much on our past firsts without tending to the demands of the present. And, when we do something wrong, or someone points out that, though portions of our history are shaped by an old faith commitment to justice, we still have systemic problems with sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia within our denomination, we might get defensive, and point to our firsts as evidence that we couldn’t possibly be in the wrong. Being first does not make us best or perfect.
Just after Jesus told a wealthy man that his wealth was preventing him from being closer to God and confirmed that being willing to make sacrifices is part of following Christ, Jesus tells another story, this time about a landowner and some day laborers he hired. The surprising element of this story has to do with how he chooses to pay them. He hires his first set of laborers at 6 am and goes back at 9 am, hiring a second crew. He goes back at noon, at 3 pm and at 5 pm, hiring more workers each time. In her commentary on the text, Kimberly Wagner notes that the 6 am folks are promised a day’s wage. The 9 am group is promised “whatever is right,” as were the noon and three pm folks. At five, he asks “why have you been standing around all day?” When they reply that it’s because no one hired them, he said they could go to his vineyard, too.
Now, if you have had employees or been in charge of payroll, you might expect the ones who came later and worked fewer hours to be paid less. The workers certainly did. But, that’s not what happened. The landowner told his manager to start paying the last hired first and to proceed to those first hired. Group by group, regardless of how long they’d worked, each worker was paid a full day’s wage. Those who had only been there a little while were overjoyed. Those who’d worked a full day grumbled. “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.” We got here first. We’ve worked the longest. We deserve the most. My, doesn't that complaint sound familiar?
In her commentary, Wagner notes that this parable isn’t supposed to be read as “Jesus’ advise to business owners,” though generosity towards employees is probably a good and just thing. And, she and another scholar named Emerson Powery argue that this parable is supposed to show us how Jesus thought God was supposed to be. Wagner says that the story shows us that God’s ways of generosity are not bound by human ideas of a “just reward.” In this case, those who were first were not more moral or good or worthy than those who came later. If arriving first in order to get more stuff- more money, more power, better seats at the free Melissa Etheridge concert- is an important part of many human systems, Jesus is clear God is not bound by that system.
The incredible, impractical, improbably generous actions of the landowner in this story, according to Wagner, point us to a future reign of God that is more generous and gracious and abundant than we can likely imagine. After all, most of us are just trying to get paid fairly for the work we do. This story asks us to imagine a world that is incomprehensibly better than our basic hope for just pay.... we will have not just what we can work for, but what we need. Because every worker needed a day’s pay and the landowner made sure everybody got one, even the people who hadn’t had the opportunity to work as long. We shouldn’t follow Jesus for special privileges. This story shows us that perhaps our calling is not simply to keep track who is first, second, or last, but instead, like those 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, and 5 o’clock workers, to follow when we are called up to the vineyard, to do the work we are called to do, and to give thanks for a holy promise that we will be given what is right. And, what is right... what is just... what we deserve, is more grace and care than we can currently imagine.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The list of UCC Firsts: https://www.ucc.org/ucc-firsts/
Kimberly Wagner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/laborers-in-the-vineyard-2/commentary-on-matthew-201-16-8
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25/commentary-on-matthew-201-16-6
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.