Matthew 20:1-16

First Congregational Church of Anchorage  :  24 September 2017

After I began my job as the General Manager of Cinnamon’s Deli, the restaurant I used to operate, I called my grandpa. He had been the office manager for a factory that makes wallboard for construction in the same town I grew up in. He was an accountant and ran the office, but retired the same year I was born.

I called him to talk about managing people, and what he learned by doing it for many years.

A few years earlier I was traveling through England for a few days on my way back from taking a January term course in Israel. I took the train and a cab to a small town called Mildenhall.

It was the same town where my grandfather had been stationed during his deployment in the Korean War, or Conflict. As current times reveal, the conflict is still very much in place.

I called him just to tell him about the couple of places he told me to visit while I was there. We talked briefly. I told him how difficult it was to get there, and how expensive the cab ride was from the neighboring town and back.

As soon as we hung up, he apparently drove to the bank, where my mother worked, and still works. He transferred money into my account. He was worried I was running low on money. After all this was the end of the trip.

It seems like a natural thing for a grandpa to do, and I was running low. While in Mildenhall, I had to go to an ATM and hope I could get enough money, which as a college student was always up for grabs. The money was there because he had transferred it in time. I met the cab driver and headed back to the closest train station and then headed back to London.

That story lines up with conversations I had had my whole childhood. People who worked for and with my grandpa liked him. He was fair, even if that meant bending a few rules to make sure people were taken care of. He told me that if people feel good about their contribution to the whole project, and if they feel they can trust that you have their interest in mind, you will never struggle to find people who will work hard with you.

It is that easy, and that difficult. During my trip we were working on a project together, and he was taking responsibility for making sure one of us didn’t get stranded.

The parable we read today speaks of a boss who also bends usual rules and does seemingly random things. The translation calls the boss a landowner, but the greek word translates as “a man, a householder,” a double noun. In other places the same word is translated as “master or owner of the house.” It is usually used in the gospels to describe someone as faithful not unlike how God would behave, but still very much constrained by the human condition with all its flaws and struggles. By translating the word as landowner, it points English readers towards connecting the “boss” with God.

The householder is not bad, nor is he good. Both of those designations go too far with the story we have. We have no direct indication that times were exceptionally difficult, or that day labor is somehow connected to poverty or disgrace. He hires more people than he likely needs, and pays fairly, even sort of taking extra care of those who could not find work that day. But is the landowner willing to be last? We don’t really know.

I guess it depends on who’s perspective you take on how you hear this story. Perhaps the last to come to work worked harder in one hour than the others did all day.

But we have no indication that anyone is lazy or shiftless. When it says that the last to be hired were idle in the marketplace, it is better translated as simply “without work.” All of the workers were ready and able to work, but for reasons we aren’t aware of, some had more difficulty getting work.

Maybe they were at home caring for a sick child, or perhaps they are struggling with addiction. We don’t know. All we know is that the people showing up needed work at all hours of the day.

However, It is the first hired, the only ones who made an actual agreement on the wage (likely in line with local custom) who wanted to be treated better. They are not concerned with equal pay according to custom or local law, but conclude that they deserve even more.

Parables are difficult by design. They do not reveal themselves easily, and what they do reveal is something about us. Note your first instinct when reading it. Whatever it was, there is something that we can find inadequate about it. I had a first reaction, and it says more about me than anything else. How we first respond reveals something about us.

This is fairly true for most things. We see someone doing something, and we quickly determine everyone’s motivations involved. When the driver cuts you off, of course they saw you and did it just because they must be a jerk, or don’t know how to drive. We need to look beyond our own noses to see what may stand in front of us.

Naturally, some say, people on public assistance are lazy. There is work if people will do it. But we know little about the situation leading up to that moment when people seek assistance, even if we know the person.

And this goes the other way too. We can see corporations laying off thousands, and point to the greed of the managers and owners. But they are functioning under the measure of making money, which is really the only measure of corporate success that absolutely matters in our current economic structure.

Maybe we could address underlying reasons people do not or cannot work, or we could image that doing business is about more than just making money.

For both the poor seeking assistance, or the corporations laying off workers, we fail to see all the structures and conditions that have created the situation to function just as it is. It has been designed this way, and it functions this way as a result.

The bigger question of this parable is what would the kingdom of God look like, and the truth is, we are not really sure. We are at least not sure of all of the details. But what is for certain is that people would have meaningful work and be paid fairly.

In this parable, everyone should have been happy that not a single person went without work and payment and was able to feed themselves and their families. Perhaps after all, the issue goes back to our keeping score of what we think is fair.

Just like last week with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the removal of the hurt, but a conscious process of not keeping score. It is a process that takes account of what each person needs to do in order to heal and continue to live as best they can.

We cannot connect our own healing, whether we are the one who harmed, or the one who was harmed, to the actions of the other party. We do what we need to do in order to be safe and to find a way to live with a new reality.

The problem got out of hand in last weeks scripture reading was when the people went to the king to demand retribution. If you remember, the first person who was forgiven his debt by the king was throwing his own debtor in jail. This is when the whole thing came undone.

Because the king retained the right to take back the grace given in the first place, he let loose a chaos that put the lives of everyone in danger.

The king could have simply set the second person free as well. I assume he controlled the debtor’s prison. He could have not carried out the prescribed punishment requested by the one who he had forgiven, who did not also forgive. That seems like grace to me.

Instead, In the process of people seeking a kind of retributive justice through the king, reconciliation was lost. Everybody was now at risk of even torture.

Likewise for our reading today of people keeping score, the first to work in the morning sought to maintain a hierarchy of labor valued solely upon time worked. I am sure if the first who arrived were paid first, they would have insisted the late comers should be paid much less, even if they would have been hungry.

Our version of fairness when we are the first ones to work at 6:00 in the morning is very different than if we are without work until the eleventh hour.

But it is the unusual nature of the parable that reveals its point. The odd way the householder behaves, going out 5 times to get workers; the 100% employment rate; the fair payment of everyone despite time worked. It all seems very strange. I suppose that this might make God strange to us as well.

However, if the householder is not just simply God in the story, we can at least see some semblance of a person acting like God might in real life.

Perhaps it really is simple. As Amy-Jill Levine puts it, we might get a glimpse at the realm of God coming to pass when “the landowner pays everyone a living wage, and if the workers can be content with what is right rather than what they perceive to be fair.”

Unfortunately, This position stands to bother both ardent capitalists and socialists alike. It is good news to the poor and responsibility for the rich, but not an assumption that an absolute leveling is the blanket solution all of the time.

What this parable does do is begin to draw a conversation between spiritual faith and practical life. It speaks to faith in very practical terms, and then calls on faith to struggle with our lives.

Here is what I mean.

As we delve deeper into our own faith journeys, we do not begrudgingly welcome others to join us when they are ready, as if since we may have begun our faith journey sooner, they are somehow less valuable to God. No! We are simply excited that we as a community get to experience the transformational love of God in our own lives together, whenever we begin.

But Jesus is fairly clear. This spiritual reality must not be separate from our human existence within communities. This is the difficulty with parables. They equate something seemingly easy, the joining of others in celebrating the love of God made real, a living into the grace of God, with something else infinitely more difficult; That of living into the same un-exhaustible grace with each other right now.

But that is what the realm of God is like. That is where the wonderful and treacherous Way of Jesus stands. It says to pick up your cross and join in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ for the world. But Jesus also declares that this burden is light. It doesn’t sound light, but yet it is.

I prescribe no sure and fast answers. I only join you as we explore possibilities.

As you heard at the beginning of the service, we are beginning our stewardship pledge period in preparation to present a budget for congregational approval. There are many projects this congregation has deemed important. Some we do not have the money to complete right now, but we have made clear steps in other directions.

I do not stand here and declare how we all are to participate within this community through faithful acts of giving. There is no prescribed tithe that you must adhere to. But tithing or giving or pledging, however you say it, is in many ways like a parable. It has both spiritual and moral implications.

As we explore what the realm of God could be like, it compels our response in this life. Giving is both a real practice and a spiritual practice. Building maintenance is not glamorous, but being the body of Christ does take resources, both time and money.

Money, like a parable, is difficult to deal with and talk about. But as you consider you pledge, leave a moment to imagine the possibilities.

Regardless of how much you are able to share within our community, consider it a real act of faith that proclaims that the realm of God is taking hold within our congregation.

By committing as a member, we commit to each other. We join in a particular covenant relationship, just as those of us who were at my installation last Sunday afternoon spoke. It was the joining of myself and this congregation in a relationship that goes beyond us as individuals.

Financial commitment is part of that, as is time, prayer, resources, and on and on.

When there is a moral commitment to the common good, to the support of everyone involved, regardless if it serves our own personal interest all the time, the realm of God is there, it is here, and no power on earth can tear that apart.

What did the last to come to work and the first to be paid do? It doesn’t say. But I would put my money on them running from work to their homes to show their families what great fortune they had received, celebrating their grace in wages for the day. How can we respond in any other way than to rejoice in that day that God has made.