Matthew 20: 1-16

20‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When 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.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

This summer, one of the big sports stories in Pittsburgh was the Le’Veon Bell hold out.

Bell was a restricted free agent and wanted a new contract that would make him the highest paid running back in the NFL.

The Steelers were not ready to go there, so they did what the NFL player contract allowed.

They labeled him their “Franchise Player” and thus committed to give Bell a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position.

That number was $12.1 million dollars.

If Bell wanted to play football in 2017, that was the deal.

But he wanted more.

So he didn’t show up for work.

Bell thought he was entitled to more because he believes himself to be of his superior ability and particular importance to the Steeler offense.

He might be right.

But the $12.1 million was what he was entitled to, no more and no less, so he should have showed up.

That has been the mantra of professional athlete holdouts since Babe Ruth claimed that he should get paid more that the President of the United States because Ruth had had “a better year”.

I should get more because I deserve more.

In today’s parable, something similar is going on.

A landowner needs laborers to work the farm.

These are day laborers common in Jesus’ time and still common in farm country today.

They get up early and go to a place where landowners can find them and give them work.

If they get no work, they don’t eat.

That is why many hang around all day hoping for some way to earn something.

It’s not because they were lazy and did not want to work.

It’s because they could not find work somewhere else.

And maybe they heard that this landowner had plenty of work.

So they got there as soon as they could.

The guys that were there in the early morning made a deal with the landowner.

Work for me today and I will give you the “usual daily wage”, which, by the way, was an amount they knew.

A denarius.

What it cost to live for a day.

Off they went to work in the fields.

If they came back at the end of the day and were paid the Denarius, there would be no complaints.

But during the day, others showed up.

The landowner came back to the day labor site at 9, 12, 3, and 5.

The ones there were hired to work for the rest of the day.

At the end of the day, everyone came in from the field to get paid.

Despite the several levels of work done, everyone got the same pay!

So, those who worked the longest were … irritated … because they expected to get more than the folks who did not work as long.

They believed themselves to be entitled to more.

Because they had done more.

For the other folks who came late and worked less to get the same pay is unfair!

That makes sense to me!

I have to tell you, I might have … no, would have … been one of the complainers.

I would have figured out the effective hourly rate for the work done by the late comers, multiplied it by the time I was in the field and expected … maybe like Bell, demanded … the true value I had provided to the landowner.

Jesus says that’s not really what is going on here.

He describes the response of the landowner to the complaints of unfairness.

The landowner says, you got what you agreed to.

That’s fair.

The landowner then asks a better question:

Are you envious because I am generous to those others?

I would at least be thinking:

You bet!

Why aren’t you being just as generous to me?

Sure, I got what i agreed to, but I was out in the scorching heat all day!

Look at this sunburn!

Why not give me a bonus?

To make up for the overpayment you gave them!

It’s then the landowner says, “Tough! It’s my money and I can do with it whatever I please.”

Not particularly satisfying.

And here is the kicker:

Jesus is describing the Kingdom of Heaven.

And when I read that, just for a minute … a moment … I am … disappointed.

Maybe others here are, too.

I have given much to the work of the Lord.

Don’t I deserve a bit more than the folks who came late and worked less?

But Jesus says it does not work like that in the Kingdom.

Jesus says the first shall be last and the last first.

Oh, boy … what do we do with this?

What is Jesus trying to teach us?

It could be that it is never too late to come to Jesus and so receive the grace of God.

Or it could be that even if we don’t work as hard as others, we still get the same reward.

Both of those are pretty good news for those of us who come late and do relatively little in the fields of the Lord.

But not so much for those who think they have given it their full effort and undivided attention and who get the same reward as those other folks.

People have been arguing about this parable since … well … Matthew wrote it down.

But, after reading it a few times this week, I see something else there.

This is what I noticed.

God has come to us and sent us into his fields.

He has promised that we will be paid.

But God has only one coin to pay us with.

Grace.

There is no more nor less he can give.

There are no other options.

The landowner only has one denomination of currency and only enough for each worker.

So, they all get the same.

Regardless of when they showed up and regardless of how much effort they put in.

There are no other options.

So that is the message.

When we come to God, there is only one thing he can give us.

Grace.

He cannot give more.

He cannot give less.

Regardless of time and effort.

Because that is what God promised.

And that is fair.

But, here is the problem such a message creates.

Might this not be an incentive to come late and do little?

Like Augustine who prayed:

“Lord, make me [pure] – but not yet!”

Like the thief on the cross who waited until his last breath to confess his faith in Jesus and was welcomed into paradise that day?

Maybe.

But that is a big bet.

I would not want you to miscalculate.

Because like the day laborer who does not get hired, you won’t eat.

Best to go into the field at the next opportunity.

Yet, there is something else here.

I think this parable speaks to something pretty important that is easy to miss.

Something the landowner tries to prevent.

Idleness.

Inactivity.

Listen again.

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

The landowner keeps coming back to see if there are idle people.

And if there are, he gives them something to do.

Something.

Just something.

Maybe just one thing.

There is always something to do!

No matter when they get started.

That is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, too, according to Jesus.

God comes to find those who are idle.

And he keeps coming.

And if God finds idle people, he gives them something to do.

Something.

Just something.

Maybe just one thing.

There is always something to do!

No matter when they get started.

And when they do, he get grace.

Which in “Jesus jargon” is everything he has to offer.

The only thing he has to offer.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel who was the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City until his death in 1972.

He said something that I think is consistent with this parable.

He said that whatever age you are, you have a soul, you have a spirit, you have a heart, you have a mind; use them.

You have experience; draw on it.

You have challenges to pose; pose them.

You have learning; use it to teach.

Regardless of your age.

Do something.

So, what does that have to do with JMPC?

A few things really.

First, I have been encouraging folks to do “just one thing” for a few months now.

It’s now a new church year.

Last week we had our Pillar Fair where our four pillars recruited help for ministry teams to carry out our missions this year.

Did you sign up?

Will you sign up?

Second, our Church Officer Nominating Committee is looking for people to fill church offices.

That includes Ruling Elders and Deacons.

Ruling Elders govern our congregation, manage the ministry teams and offer vision for the future of JMPC.

The only qualification is a desire to serve JMPC and a visionary spirit.

Deacons care for our congregation.

The only qualification is a desire to serve JMPC and an empathetic spirit.

These might seem like big and time-consuming responsibilities, but not as much as you think.

If you are approached and unsure, or have questions, call me.

If you are willing to serve, call the church office and we will get you in touch with CONC.

And now the last thing.

We are in our annual season where we ask for financial contributions to cover the cost of our ministries.

Our ministries come with costs.

And we need to have sufficient financial wherewithal to do what God calls us to do.

We need everyone to do something.

Some will do a little work and some will do a lot.

But like the landowner, we will keep showing up and looking for folks who are available to do one of the many things that we need to have done.

What will you do?

God comes to each of us like the landowner.

Ove and over again until we are doing work in his fields.

He is here now.

Will we go?