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September 20, 2020
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The easy way to think of Jesus’ parables is that they’re short stories he told. And to a point that’s true, but they’re short stories that pack a punch. And they’re more than fables with a nice, tidy moral message.
Parables aren’t meant to make us feel comfortable; they’re supposed to unsettle us. They’re meant to get us to think differently about the world and our place in it. And, more importantly, they’re meant to get us to think about God; in particular, to think in new ways about how God works in the world and what that means for the world.
So when Jesus told these short stories, he got people’s attention – and he gets ours, especially with the one we hear today.
There’s a lot about this parable that doesn’t make sense to us. For example, it doesn’t make sense that the landowner, instead of his manager, is the one who went out to hire the workers, let alone that he kept going out to hire people, even in the last hour of the workday. And it doesn’t make sense that the workers all received the same wage for the varied number of hours that they worked.
So it isn’t surprising that the workers also thought the situation didn’t make sense, and that some of them weren’t happy about it.
But it’s important to note that the workers who were hired first didn’t say, “This isn’t fair” but rather “You have made them equal to us.” There’s a big difference between those two statements. Because, in effect, they’ve said, “You gave dignity to people who we think don’t measure up.”
On the surface, that doesn’t seem like much. But think about what that mindset does to the workers, the ones who were hired first. And the damage it causes to everyone involved the situation.
Instead of feeling fortunate to have found work for the day, they feel unfortunate at not having received more. Rather than being happy that the other workers who waited all day for the prospect of work can return home blessed to be able to provide for their families, they can only begrudge their good fortune.
Instead of saying, “Wow – this is a really good person to work for” they were insulted by the landowner’s generosity. Rather than being content with what was right, they were overcome by resentment.
The bottom line is that, for most people, this is an offensive parable – even scandalous, because it’s an absolute mark of what the realm of God looks like. It upends all our expectations and forces us to imagine justice and righteousness that don’t line up with what we think is just or right.
It’s the way God’s grace works. And God’s grace is for everyone.
God’s grace defies human logic because God doesn’t keep score; God doesn’t keep track of how many hours we work or how hard we work. God’s grace and forgiveness don’t conform to any formula we come up with.
The way of the realm of God that Jesus describes in this parable is the way of grace. Hearing it described that way makes it sound easy, but we all know that it isn’t.
The structure of our society is rooted in systems that are designed to stratify people according to class, ability, race, gender, and all types of identities. And it perpetuates our sense of what is right and wrong, or just and unjust; and sometimes it even skews our perspectives on those things.
For example, if we’re listening to this parable closely enough, when we hear the workers grumble about others being made equal to them, we can hear them say, “if you just work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps….”
But we sometimes forget that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length or quality, or have the same level of durability; never mind that some people don’t even have bootstraps at all.
The hierarchy we live in is so embedded in who we are and how we live that it’s the water we swim in. And it affects how we respond to situations – like workers receiving a full day’s wage when they haven’t worked the full number of hours.
This parable exposes that hierarchy, because it existed even two thousand years ago. What it shows us is that all of the workers in this parable are vulnerable. They all needed the daily wage for their families to survive.
We don’t know why the ones who were hired last were hired last. Maybe something came up at home that kept them from getting there earlier. Maybe they had to work more than one job.
Maybe they were the ones no one wanted. When we think about what that means today, it’s people who are weak, disabled, elderly, experiencing homelessness, former felons…the people we typically think of when we look at who has a hard time finding work.
Really, we don’t know who they were. What we do know is that they needed the work or they wouldn’t have been in the marketplace waiting for someone to hire them. Because even getting paid for an hour is better than nothing.
So the fact that they were hired in the last hour, and they received a full day’s wage on top of that? It doesn’t make sense. But that’s God’s realm at work in this world, and it doesn’t line up with the way we have things set up.
In Jesus, God gives us a new perspective – a new way of imagining how things could be, daring us to imagine how things ought to be in our world.
Daring us to imagine what it would be like if business owners and executives today acted more like the landowner in the parable. So that the praise they receive is about their generosity to their workers instead of how much money they make for the shareholders.
Daring us to imagine what it would be like if we lived into the idea of the realm of God being a place where those who “have” don’t get more, but where those who “have not” get enough.
Daring us to understand that this is about landowners, or business owners, supporting laborers – all of them. It’s about people who have enough seeking out those who need enough. It’s about remembering that the owners need the workers, the workers need each other, and that they all benefit from those relationships.
Daring each of us to consider being like the landowner in this parable, because we’re in this together and there’s enough for everyone.
As much as this parable is about God’s grace, it’s about society and the economy and the way we are with each other. And when those things work the way God intends, that is – when we interact with each other and treat each other the way God intends, we move from a mindset of fear to one of making sure each other has enough – and grace abounds.
Imagining that level of shift is exciting. But actually living it out isn’t easy. It requires us to change our expectations, our sense of what is just when it comes to people working enough and having enough. It requires us to share the grace from God that we’ve received.
And when we do that, when we live within God’s grace, we come to understand that there’s enough for everyone, and we have no reason to be afraid and worry that we need more than someone else. Our sense of justice and fairness lines up with God’s, and the realm of God becomes visible in our world today. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Short Stories by Jesus, Amy Jill Levine.