Matthew 20: 1-16
First Lutheran Church
AN UNEXPECTED PAYMENT
Grace abounds. In the muck, sweat, tears and pain of living our ordinary lives, God’s grace abounds. In the surprising most ways, God’s grace touches our lives, in those moments when we least expect it, at those times when we are going under for the third time, when there are no more tears from the nights of weeping. This parable of the laborers in the vineyard is parable about God’s abounding grace, but it is a hard parable to hear because we tend to identify with the ones who worked all day. We forget that we are often the ones who do not show up until the end of the project.
Don’t all of us teach our children the value of an honest day’s labor? Don’t we all talk about the rewards of working hard, that we reap what we sow—an image right out of the Bible. We believe in the importance of being on time, of doing a job well, of treating each other fairly, of doing our part and being responsible. And here comes Jesus talking about how those who do the least amount of work in the easiest of circumstances get paid the same as those who bear the scorching heat and the burden of the day. What must Jesus have been thinking?
Imagine this scenario. One day at the Houston Ship Channel, there are literally thousands of pallets of grain to be loaded on a ship before sundown. The owner herself decides to oversee this very important project because so much is at stake. At first light, the appropriate union laborers begin their work. It was a typical summer day in Houston, 98 degrees and 98% humidity, which, of course slows down the work. So about 9:00 a.m., she hires a supplemental work force.
By noon, it is clear that they will not finish loading by sunset, so she hires the last available union workers. But at 3:00 and again at 5:00, the owner sees, even with that many workers, that the cargo will not be loaded on time. So she began hiring day laborers off the street who didn’t belong to the union. Clearly, this is a violation of the carefully worked out rules between labor and management. Nevertheless, they did work together and finished the job by sundown.
The owner asks the project manager to call the laborers together for payment. All union members know the terms of their contract and how much they will be paid. They were surprised when the owner paid the day laborers the terms of the union contract. It could only mean one thing—the union laborers would receive a bonus. But when their turn came, they were paid according to their contract and nothing more.
Can you imagine the antagonism that would arise between union and non-union workers if that happened? Folks have gotten killed over such things in our country. And I wonder who is going to come to work for her tomorrow and at what time will they come? Why would anyone show up at 5:00 a.m. if they knew that they could earn the same amount for twelve hours less work?
I chaired the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in Southern Kansas Presbytery for three years. It is the committee which oversees candidates for ordained ministry. It was a mess when I took over and I spent a great deal of time reorganizing things. Our Book of Order and our Manual of Operations have very specific requirements for candidates, but it is a complex process and the committee members had no training in what they were supposed to do. They were inconsistent with the candidates and were not very good at giving them feedback. I wrote a 14-page document spelling out each step of the way with appendices and Book of Order references, in an attempt to streamline and expedite the process. I ran it through my committee, and the presbytery where it passed. I hadn’t been off the floor two minutes before I was accosted by someone who accused me of being on a witch hunt against certain candidates.
I knew what I was doing. Before going to Kansas, I served for three years on the committee in Houston. I shepherded a dozen candidates through the process, learned what works and what does not. I took over chairing the committee in Kansas the same day presbytery elected me a member of it, because no one else would do it and because I have a passion for it. I spent a great deal of time on the phone, traveling, speaking, advising, on behalf of the presbytery and our candidates. I bore the burden of the requirements and the scorch of the regulations. I labored hard in the field and this bozo, who showed up at the end of the day, called me witch hunter. How dare he?
All of you have been on a committee at one time or another, at First Lutheran, in the PTA, Boy Scouts, various Civic Club and boards, United Way Campaign and Kiwanis. There is a slouch on every committee who never volunteers to do anything, who will not follow through on the rare task they consent to do. But that same person is always there for the awards ceremony, accepting the thanks of the community along with you who carried the burden of the day and the scorch of the heat. In the inequities of life, all of us feel put-upon from time to time. We all identify with those overworked and underappreciated laborers in the vineyard, as Jesus knew we would. But, as he always does with the parables, Jesus asks us to take a different point of view. He asks us to identify, not with the early workers but with the late ones. Have you never been the slouch on the committee yourself? I have.
Not long after that presbytery meeting, I drove to Missouri after church to be with my mother who was in the hospital with a severely broken ankle. I cancelled appointments, rearranged my schedule, delegated out tasks and thought I had covered everything. But I stayed 24 hours later than I originally intended and returned to town very tired and very concerned for my mother. I got around to looking at my calendar when I was finally back in my office. And I was horrified. I saw that I had been on call as a volunteer chaplain at the hospital for the last three nights and I had not told the hospital chaplain that I was leaving town. And then I saw that I was due at Good Samaritan Nursing Home 15 minutes earlier to lead a prayer service for the residents. I called the chaplain, falling all over myself in apologies to her. She said she did not know I was gone because there were no hospital emergencies. She said to me, Helen Rose, you are covered by the grace of God. Please do not worry about it anymore. The nursing home folks told me something very similar. When I expected praise for my hard work on CPM, I got called names, but when I expected angry words about shirking my community responsibilities, I received the unexpected payment of grace and forgiveness.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. The unexpected payment of grace covers our folly and flows from the generosity of God. It is given to us freely, not because we earn it but because God loves us. We are God’s children and we are all loved, on the days when we labor all day in the heat, and on the days when we show up at the last minute or don’t show up at all. We are covered by the grace of God.
What would happen if we set aside the us/them distinctions that order our lives and began to treat each other with the same grace and generosity that met me when I could not meet my responsibilities and obligations? What would happen if we showed the same understanding, grace and affection for one another that God shows to us? What if the unexpected payments of abounding grace were given out, not for meritorious service but for faithfulness? I know a place where such things happen. It is called the kingdom of heaven, where the king is a landowner who delights in giving unexpected payments of abounding grace to those who labor faithfully in the fields of human life, even on those days when our best efforts fall far short of the mark. There is a place for all of us there because all of us are loved by God, to whom we give all honor and glory.