Welcoming (or Protesting) the Latecomers (Matthew 20:1-16)

The stories Jesus told enabled him to both conceal and reveal truth. There were people in the high ranks of the Jewish religious establishment who were completely closed to Jesus’ teaching – they were set on getting rid of Jesus at the first opportunity. The stories Jesus told had a way of conveying truth in a kind of veiled way. On the other hand, there was perhaps no better way of trying to get through to people who had their defenses up.

One of things that often blocks spiritual teaching – one reason we do not receive spiritual teaching very well - is because of our assumption that we already know. And this is why direct teaching that counters what we think we know hardly ever gets through, because we react in anger and defensiveness. It may be teaching that we need to hear, but we can’t hear it because we think we already know, and the first thing we want to do is prove the other person wrong.

So Jesus tells stories. We are naturally drawn into a story. And the stories Jesus tells are about common things - not religion, not God — not at first anyway, that is, not when you first hear the story. You don’t think it is about God — until after the story has become a part of your memory and consciousness. So that when you let down your defenses, the story is still there, and it works on you and at some point you realize that it is about God and about God’s kingdom and your place in it.   

Jesus’ teachings often turned on elements of surprise and shock; he loved to employ hyperbole as a way of embedding the image in our consciousness. He employs common conventions in unconventional ways to reveal to us a different world, to evoke us to imagine an alternative reality. And the common way he does that is by upsetting the status quo. This story upsets the status quo doesn’t it?

One scholar has compared the hearing of the parables of Jesus to looking through the glass of a window. We look through the window at the world outside. The window is clear, therefore we see through the window to the world. But then there comes the moment when, looking through the window, we can catch a reflection of ourselves in the glass. The window also acts as a mirror. The stories of Jesus are both windows into another realm and mirrors that enable us to see ourselves in relationship to that other realm. We read or hear the story and it is not about us, but then, at some point, perhaps even days later, we realize that it is about us.  

Where do you see yourself in this story? Do you find yourself protesting with the workers who bore the heat of the day and got the same wage as those who only worked one hour? Or are you rejoicing with those who only worked one hour and received an entire day’s wage? Where are you standing in the story?

I think we would all have to admit that the protesters had something to protest didn’t they? Given a modern setting in our culture we would have to say that the first-hired workers had every right to picket the landowner for unfair economic and business practices. I can see them now wielding signs that declare, “Management Unfair to Labor.” And they would have a case wouldn’t they? I could see myself joining them. This isn’t fair is it?

And that of course, is the point, I think. The story impinges on our sense of fairness. It disrupts our system of meritocracy that governs everything in our lives. Systems of merit run the world and we are all a part of these operating systems. It’s the way everything works – from business to education to religion.

The landowner says to the grumbling workers, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?”   Did you see that coming? They had a contract. This was agreed upon. But the landowner made no contract with the other workers. In fact, they were totally at his mercy. He simply said to them, “Trust me. I will give you what is right.” And really the story turns on that phrase doesn’t it? I will do for you what is right, he says.

Would you like God to give you what you deserve? How many of you hope God’s kingdom operates on a system of meritocracy? And yet if someone gets what we think we should have gotten because we earned it and they didn’t, we will be the first to complain.

The landowner says to the grumblers, “Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Now, that’s the question isn’t it?

You know, Jesus upset many of the Jewish teachers of the law who functioned as gatekeepers of a popular system of holiness that determined who was in and out, who was included and excluded. Jesus bypassed that whole system and opened the gates so all could come to the table — sinners of all kinds, prostitutes, those who did not even pretend to keep the law, and even the notoriously despised tax collectors who in their greed buddied-up with the enemy and took advantage of their own countrymen to get ahead. No one was despised more than a Jewish publican/tax collector. Jesus welcomed them all as they were. That doesn’t mean he wanted them to stay that way, but there were no hoops to jump through to get to Jesus. I’m sure this parable speaks to that context, but it is by no means limited to that context.

Maybe in Matthew’s church there were some long standing members who were grumbling over the special care and consideration that was being given to “newcomers” who hadn’t paid their dues. I pastored a church one time that didn’t have any written policy on deacon elections and they didn’t want to have any new elections. The same deacons had been deacons forever. That liked being in control and didn’t want any new blood. 

If the truth were known some people don’t really like grace, unless they are the ones getting it. Jennifer Jones won an academy award for the title role in the movie, The Song of Bernadette. Bernadette received a vision of the Immaculate Conception and became something of a celebrity. An older nun became consumed with envy. She prays, “Why her?” Her thinking was, “No one has prayed harder, worked longer, and suffered greater than I. So why her and not me?” Later in the story Bernadette collapses while scrubbing the floor. After being examined, the doctor talks to he older nun. He asks, “Has she never complained?” “No,” says the older nun, “she just quietly does her work.” The doctor says, “That’s amazing. The affliction she has, she has had a very long time and the pain is unbearable.”  Later, the older nun repents of her envy and prays for forgiveness. She says to God, “Thank you for the opportunity to serve the one you have chosen.” We are all chosen, though that involves different roles.  

Why can’t we let go of our comparisons and judgment and resentment and simply rejoice in the truth that we are chosen too – that we are all loved by God with an eternal love? Why can’t we be overwhelmed with gratitude for being loved the way we are loved? I hope we all have some experiences that melt our resentment and evoke such gratitude. Experiences of great love can do that.

In a story by Wendell Berry, Wheeler Catlett is an attorney for an old farmer named Jack Beechum and they had become good friends-. Jack died, leaving Wheeler in charge of his affairs. The only family Jack left behind was his daughter, Clara Pettit, and son-in-law, Gladston Pettit, who had no interest in farming - their only interest was in the money. Jack and Clara never agreed on anything, but of course he still loved her.

It was Jack’s wish that his farm go to the young couple, Elton and Mary Penn, who had been living on Jack’s farm for about eight years, taking care of the land and taking care of Jack. Jack loved them as if they were his own children. He wanted the Penns to have the land and the land to have them and Wheeler knew this was what Jack wanted. Jack’s will stipulated that his daughter Clara, would get the land, but he left the Penns enough money to buy the land from Clara. What Jack forgot to consider was his daughter’s greed. 

He had communicated this to Clara, but he failed to establish this in his will. So Clara decided to sell the land at public auction, anticipating a larger profit. Bidding began at $200 an acre, and the Penns, of course, were nervous. Wheeler, however, inspired by old Jack’s spirit and the desire to help urged the Penns to keep bidding, because he knew what Jack wanted. When it was over the Penns ended up with the land, but the price was considerably more than the Penns could afford. So Wheeler covered $65 an acre, almost $10,000 out of his own pocket.

Elton Penn, being somewhat of a proud man, said to Wheeler, “You’re saying there’s not anyway to get out of this friendship.” “No,” said Wheeler, “you can get out of it. By not accepting it.  I’m the one, so far, who can’t escape it. You have it because I’ve given it to you, and you don’t have to accept it. I gave it to you because it was given to me, and I accepted it.” Here he is talking about the friendship that Jack gave him. That’s how grace works.

But I need to issue a warning. Grace cannot be presumed upon or it ceases to be grace. Jesus never lowered his high expectations for his followers. When Jesus knew that he was going to be killed, he didn’t try to protect his followers. He said, “If you want to be my follower, then you will have to deny your instinct for self-preservation, take up your cross and get in line behind me.” Jesus said, “You need to be prepared to die too.” Grace doesn’t lower the expectations.

For us, at the very least, this involves dying to our ego-driven and ego-dominated self, the little, false self that we spend so much of our lives protecting and projecting. And I have to be honest. I don’t do that very well much of the time. I can be proud and stubborn and want things my way. I really like to win. I’m not real good at ego-denial and walking in the way of the cross, which is the way of suffering love. But Jesus doesn’t lower the standard. Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, Chuck that’s okay if you can’t carry the cross today, if you can’t say “no” to your stubborn self-will and pride today, that’s okay.” Jesus never says that. Jesus says, “If you want to be my follower, then you better learn how to die to your pride and greed and selfish ambition and your need for honor and recognition and all the rest. Jesus says, “You have to let go of all that to be my disciple.” So grace doesn’t lower the expectations.  

We can’t presume anything, but we can live by grace, rather than by a system of meritocracy that leaves us looking over our shoulder to see who is going to beat us to the prize.

Here’s what I think. I think everyone of us when we consider what we really deserve are all latecomers, we are all in the group that worked for one hour and got a full days’ pay – everyone of us. We have all received more than we ever deserve. 

I know I need grace — everyday. I usually need a lot of grace. And I think I know most of you well enough to know that most of you need about as much grace as I need, and some of you need more, but I will suspend judgment. 

All of life is pure gift, and any notion that we have earned all that we have is pure illusion. That doesn’t lower the expectations of discipleship, nor does it justify our lack of effort. God expects our best effort. But hear this sisters and brothers, even our capacity to extend effort, to give our best – that too is grace. And when we see all of life as gift, there is simply no place for jealousy or envy or resentment or bitterness – just gratitude that we have been included, that we all have been included – for we are all latecomers. And whether you work 1 hour in the shade or all day in the hot sun, whether you have easy job or a hard job, you’re in, you have been chosen, you are included – not because you deserve to be, but just because you are. Thanks be to God.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, Forgive us for all the times we expect grace from you, but when it comes to our brothers and sisters we want you to treat them differently. Forgive us of our pride and envy and for thinking that we are better or deserve more than someone else. Help us to live by grace so that we won’t forfeit grace to a life of meritocracy. As we have received so may we share with others out of the forgiveness and grace we have experienced from you. And may we learn to rejoice with the latecomers rather than resent the grace you have given them. May we be reminded of your amazing grace as we eat this bread and drink this cup and inspired to be instruments of your grace in the world. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen. 


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