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Sermon for September 18, 2011

Patrons, Peasants and Pastors

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Let’s begin with a quiz. Are you ready? We’ll begin with a practice question:
Q. How many animals of each type did Moses take on the ark?
A. Zero. Moses didn’t have a boat, Noah did!

OK, how did you do? Are you ready for the real test?
Q. Is there a Fourth of July in England?
A. Yes, it comes after the third of July!
Q. Some months have 31 days; how many have 28?
A. 12, all of them!
Q. Is it legal for a man in California to marry his widow’s sister?
A. No - because he is dead!
Q. A rooster sits on the VERY TOP of a barn roof. If he lays an egg, which side will it roll off?
A. Roosters don't lay eggs.
Q. You have a match and you go into a house and there is an oil lamp, a stove, and a fireplace all ready to be started. What do you light first?
A. The Match!

And now for the math portion of our quiz:
Q. Divide 30 by 1/2 and add 10. What is the answer?
A. 70, (30 divided by 1/2 equals 60! Takes some thinking . . .)
Q. If there are 3 apples and you take away 2, how many do you have?
A. 2. You took them, remember?
Q. How many two-cent stamps are there in a dozen?
A. Twelve, there are 12 two cent stamps in a dozen!

Did anyone get a perfect score? Sometimes we assume we know the right answers to questions. But our assumptions can betray us. This was just a practice exercise to get us ready to hear a parable.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’ They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’ The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’ That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’ He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

When we listen to the parables of Jesus we need to be in touch with our assumptions. The lesson from Matthew 20 is a case in point. We meet a vineyard owner, and some day laborers who get the same exact wages for varying amounts of work. Centuries of commentary tell us that the moral of the story is about the grace of God. The vineyard owner seeks to include everyone by freely giving equal wages to all the workers so that they have what they need. In the same way, God gives equal access to the Kingdom to all humanity. This makes sense. It sounds nice, mostly because it fits our freethinking assumptions about justice and equality and solidarity.

But, what if our assumptions are wrong? What do we know about peasants, really? Most of us have everything we need and want. What do most of us know about the lives of migrant workers and day laborers? What if I were to change the context on you and ask you to listen with new ears? As I retell the story, I invite us to take everything we know about the parable and turn it on its head. Maybe we can hear a fresh word from God’s Spirit.

God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. The vineyard owner had great wealth. When he first invested in his vineyard, he pumped money into the operation for years. It took five years of outlay for the vineyard to bear fruit good enough to make wine. He had plenty money to pay mangers and servants and to hire day laborers to work in his fields. He was a good man. He saw himself as a fair man -- even a moral person. So when it came time to hire workers, he paid them a denarius -- a dollar a day. It was not generous. It wasn’t stingy, either.

Some workers took the job in the vineyard. What else could they do? They needed the money and unemployment was high. Day laborers were vulnerable people. Their survival was a bitter struggle. During planting and harvesting seasons, the work was plentiful. But in the off-season they faced malnutrition, starvation, and disease. The laborers gladly took the work and began harvesting the vineyard first thing in the morning. A buck a day was the most they could expect with the oversupply of workers.

At about 9:00 AM, a manager saw some more unemployed men hanging around the town square. He told them to go to work in the vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. The manager did this every three hours. Right before sundown, the vineyard owner went to the marketplace to find even more workers. At 5:00, he saw some unemployed men who were older or infirm – less capable of manual labor. He asked them, “Why have you been standing idle here the whole day?” The laborers replied, “No one has hired us” So, the landowner hired them and promised a fare wage.

When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his supervisor, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.” The landowner was, after all, a law-abiding citizen. He followed the expectation that workers were to be paid in the evening after they worked. Those hired at 5:00 came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw how much the old guys were paid, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same paycheck – one dollar apiece.

Remember, the landowner saw himself as a law-abiding, compassionate, and charitable man who hired the unhireable. Not to brag or anything, but he prided himself on being a just and righteous person. The problem is something unfair just happened. The wages were not equally distributed. The workers became irritable. One group of workers began to resent the others. Some of the laborers muttered against landowner. In equalizing the payment, the landowner devalued the work of those who labored longer and under conditions that were more difficult. True equality and right relationship had not been achieved. The landowner kept his great wealth, and even benefited from the work of the peasants as he paid them with a subsistence-level wage.

Taking their dollar, the workers complained angrily to the manager. “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who labored all day under a scorching sun.” The owner of the vineyard replied, “Friends, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” And so, many of the first ending up last, and the last first.

So, let’s question our theological assumptions. All theology serves someone. The question is whom does it serve? Who benefits and at whose expense? When we are finished cooking up our interpretations of the text, who reigns and who suffers? If we question our assumptions, then the parable of the vineyard owner challenges us to identify with the wealthy landowner -- to realize our own blindness, our own participation in the injustices of our day, our own self-deceptions that tell us that we are good, just, and righteous before God. In this case, the landowner retains his wealth, the peasant workers are destabilized, and biblical justice is not achieved.

At one time in my life, I thought I had Jesus all figured out. I thought I knew whom God loved and whom God rejected. My system went something like this. Jesus loves straight people who go to church; and people who don’t lie, steal, or cuss, or do drugs. Jesus loves people who pray and suffer silently. Jesus tolerates gays who don’t ask and don’t tell, Baptists, Methodists, and a few Pentecostals, and people who don’t come to church because they have to work on Sunday. Jesus also tolerates pastors who cuss occasionally and vegetarians. Jesus detests openly gay people, Muslims, Catholics, and people who don’t go to church, addicts, nonconformists, and everyone who is different than the rest of us. And telemarketers. Basically, Jesus loved everyone like me. I was privileged to be a white, upper-middle class, educated, straight, married family man. Of course I was blessed. Of course Jesus loved me and my kind -- those who saw ourselves as good, righteous, holy people.

Have I offended anyone? I hope so. That’s the point. It is offensive. It’s as offensive as a vineyard owner in complete control of resources who chooses self-righteousness over human dignity. I once believed that God receives some and rejects others. But let’s question the assumptions. Somewhere in the midst of all this junk is the real Jesus, and I suspect we are most likely to meet him where we least expect him. I know as I opened myself up to Christ’s message of inclusive love, and as I questioned my assumptions, I was able to let go of my false and dangerous beliefs and live more fully into God’s compassionate love for all people.

The Jesus I’ve come to know told us to love God with all our heart and strength and to love your neighbors as ourselves. The Jesus I’ve come to know reminded us that the neighbor was not always who we would like her to be. He taught that the one non-negotiable thing was forgiveness. He taught that tolerance of enemies was not sufficient: they must be loved. He taught about money more than anything else, about the fair and just redistribution of wealth. The Jesus I’ve come to know touched the untouchables. The Jesus I’ve come to know ate with the sinners. The Jesus I’ve come to know argued with the religious leaders when they put principles before people. He welcomed strangers, valued the lower classes, and made ordinary moments holy. The Jesus I’ve come to know trusted God’s promises, even when all he could experience, as he was being tortured as a traitor, was silence in the face of great injustice. Any theological interpretation that suggests God receives some and rejects others does not reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ. Our message is not that God brings instability and chaos, pitting people against each other by withholding blessing. This is something people do, but not God. No, our message declares that Christ brings down the dividing walls of oppression.

To all of us gathered here today, this is my charge: Always question the assumptions. Always question the assumptions. We need to live a parabolic lives in which we challenge the status quo. Our job is to remind each other that sometimes we look for God in all the wrong places. We look for God among the privileged and the proud. God also dwells with the invisible people on the margins of life. God is the beggar, the nuisance, the exile and the refugee. We need to remind one another to question our assumptions so that we can read life around us with new eyes, flee from self-deception, and cherish all people as equals in God’s new world.

Sources:
Murray Bodo, The Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone (Cincinnati OH, St. Andrews Press, 1995).

Mary Kay Dobrovolny, “Who Controls the Resources? Economics and Justice in Matt 20:1-15” presented to the Society of Biblical Literature, San Antonio, Texas, November 20 – 23, 2004.

Yvette Flunder, Where The Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (Cleveland OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005).

Bruce Malina, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 2003).

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