Summary: What does the desire to be number one indicate from our faith perspective? Whether it is the USA? A congregation, or an individual? Is it wrong to try to be the best at something?
Opening illustration: One of our favorite teachers in elementary school was my third grade teacher, Miss Titus, an “old school” teacher who maintained a strict sense of order in class but who genuinely cared about each of us. On the first day of school she asked us to line up for lunch and there was a mad scramble to get to the front of the line. After we had lined up, Miss Titus went to the back of the line, smiled and said, “This is the front of the line,” and led the class to lunch. I still remember the surprised grin on the face of the kid who suddenly found herself in the front of the line, as well as the angry response from someone at the back of the line: “This is so annoying!” The next day when we lined up for lunch we all scrambled to be last in line, so Miss Titus went to the middle of the line and said, “Today this is the front of the line.” Eventually we all got the message and the scrambling to be first stopped.
Today’s gospel lesson, the Parable of the Landowner, is unsettling on the surface for many people, and for some people their response to this parable is the same as that of the kid in the back of the line: “This is so annoying!” This parable can indeed be annoying because when it comes to merit, to getting what you’ve earned “thank-you-very-much,” it turns everything upside down.
Let us turn to Matthew 20 and catch up with this story …
Introduction: The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about the 9th (and 10th commandment. In a very real sense this parable is about coveting. While "covet" may not seem the most obvious word to describe what is going on here, it does fit both the emphasis of Jesus' teaching and the overarching emphasis in Matthew on the Law and Jesus' representation of it in a way that transforms our thinking and doing. Coveting lies at the heart of this parable in a couple of ways.
We covet what God chooses to give to others. A parable is essentially an elaborate allegory. We are invited to see ourselves in the story, and then apply it to ourselves. The wages at stake (even at the moment of Jesus' first telling of the parable) are not actual daily wages for vineyard-laborers, but forgiveness, life, and salvation for believers. We need not literally be laborers in a vineyard, as we are all of us co-workers in the kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:9).
How does the Jesus Economic work?
1. The Hiring (vs. 1-7)
It is threatening to the social mores of his time and to the hierarchical economic structures that controlled commerce and the peasantry. It says something about how owners would treat their workers in a just society, and—more dangerously—it proposes a radical model of behavior for other landowners. What would their livelihoods be like if they decided to treat their workforce as though they were humans with families instead of production elements in the business cycle, to be moved and cut at will and paid the absolute minimum possible to keep them alive and working and not revolting? The backlash of this parable is not reported, but it would be difficult to believe that it would have been received with gladness by the other landowners in the region.
All of this could take you way beyond the text, if you let it, but referencing it on your way to building the sermon, could help keep it sounding contemporary and relevant for your listeners.
(a) “Went out early in the morning to hire laborers”
Unusual action for an owner. Usually they wanted nothing to do with the riff-raff that they hired to work on their farms. They pushed this distasteful task onto their managers (v. 20:8). For what it’s worth, you might note that Arthur T. Demoulas was known to have a hand in at least some of the hiring and interviewing of some of the local managers of his supermarkets. More than likely Jesus has intentionally tweaked the customary so as to make the later confrontation between the disenchanted workers and the owner more face-to-face.
(b) Words and phrases such as “Landowner,” “hire laborers,” “his vineyard,” householder,” his manager,” all indicate that this man was a person of considerable means. Part of the one percent of his day, perhaps even higher. There was no middle class to speak of in First Century Palestine, there was a tiny core of wealthy elites and a vast bottom of poor and desperately poor. The workers in this story are probably representative of the latter group because they evidently have no farmland of their own and no steady employment in the city or town.