In this week’s gospel, Jesus is doing what he does best—turning everything upside down. Was there anything in the gospel that made you wonder—that puzzled you? I sure hope so. That is just what parables are supposed to do—catch us off guard—shock us—grab our attention.
In this reading, the surprises start right out of the gate. I find it curious that the landowner is the one who goes out to look for workers for the field. He has a manager who works for him because he is the one who pays the workers at the end of the day. Why didn’t he have his manager do the hiring?
The landowner hired day laborers to work for him. Those seeking work would gather in a central part of town to wait for someone to hire them. Unlike today, the work was just for that day. They had to go through this process every day. Day after day, these men would gather, hoping that someone would choose them so they could feed their families. We sometimes speak of living paycheck to paycheck, but they lived day to day. The “usual daily wage” (v. 2) was not a lot of money. It was less than minimum wage; it provided barely enough for their daily food.
Apparently, the work was not done quickly enough, so the owner went out a second time to get more workers. He said he would pay them “whatever is right” (v. 2). That sounded good to them, so off they went to work with a sense of relief that perhaps they could feed their families that day.
Now I am wondering if the landowner grossly underestimated how much work there was to do. He returns to the market area at noon and three for more laborers. That is late to get started working. At this time of year in the Holy Land, sunrise is before 6:30, which means you can get a nice early start. There are about 12 hours of daylight, so sunset occurs early as well. By the time the landowner hired the folks at three, they only had a few hours to work.
However, he’s not done hiring. At five, with just a little over an hour of daylight remaining, he’s back out for more workers! The exchange between the boss and the potential employees is different this time. The boss asks, “'Why are you standing here idle all day?'” (Mat 20:6 NRS). Now that question is loaded with assumptions, isn’t it? Maybe with our Protestant work ethic, we would be asking the same thing. Are these people slackers? Did they sleep in? Maybe they had too much to drink last night and were hung over. Were they goofing off with their friends when they should have been working?
Do you remember team sports in gym class? For some of us, it was a humiliating time. The teacher would appoint team captains for each team. They would take turns choosing members for their teams. You would stand there waiting, hoping to be chosen. Perhaps like me, you were always picked last. You were there all right, waiting to begin, but you weren’t selected.
The men weren’t working because no one chose them! Does that sound familiar? Maybe some of you have lost your job since I was here last. You look and look, but no one hires you.
The landowner had made numerous runs to the marketplace for more workers. Didn’t he see them? Were they invisible? There are those people that we just don’t notice or pay attention to. They can be people in our community living on the margins of society—without work, without a place to live, without hope. How do we invite them to come and work with us?
Sometimes invisible people are members of our own church. Maybe they are newcomers. Their families were not charter members and they can’t recall generation after generation that has worshipped here. Who are the invisible people here? How do we see them as one of us and not an outsider? Do we even see them?
Back to the parable… everyone is working together now, those who started at daylight and the newcomers. The work’s being done and all is well. Problems arise when it’s time to be paid. The owner has the manager start paying the people he hired last first. Doesn’t that seem somewhat odd? Why does he do this? And then he does something even stranger. The landowner pays the people who worked an hour a full day’s wage. Now of course when those hired earlier see that these people are paid the same amount that they were promised, so they naturally assume that they will receive more since they’ve been working longer. Wouldn’t you?
When the first workers are paid, they are upset. It isn’t fair. They began to murmur and grumble and complain. In the Greek of the New Testament, they didn’t grumble just once and they were over it. The workers did this repeatedly. Now of course, the landowner wasn’t the one handing out the pay. He had his manager pay the men. The whole problem could have been avoided entirely if the landowner just had those who were the first to work be the first to be paid. Then they would have been on their way and no one would be the wiser.
Do you think the landowner knew that? Why did he pay the last first? Did he want everyone to see what the latecomers got? It certainly wasn’t fair!
Fairness is not the point of this parable--grace and generosity are. Did the landowner really need to hire all those workers? Was the landowner seeing his position not only as an employer, but also as more of an obligation to take care of his fellow townspeople? We see the landowner searching and welcoming and extending generosity. Isn’t that just the way God pursues us--reaching out with grace, meeting our needs? God is not doing this alone. He is inviting us to help in this endeavor. In the slogan of the ELCA, “God’s work. Our hands,” God is calling us to meet the needs of one another. Are we using our time, talent, and treasures in a way that shows our thankfulness for what we have received to help those less fortunate? As we leave this church building today, let us keep our eyes open for those invisible people standing on the corner waiting for our invitation. Amen.