This is the message I preached today at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel text is Matthew 20:1-16. We are continuing our Drive-In Worship and simultaneously worshiping indoors. Join us if you're in the area.
Parables are meant to be shocking. They go along as if all is normal and then—there’s a twist that knocks your socks off. That’s how I felt when I read these words of Bible scholar Patrick J. Willson. Let’s hang out with the laborers who were the first ones to begin working and see what transpires.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks the owner of the vineyard (v. 15). You bet we are! If we are not envious, we are not hearing the parable. The parable rubs us the wrong way. Its visions of fairness and equality chafe. We cringe at what it seems to say about God. We shrink before what it seems to say about us! The parable catches us quickly into the narrative, because we carry around notions of what is fair and what is not and this story offends most of them.
The way generosity gets passed around in this tale grates our sense of justice.
So we take our places with those who were hired first, paid last, and who now complain.
We join the chorus of grumbling at the back of the line.
It is not fair, they say—we say—as we take our place at the end of the line.
Indeed, the parable presses that I write my sermon from the back of the line.
A good view from here (the back).
We see others being paid.
We see the owner’s generosity to those others whom we consider undeserving.
If we watch and wait long enough, perhaps we can see something else too.
Perhaps we will even see ourselves in a new way.
Watching and waiting at the back of the line, we begin to see that our issue is greater than just a question of hours worked and equal pay.
It is not just equality, not just fairness, but something else we want: if the owner is going to play favorites, we want to be the favored ones.
If the owner is going to be ridiculously generous, we should like some of that generosity.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks the owner of the vineyard. You bet we are! At the
Back of the line, I can scarcely avoid the theological protest: “Why is God not that good to me?”
“Why does God not love me that much?”
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the owner of the vineyard asks. You bet we are. We begrudge generosity that goes to others and does not come our way. We stand at the back of the line, stewing in bitterness.
We have a good view from this position.
Jesus could have told this parable differently—with those hired first paid first, avoiding the conflict altogether.
But Jesus did not tell the parable that way, because for those hired first who wait at the back of the line, there is something more to see.
The phrase translated, “Are you envious because I am generous?” is literally “Is your eye evil?
The problem is not with the owner’s generosity but with our eyesight—our angle of vision—and there is another way of looking at things.
If we wait and watch long enough, we come to see that the only way we can see the goodness of God, is as it is given to others.
We can see the goodness of God more clearly in the lives of others, quite simply because they are other than us.
The back of the line offers perspective.
We are too close to ourselves, too wrapped in our own skins, too bundled in our own terrible needs, to see truly what God gives us.
We see other people more clearly than we see ourselves.
Thus when we see God’s goodness to others—to people we love, to friends, to colleagues, but most especially to those people we do not think deserve such generosity—then we can see the goodness of God for the wondrous miracle that it is.
If we can look at this world through this parable, we will discover the vast truth of the master’s generosity: all of us are beloved of God. The first and the last…those at the front and those at the back of the line.
(Patrick J. Willson, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2).