The Parable of How We Respond
A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash.]
If you have been at Abiding Peace for very long, you have probably heard me talk about how an essential element of interpreting Jesus’s parables is to “play the parts.”
Since parables, as a teaching tool, are designed to call us into questions and curiosity,
re-examining what we think we know and considering familiar ideas from new angles…
the practice of taking on the perspective of each player in the story in turn helps us to do the kind of slow, reflective engagement that parables are designed for.
In addition, Jesus’s parables generally leverage objects, or relationships, or experiences from the everyday lives of his listeners…
and so it is important for us -
who are separated from those everyday lives by differences of language, culture, history, and 2,000 years -
to do the extra work of considering what would have shaped the reactions of Jesus’ listeners and how Jesus might have been intending to play on their expectations.
As the folks in this Autumn’s mid-week Bible study could tell you, these approaches consider what is known as “the world inside the text” and “the world behind the text” respectively.
But there is one more “world” to consider when we are trying to figure out what a given passage of scripture has to say to us: “the world in front of the text”… that is, OUR world.
And it struck me this week that there might be some “parts” to play from our world as we wrestle with this strange story, and its seeming disregard for fairness and just rewards.
The first “part” I wondered about was that of a Human Resources director.
If I was in HR for this rather sloppily-administered grape-production business, what would I think of the owner’s decision to pay the same wage to all of their workers, regardless of the hours they worked?
I can’t imagine I would endorse this approach.
For one thing, how do I write up the policy?
“The Generous Vineyard, LLC, will pay the standard daily wage of one denarius in exchange for the labor of picking fruit in the vineyard for between one and twelve hours.”
It just… doesn’t work.
We can get away with some wiggle room around expected hours for salaried workers …
(usually in the direction of eking out MORE hours of work than we are technically paying them for, because we have a workaholic culture and people know that this is what’s expected to climb the corporate ladder)
…but with line workers? No! We need time cards; we need an hour for lunch and two 15 minute breaks; we need clear and regular expectations.
Otherwise, we are going to be getting complaints about preferential treatment, and the workers might even start organizing… this would be a supervisory nightmare!
There are very good reasons for needing consistent policies.
(I know I’m playing this up and it might sound a bit snarky, but … realistically, these points are not wrong, are they? You genuinely could not run a business this way.)
But wait, there’s more. Because what if we play the part of a Public Relations specialist.
Well, from this perspective, the clear problem is the optics caused by poor planning.
Apparently, the owner wants to sell a story of “generosity”, and that could work! It’s a great goal for a wealthy landowner in a society where most people are living hand-to-mouth.
(We certainly don’t need any more out-of-touch millionaires who just step all over the people whose labor produces their excess).
We could even sell a convincing economic argument for the decision to pay the full wage to every worker, because the standard daily wage of one denarius is a subsistence wage… it’s only enough money to buy food for one day.
So, if we want an adequately nourished workforce in the long term, we need to make sure that they can buy enough to eat today.
The PROBLEM is the decision to pay the workers in reverse order of when they started working. This is setting up the hardest workers for resentment.
They are already drained from an exhausting day of manual labor in the hot sun, and then the owner makes them wait and watch while people who barely broke a sweat collect a full day’s pay?
This could work if the owner were planning to be truly “generous” to everyone and pay the harder workers more…
in fact, the manufactured situation is building up that expectation with this reverse order pay-out…
… but when all they get is the subsistence wage, they are never going to buy the messaging that this is about “generosity.” All they are going to see is the unfairness.
And that unfairness is going to have yet another unintended consequence… or so I imagine a government benefits administrator explaining.
(In my former career, I did a major research project that involved dozens and dozens of hour-long interviews with folks in this category and I can hear their phrases in my head).
If we play this part, we have to confront the perspective that an unfair, inconsistent system encourages people to be irresponsible.
If there’s a loophole, people will exploit it.
If there’s a way to get money without working for it, people will use it.
The word will spread, and pretty soon there won’t be any workers in the market at the beginning of the day because why should they work if they can just show up at 5:00, put in a lazy hour, and still get the same money as if they had worked all day?
OK, I think you get the picture. From a variety of perspectives, Jesus’s story presents all kinds of problems.
Being a bleeding-heart pastor-type myself I don’t especially enjoy verbalizing all of these objections… but I think we have to confront them, because they raise real questions.
What IS Jesus trying to communicate in this bizarre workforce scenario that legitimately WOULD NOT WORK in practice?
To answer that question, I want to encourage us to play one more part today… the part of the parents who will be bringing their daughter to the font today to be baptized.
I had the chance to talk with Christina and Chris this week as they prepared to have baby Isadora baptized, and as part of that conversation I asked them to share with me their prayers for their daughter’s future, and their hopes for what a life of faith will nurture in her.
My questions had nothing to do with interpreting parables, but they did connect to Jesus’s teaching in this parable, because - according to Jesus - this parable isn’t actually about labor policies, but rather about the Kingdom of heaven… about the way that God engages with us and the world.
And as I listened to what Christina and Chris shared with me about their prayers and hopes for Issy, what I heard was a beautiful vision of the kingdom way that Jesus is actually describing in this story.
They talked about wanting their daughter to be a person who is genuinely interested in other people… in learning the things she has in common with them but also in learning from differences, and the ways that she can grow by taking other people’s perspectives.
That is a kingdom value that reveals the limitations of an HR focus on consistent, inflexible policies.
Inflexible rules might be easier to administer, but God has never needed to do things the easy way.
In our baptism we are each welcomed into the same life-changing truth of God’s forgiveness and love, but that welcome is not a one-size-fits-all policy that works exactly the same way in every life.
Quite the opposite. It is the infinitely flexible promise that God will meet us wherever we are to offers us what we need - regardless of what we have earned.
And because that assurance of God’s acceptance is the foundation we are working from, we can live lives of holy curiosity, able to engage with different people and ideas without fear or defensiveness.
Christina and Chris also talked about wanting Issy to be kind, the sort of person who genuinely cares about other people and is not always focused on herself.
This kind of outward-focused concern is another value Jesus nudges at in the parable, with the rebuke of the workers who resented the landowner’s “generosity” to others.
Whereas a PR perspective worries about optics and messaging that will trigger anger, baptism initiatives us into a community of mutual care and into disciplined practices of faith “so that… we will care for others and the world God made.”
The kingdom Jesus is describing rejects an ethic of “looking out for number one” and “getting our fair share,” and invites us instead to rejoice when others get what they need.
Our baptismal family had one more prayer, and this one pushes back on the cynical fear that any available loopholes will inevitably be exploited. Their wish for Issy is that she will be the kind of happy person who wants to do good in the world.
The kind of person who experiences the joy of knowing that she can make a difference; the kind of person who shifts the balance away from cynicism and sneakiness because she shows how much better the alternatives are.
That’s my prayer for Issy too, and for all of us. The prayer that in our baptized identity we can be filled and fulfilled by the kingdom values that might not work for running a vineyard… but that can change us and the world.
Thanks be to God
 Baptismal liturgy, Evangelical Lutheran Worship.