Christ Lutheran Community Church

Upper Darby

September 20, 2020 Worship Sermon - "Workers in the Vineyard"

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser

Jonah 3:10--4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

During the past few months, we have discovered how dependent we are on essential workers: health care workers, grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, delivery people, postal workers, those who work in drug stores.  When the pandemic hit and most people were required to shelter in place, these essential workers made it possible for the rest of us to live.  Another thing that we have discovered is that these essential workers are often among the most poorly paid workers in our economy.  They were sometimes putting their life on the line and often getting paid minimum wage.  So, let’s hope that this pandemic leads to a restructuring of our economy so that people do these essential jobs get rewarded accordingly. 

When it comes to paying people fairly for the work that they do, this story that Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard probably does not seem like a good place to start.  I don’t know many people who can listen to this story without feeling indignant about the treatment of those who worked all day in the vineyard compared to those who work for just one hour.  It doesn’t seem fair.

When I first moved back to Philadelphia from Chicago, I took a job as a branch manager of a small savings and loan in Wayne.  Several months after I had been in this position, I was cleaning out some files and came across the branch’s budget for the prior year.  I was outraged to discover that my predecessor had been paid about fifty percent more than I was, even though he had been fired because he was inept and spent the whole day doing crossword puzzles.  I called my boss to complain and he gave me a line about how my predecessor had been overpaid and how my salary was more in keeping with the market for my position and how I had lots of opportunities ahead of me at the bank and how senior management would be sure to take care of me if I worked hard and performed well.  He was giving me a snow job, there’s no doubt; but other than quitting there wasn’t much I could do about it.  I had agreed to work for the wage they were paying me and if I hadn’t been a better negotiator when I was applying for the job, that was my own fault.  Nevertheless, I was livid.

I think that is exactly the kind of emotional response Jesus was expecting to get from his disciples when he told them this parable about the workers in the vineyard.  After all, the parables were these quirky stories that were intended to shock the hearer… and this is one of the parables that still has the capacity to shock, even after two thousand years, because so many of us can relate to the sense of injustice that the workers who had been laboring all day felt when they discovered that they were paid no more than the ones who worked for just one hour.  It doesn’t seem right!

So, if this parable was intended to shock us into rethinking our attitude toward life, what is it that Jesus wants us to learn?  Maybe Jesus told this parable to force us to rethink our attitude toward the work that God calls us to do.  This parable isn’t just about any kind of work; it’s about God’s work.  The vineyard owner represents God and the vineyard workers are us – the people God has called to do this work.   Do we do this work because we love the vineyard?  Or do we only do it for the reward we hope to get when the day is over?  Do we do the work of God because we want our lives to bear good fruit that will bring joy and healing and forgiveness and freedom to other people?  Or are we only in it for the paycheck?  How many of us think that being a Christian means suffering through the misery of this life just so that we can be rewarded in the life to come?

Saint Augustine, the great theologian of the church, once prayed: “Lord, make me a better person… but not quite yet.”  In other words, he wanted a few more years to indulge himself before giving it all up to follow Christ.  For those of us who are inclined to think like Augustine, this parable challenges us to examine our attitude toward the life God has called us to live. 

What if the Christian life is not something tedious and oppressive that we endure in order to get into heaven?  What if the Christian life is itself the reward?  Living a life of praise and thanksgiving; loving our neighbor; welcoming the outcast; freeing those who are enslaved to fear; healing those who have been crushed by social forces beyond their control…  Do we feel called to do these things just so we can have a McMansion in heaven?  Or do we seek to do them because they are rewarding in and of themselves.

Perhaps the lucky ones in this story are the workers who arrived first thing in the morning, because they had the blessing of spending the whole day in the vineyard.  After all, the vineyard is a symbol of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is the highest good anyone can imagine.  The kingdom of God is peace, and wholeness, and freedom from want.  The Kingdom of God is being gathered into a network of life-giving relationships with people that the Holy Spirit has empowered us to love.  If that’s what it means to labor in the vineyard, why would anyone want to wait until the last minute?

If you want an example of someone who cherished the work God had called him to do, look at the Apostle Paul.  Paul, more than just about anyone else, had a right to complain about toiling all day under the scorching sun.  Several times he had been beaten and whipped.  He was thrown into a ring with wild animals.  He was imprisoned.  He was shipwrecked.  All because he insisted in doing God’s work.  And in today’s reading from Philippians, he is facing the real possibility of martyrdom.  Yet, unlike the workers in Jesus’ parable, Paul isn’t lamenting the size of the reward for his efforts.  As a matter of fact, we hear him debating whether he would rather continue to do God’s work or receive the reward of going to be with Christ.  He talks as if both choices are too good to pass up.  Finally, he decides that he needs to work a few more hours in the vineyard. 

Life in Christ is both the work and the wage that God has promised us. 

But you don’t have to wait until you die to get paid.  When we gather for worship, we are given an advance on our wages, even before we have earned them.  As we gather around the Lord’s table and drink the fruit of the vineyard, we see that our reward is more than we could possibly have expected to earn for our work.  Our reward is Jesus himself.  Christ, the vineyard owner, pours out his life to strengthen and invigorate every weary laborer.  You who have worked for twelve hours and you who have worked for just one, come and receive your wage.