September 21, 2014 Matthew 20: 1-16
Rev. Catherine Purves
I make no secret of the fact that I hate math, and most people who know me soon learn the sad truth that numbers mystify me. If Presbyterians believed in purgatory, and if I one day found myself there, it would consist of endless math problems. I don’t begin to understand the stock market or anything to do with economics. Balancing books, filling out tax forms, calculating interest – it all baffles me. Theology I can do…economics, not so much. But in today’s reading it looks like theology and economics are combined by Jesus in a parable that probably mystified his followers then, and that may well confound his followers today.
God’s economics are difficult for us to fathom. On hearing Jesus’ parable about the landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard, we might well think that this is no way to run a business. The farm workers’ union would be up in arms. You can’t pay everyone the same wage regardless of how long they work. How is that fair or just? We probably all sympathize with the first group of laborers who were in the field from dawn to dusk, but who received no more than those who picked grapes for an hour in the cool of the evening. How do these economics make sense?
Many of Jesus’ parables or stories have a sting in the tale, a surprise ending, and this one is no exception. The unexpected twist is meant to get you thinking about how on earth God’s economics work. But we won’t be able to figure that out unless we recognize that God’s economy doesn’t work like any economy we have ever imagined. God’s economy is determined by who God is, and this parable isn’t meant to teach us how to run a business. It’s meant to teach us how God deals with us in grace. When we think in terms of earthly economics, we are bound to misunderstand the divine economy which has nothing to do with a fair day’s wage for a full day’s work. God isn’t interested in hiring us, and God doesn’t pay us for good work done. In God’s economy there are no contracts. God’s economy is based on covenants.
The only way to understand God’s economics is to understand the theology that Jesus was trying to teach. Notice that Jesus begins his story by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” It’s easy to skip over or forget this introduction once we get into the nitty gritty of labor relations and wages, something that we may think we understand. But, as Jesus is going to show us, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t operate like a business. In God’s kingdom, the regular rules of economics don’t apply, because God is not our employer; he is our Father. Jesus is not the manager of a vineyard; he is our Savior. It is family economics that Jesus is describing in this parable, not business economics.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in the 7th chapter, we have another series of parables. In one of these Jesus asks this question: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” Well, what to you say? Think about how you treat your children. Do they have to work for their bread at your table? If they don’t work hard enough, do they get a stone? Would they ever be able to do enough in your household economy to earn your love and your care and your protection? Is that the way family economics work? Jesus assumes a negative answer to his questions about the bread and the stone, and he goes on to underscore his point: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” That’s the way God’s economics work.
I wonder if the economics of your family are like mine. Whenever I want to buy presents for my three children, I try really hard to make sure that they all get gifts of equal value. Even when they were little and couldn’t do the calculations themselves, I still tried to spend equal amounts on each of them. It didn’t matter if one did better in school, or if one was more reliable about making his bed, or if one contributed more in some way to the family economy. I certainly never based my gifts on their individual abilities to give something to me. It goes without saying that parents try to love all of their children the same. That is the way God’s economics work too. That’s why, in Jesus’ story about the laborers, they all got the same ‘wage’ or blessing from the landowner (God).
Having said that about family economics, I do have to confess that I did recently try to apply laws of regular economics to our family relationships. This was probably not something that I should have done, and it shows that confusing the two kinds of economics is not a good thing. Our son Brendan asked if we would keep their two dogs for a weekend. Now these are not really bad dogs, but they are needy and sometimes they get up to mischief. Andrew and I are cat people not dog people, and we don’t really enjoy taking care of the dogs, Hamish and Monkey.
Anyway, this is what I did that was counter to God’s economics, which we’ve seen are similar to good family economics. We said to Brendan that we would watch his dogs for the weekend if he would paint the railing of our front porch. In saying that, we were turning family economics into business economics and turning a covenant relationship based on love into a contractual relationship. Quid pro quo. We’ll watch your dogs if you paint our porch.
To his credit, Brendan said that he’d be happy to paint our porch or do any other heavy lifting around our house, quite apart from our babysitting the dogs. He offered to come around whenever we needed help with something. In saying that, Brendan was shifting the relationship back from being contractual to being based on the covenant of love for which quid pro quo doesn’t apply. As God’s good sons and daughters we too should try to relate to God in terms of God’s economics. We are not wage earners. We are God’s children. We don’t have to earn God’s love by hard work or long hours. And because we love God, we should, like Brendan, want to labor in God’s vineyard without counting our hours or calculating our just rewards. God doesn’t owe us anything. Everything we receive from God is grace, and we should be thankful for it. That’s how God’s economics work.
If all of that is true, then why did Jesus in his parable describe our relationship with God in terms of a landowner who went out to hire laborers in the first place? Why not use a family example that might be easier for us to identify with? Well, he did that too in the well-known story of the Prodigal Son. But that story showed that even our family economics often fail to meet the gracious standards of God’s economics. Remember the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son? When the younger son returned and was welcomed home, his older brother complained bitterly to his Father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Why do we, like the older brother and like the grumbling laborers, persist in trying to turn God’s economics into the economics of business and contracts? That is just not how God’s economics work. Jesus tried many times to explain this, in many different sorts of parables, but people still didn’t understand. I wonder. Do we?
Another reason why Jesus told this particular story about God’s economics was to emphasize the unbelievable generosity of God. We are naturally inclined to feel sympathy for the laborers who were hired first, but try to see it from the perspective of those who were hired last. It was perfectly obvious that they were given far more than they deserved. What an amazing surprise! The usual daily wage for a farm laborer was a denarius. This was like our minimum wage. It was what you needed to live. Those who were hired last would have assumed that they would only get a fraction of that amount and that they and their families would go hungry.
But in the story, the landowner (God) supplied for their daily needs just as much as he did for those hired first. So the emphasis is not really on how little the first workers received, but on how much the last workers received. The real punchline of the parable comes when the landowner says to those who were grumbling, “Are you envious because I am generous?” God’s economics are based on generosity, so that all get what they need.
There is one more point that Jesus is making in his framing of this parable, and it is an important part of God’s economics. And that is, that there is a vineyard; there is urgent work to be done. Everyone listening to Jesus would have known that at the time of the grape harvest, speed was of the essence. You had to pick the grapes at their peak, but they all had to be harvested before the start of the rainy season. This may explain, in part, why the landowner went back to the marketplace again and again to look for laborers. The work had to be done. Now remember that Jesus is comparing this whole situation to the kingdom of heaven. That kingdom was coming just as surely as the rainy season, and there was only so much time to get in the harvest. Jesus often compared God’s kingdom to a harvest.
So, there is work for us to do. We should not just be concerned about our own salvation. God is doing things in the world now, today, and we are a part of that. We are not laboring for a wage or for some earned reward, but we are laboring to give glory to God, confident that our generous God will bless us. We are not paid by the grape, and God’s blessing is not dependent upon the number of converts we manage to harvest. But we are still all part of God’s work here in our community, now in this 21st century. This is how God’s economics work. We are in the vineyard, and we are caught up in God’s harvest. So let us work as we are able, and let us together praise our generous God, now that we are beginning to understand the mysteries and the grace of God’s economics.