Making Us Equal, Worship Sunday 20 September

. 6 min read

Conversation starters

  • What is your experience of waiting in line?
  • The workers are waiting in the town market square for someone to hire them. What do you think is the closest modern equivalent? The union hall, temp agency, or unemployment center?
  • Based on this passage, would you call God a socialist or capitalist? Why?
  • Discuss: “It is wicked to wrong God; but still worse to think oneself wronged by God. And men think this oftener than one would suppose” (Bengel). When have you thought yourself to be wronged by God?
  • What is the hardest thing for you about being “made equal”?

This week’s theme: No one likes waiting in lines. We know that if we wait long enough – at the grocery store check-out, at the polling place, at the red light, at the doctor’s office – we will eventually be first. But it always starts with being last.

Spain: “I’m the last in line.”

Lesotho: “The patients make the queue.”

Jesus said, multiple times, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19.30). That’s nice to hear if you come in last, but it is a bit uncomfortable to those of us who like to be first (all of us). And it is a whole lot more than uncomfortable to someone like me who has enjoyed privilege pretty conspicuously in my life. We had household servants and guards in my childhood. “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20.16).

Message, Matthew 20.1-16: This is a fun text, and a disconcerting one. For a parable like this, a story told by Jesus with a point, and with a twist, I think it is best to begin by playing with it a little bit. So, I will pose some playful questions and insights in terms of modern expressions of ancient economic practices.

This marketplace where day laborers gather is the place to go if you need workers. What do you think is the closest modern equivalent to this ancient job market, available laborers loitering in the market square? The union hall? A temp agency? (I’ve worked for one of those.) The unemployment center?

The landowner – by definition a wealthier person – goes there in the morning to recruit workers for the standard twelve-hour day. Not that anyone had a watch or clock or portable sundial. You just worked while the sun was up and rested when it went down. He goes back over and over throughout the day to get more workers. You wonder about his planning and project management. Why wouldn’t he know, at the beginning of the day, what he wanted to accomplish and how long it would take to accomplish it? Or, did the first workers work too slowly? Time in the ancient world was not treated the way we treat it, so project management wasn’t handled in the same way either. In the ancient world, everything happened on time because there is no time like the present. In the ancient world, you weren’t late unless you arrived after the important people arrived. That is, you aren’t late for a wedding unless you arrive after the bride and groom. And the bride and groom can never be late because it’s all about them. (I know some of you were talk about being late to your own wedding. If you were married in the ancient Near East, you would never be late.)

The story refers to being “idle” twice in the tale when the landowner goes to hire more people. “He saw others standing idle in the marketplace” (20.3). “Why are you standing here the whole day idle?” (20.6). And he pays the idle people the same as the hard working people. Weird. What is he rewarding? Is he rewarding laziness? Is God – for whom the landowner is a figure – is God a socialist, wanting everyone to get the same share? Just for kicks, that’s a fun conversation starter, but only if you can do it without arguing too much over politics! And, as a matter of historical fact, as economic theories, neither socialism nor capitalism existed in the time of Jesus.

What is he rewarding? Availability. These workers remained hopeful that they would find work, even late into the day. They did not go home. They remained available for work, available to God. The landowner promised to the last ones, “I will give you whatever is right” (20.4). Of course, he ended up paying them for their whole day of availability, rather than a whole day’s work. It was a tremendous gift.

The economic system of the ancient world was bound up in relationships, in what anthropologists call a “patron-client system.” The boss, the owner, the patron cultivates honor and status by building good relationships in the community. A boss doesn’t have to pay a denarius for a day’s work. That’s just the standard, but it is not the minimum. A boss who pays the standard is a good boss, the kind of man you want to work for. And a boss who offers a gift at his own expense is a man you want to work for, and a man who praises you in the community at large. He becomes your patron, the source of good in your life; and you become his client, a person who builds up the honor of the boss in public.

And here is where we approach the conflict in the story. The last are treated just as the first, even though they did not do all the work. The last are given the same pay even though they did not earn it. And all the firsts are upset. The boss accuses them of giving him the “evil eye.” Literally, the question: “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” (20.15). The firsts, who could normally be counted on to praise the boss for paying what they agreed to pay, for paying it on time instead of withholding it (as some bosses did), and for not defrauding their workers (as was far too common). These firsts, who should be praising the boss and building up his honor, are instead giving him the evil eye.

Most of the time when we talk about entitlement today, at least in economic terms, we talk about the social safety net, things like social security or unemployment or health care. Those of us who are, more often than not, gainfully employed, are sometimes frustrated at the entitlement syndrome of those we accuse of being content with public benefits. In this story, Jesus flips the script: It is the gainfully employed who struggle with an entitlement syndrome. If you are going to be so generous to those who haven’t worked the full day, then we deserve more. Entitlement isn’t a struggle reserved for only one segment of our society. It shows up in every social class, even among honest hard-working folks.

The important thing about this conflict is that it expresses what may be the biggest aspect of our struggle with God. If our relationship with God is purely contractual, then there are only two possible outcomes. One, we fail – which we all do – and get fired, terminated, whatever. None of us like that outcome, but if we only have a contractual relationship with God the landowner/boss, that is outcome #1. The other option is that we perform perfectly – which, of course, we can’t do but we think we do. We say, “I’ve been a good person,” and what we really mean is that we’re a little better than the other guy and we deserve more. Outcome #2 is that we are unsatisfied with God because God is generous to people in ways we believe they do not deserve, generous to people in ways that make us think we deserve greater privilege, greater entitlement. “You made them equal to us” (20.12), and we deserve more.

In this way, when we relate to God in a contractual manner, our relationship with others suffers as well. Paul writes to one church struggling with this contractual approach to faith, “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5.26). Why does he write this? Because if our relationship with God is contractual, then we find ourselves in competition with everyone else for a finite set of resources, rather than connected in community with everyone else in the abundance of God’s grace.

The apostle Paul spends a lot of time writing about the pitfalls of relating to God in an exclusively contractual manner: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation” (Romans 4.4, NIV). God owes me. God owes me. Do you hear that? Do you hear how crazy that sounds? But we manage to act as if it is true, far too often.

One commentator writes, “It is wicked to wrong God; but still worse to think oneself wronged by God. And men think this oftener than one would suppose” (Bengel, in Bruner, 321).

“Pastor, I’m a veteran Christian. You need to listen to me more than to the new folks.” “I’ve been a member of this church for years and I deserve more.” “I’m the only honest salesman in the business but everyone else gets more success. Why is God defrauding me?”

Remember the story of Jesus death on the cross and the terrorist crucified next to him? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.42-43). That guy did absolutely nothing to deserve the grace of God! He wasn’t even saved in the eleventh hour! He was saved at 11:59! And he gets paid the very same as all the “firsts.” Why? Because what God gives us is not a wage but a gift. The ability to work is a bonus, the opportunity to work for God is icing on the cake. In the grace of God we are equally loved.