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The Laborers in the Vineyard and the Reversal of all Order

Because the murmurers envied the gifted, they also misunderstood and insulted the employer. A new perspective for the world of work is offered. How can the unemployed receive a chance? The life of the narrator himself was a life of kindness lived according to the right of goodness

Sermon on Matthew 20, 1-16

By Reinhard Gaede

[This sermon from 10/30/2006 published in: CuS (Christ und Sozialist) 21, 2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.brsd.de.]
From Matthew 20:1-15:
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, `You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, `Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.' 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, `Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 12 saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'" 16 So the last will be first, and the first last."

The vineyard owner hires laborers. After agreeing with them on the usual wage, he sends them into his vineyard. He seeks to hire many laborers. Therefore he recruits them all day: in the morning around 6 and 9, again at 12 and later at 3 in the afternoon. Around 5 in the late afternoon, he asks the jobless to work in the last hour. We like hearing all this. But now the story becomes annoying. Everything runs differently than we imagined. The short-term workers are paid first. They receive the full day's wage for an hour's work. The full-time workers are paid last. Then their disappointment is revealed. Their wage is just as high as the short-term workers. This is a reversal of all order! No wonder that these workers now murmur. The story is annoying; the main person is unsympathetic.

Are the murmurering ones right? We all live according to this law: a work is worth its wage. Performance and wage are related. The cost-benefit relation should correspond. All life is defined this way. The little child only enjoys the parents' unconditional love for a short time. Soon he or she realizes there are conditions and achievements are expected. Teachers in the school continue what the parents began in their education. Marks or grades indicate the state of achievement. The censures and later wage negotiations cannot be avoided any more. Performance incentives and controls of performance change. The iron wage law is in force. That law is even given as a devotion over the coffin: Your life was only work. What an ennobling obituary!

Despite all this, we know life is not only work and may not only be work. Life is full of gifts. Certainly these gifts do not always produce joy. Performance-wage-thinking is often convulsive or obsessive. Every performance demands a return favor. If this is true, gifts are hard. Many find it difficult to accept help.

Children act very differently. Gifts give them genuine joy. Therefore we adults could learn much from children. They remind us life begins in safety with experiences of the love, care and help of parents. The laughter of children can remind us of the undeserved riches of life. That our marriage succeeds, that we are loved, that we have people who understand us, good friends or that we experience faithfulness - all this cannot be expected. We cannot provide for ourselves. Gifts are showered upon us. Thus we live in disunion. We long for achievement and reward; we experience gifts and undeserved safety through love, care and help.

When we admit this disunion of all life praxis, the end of this story seems disgraceful to us. First we were entirely on the side of the murmurers. But now the employer begins to speak. Initially he unmasked the real thoughts of the outraged. In reality, they were not concerned with justice. They do not cry: no one may be impoverished or everyone must have enough to live. No, they are envious and think: no one may have more happiness than us. The envious only circle around themselves, see only their own merits and claims and repress the needs of others. But if only performance and merit are importance, what happens to the helpless, the so-called losers and incompetent, those who falter in the performance race, those injured through the fault of others, the weak, seniors and the sick? Don't they need care?

Since the murmurers envy the gifted, they also misunderstand and insult the employer. He isn't the controller with a cold calculating mindset who scrutinizes the applicants and then decides with one word over the fate of a person: fit or unfit. He calculates differently than all the indignant. The kindly employer does not sort according to performance. He gives everyone a chance. He gives work from which one can live. He offers life and a future, even in the last hour before the gate closes.

Now the kindly employer has to defend himself against the protest of the envious. Is there a malicious end to the conflict? No. The kindly employer turns to the murmurers. "My friend," he says to their spokesperson, "I do you no wrong." That sounds infinitely gracious. Then the argument comes. Can he not be generous in dealing with his assets? This argument silences. He still has freedom of action. He has power and right. Secondly, his right to be good is central, not simply his right. He pleads for this by focusing on the needy. What an amazing way of dealing with adversaries! A new perspective for the world of work is offered. What is crucial now is perspective, not secure position, not competitiveness or rehabilitation of the enterprise. What is possible so as many can be employed and the unemployed have a chance and those dependent on competition can survive?

Is such goodness feasible? Many resigned persons ask this. Isn't all this theory unsuited to the praxis of our world? Yes, dear community, the story would actually be mere theory and a wishful dream if one actually had not lived according to the words of the kindly employer, the narrator himself, Jesus of Nazareth. His life was kindness. His understanding love befriended all people. He went to the poor and rich, to the little people and the powerful.

That some excluded themselves from the help he offered everyone made him sad and angry. He joyfully celebrated with the poor and despised, persons on the edges of society. He experienced that many turned away and reproached him for entering bad society. He told this story to the Pharisees. The community preserved it. They knew very early: the temptation to arrogance is planted in all of us. The right of god's goodness must be declared again and again. "The kingdom of heaven is like an owner of a vineyard who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard." Jesus told this story because he lived according to the right of goodness. God wants to establish his rule through goodness, the "kingdom of heaven" or God's reign. God's work is like the kindly employer. God calls and canvasses for people, seeking to give work, life and a future up to the last hour of life-time and world-time. With his conduct, he interferes in the orders of the world. God reverses all standards and symbolically urges the new right, the new right of grace and goodness. The world does not know it and yet unconsciously longs for it. The world is called to conversion, to returning home in the reign of goodness and love, in God's reign.

Whoever hears the parable of the laborers in the vineyard will think of his or her life. Did we pass by that yesterday? Martin Luther proclaimed: "Stay on the middle course. Bid farewell to despair and presumption... If you were equal to Abraham, David, Peter or Paul, you would rebel over the last prostituted. If you were Pilate, Herod, Sodom or Gomorrah, God's kindly call would bring you home beyond all presumption and despair."

We do not go this way alone. Let me speak at the end of a fell-traveler, a pastor. The English poet Bruce Marshall set a memorial to the role of pastor. As a motto, he took the words of the gospel: "Call the laborers and pay them their wage: from the last to the first." His 1952 novel was titled "To every man a penny," in the German edition "Kenner kommt zu kurz. Oder der Stundenlohn Gottes" (No one is cut short or God's hourly wage). Abbe Gaston was a little round man, a pastor in Paris. A fashion salon was opposite his church. "The dangers of fashion were a popular sermon and theme in his time. The shorter the skirts, the longer the faces of the pious. Nevertheless the pastor said, one can serve God in the beauty shop. When the young girl skids into prostitution, the pastor is with her, cares for her child and comforts her in her last hour with word and sacrament. A love that understands and helps counters the mercilessness of the people who drove the maiden into distress. The pastor also had a friend, a communist who did not share his opinion. He preferred reading Figaro, a state-supporting newspaper and not L' Humanita, this rebellious paper. His friend was persecuted as a communist. He hid him from his enemies. An understanding love acknowledges and protects others in its passion for justice. The pastor is a patriot. However when he saw a German soldier attacked by fanatics in Paris, he hid him away. An understanding love sees the fellow-person in the enemy. That God's goodness is without limits or borders and therefore Christians cross borders can be demonstrated again and again.

When the pastor was old, he reflected over his life. Perhaps our life-time is like a strip of space that rolls down from eternity and rolls back again. Now he found the answer to the question of Peter: What will be our reward if we leave everything and follow the Lord Christ?" Peter asked this question before Jesus told his story. Now the pastor understood something of the mystery of God's daily wage, a penny for everyone. To be sure, the work was laborious. Still he was happy all the time.

The middle way has a goal, Martin Luther proclaimed. One sees straight ahead the goodness of the owner of the vineyard, the "king of mercy." Amen.

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