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Wishing Your Boss Wasn’t So Nice to All the Other Workers: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 20, 2020:
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

I feel a sort of affinity with this parable. As a teenager, spending summers on a farm, early on in the season enjoying the short days (though short pay) of working just 7:00 till noon. But then settling into a routine of 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM (sometimes 7:00). Having difficulty building relationships with coworkers, because I was a different age, and often there were language barriers. Noticing that I tended not to get assigned the harsher duties like picking corn under the hot sun, and wondering if I was being favoured because of the long and warm history between my family and the owners. And did that breed resentment among co-workers?

So here, at least for me (and hopefully you), we have a good example of one of these gems from Jesus, the evocative storyteller. I mentioned last week [at 8 o’clock] that to reduce the risks of gathering together the Diocese has advocated for 30-minute services (later stretching it to 45), and I joked that I’d alternate week-to-week between half-sized and double-speed sermons. So what does it mean to hear and interpret a rich and difficult parable like this one — on which hundreds of chapters and articles have been written — when we have only a handful of minutes to unpack it?

A bunch of those books and articles, and likely Bible studies, will spend a lot of time with the fundamental question: is this parable meant to be applied other-worldly or this-worldly. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Does that mean we’re just talking about clouds and harps. Is this parable really about Jews and Gentiles. Or about Pharisees and Sadducees versus the outcasts Jesus tended to hang out with. OR does this parable re-orient how we live today? Jesus did seem concerned about justice, after all. So does this have anything to say to us, especially right now in societal conversations around universal basic income, housing, and race relations.

We might also dig deeper into the text itself and ask some questions. Is the landowner the good guy or the bad guy in the story? As Amy-Jill Levine puts it*, is this “God the Father,” or “the Godfather” we’re dealing with here, with a crooked wine business operating out of Tuscany? Are we to commend him for his radical generosity to the latecomers? Or should we wonder if he’s intentionally sowing discontent between the different factions in the workforce, feeding into tensions between them, so that there’s no chance that they could ever get on the same page, and unionize?

As someone with a bit of experience on a farm, I’m left wondering how the farmer can be so clueless about how many workers are needed on a given day; so clueless that the landowner keeps going back to the marketplace in search of more help, first at 6, then 9, and noon, and 3, and then at 5:00 PM. What kind of farmer are we dealing with here?

Well, something helpful that some commentators will point out is that the parable itself doesn’t say that the farmer actually NEEDS more labour. It just says that “he went out again” (and again), and each time, finds people standing idly. So maybe out of this we’re being taught something about our God who doesn’t need people, but nevertheless keeps coming back, choosing us, welcoming our neighbour, and loving the ones that we might find insufferable. The prophet Jonah learned something about this: commissioned to go preach to the Gentiles — the “others” — in Nineveh, he tries to get out of it, eventually does it, after which he regrets that they’ve changed their ways. He preferred a world outlook where there was an enemy, and where God was his exclusive possession.

But these stories say differently, don’t they? They say something about a God who is more kind than we are comfortable with. They say something about a God who can create by simply verbalizing something into existence, but who instead deputizes a man and woman to tend the garden, hires an abundance of labourers to work the fields, and calls us all into this ‘kingdom of heaven’ enterprise. (Which means that we need to navigate both the vertical relationship of us and God, and the horizontal one of us and the other workers, which can be tough.)

This is a God who recognizes the dangers and limitations of people “standing idle;” how standing idle can play into cycles of addiction, depression, and lack of meaning and purpose. God’s welcoming us all, as we’re able, into this kingdom work, and we need to check ourselves to make sure we appreciate that the kingdom is big enough to accommodate our neighbours. Even the people of Nineveh. Even the 5:00 o’clock labourers.

Without definitively ‘solving’ this parable (which I don’t think is our task, anyway), today we get a glimpse of what God’s hopes are for us and for all creation, when the kingdom comes; and in that sense it’s other-worldly. At the same time, we’re challenged by what we might call the ‘kingdom ethics’ at play in the story, and we realize that the kingdom can be present in the here-and-now (and in that sense, this is this-worldly). The goal, though, as I mentioned, isn’t necessarily about solving the story like a riddle; about figuring out each analogy and allegory, but instead, to be changed by it. The grace in all this, and the grace before us today, is that as Christians, we’re called to be people of story. And today, and each Sunday, we can open ourselves up to these stories, and be changed by them. Because 2000 years on, they still have currency, and there is still labouring to be done in the fields outside this building. And maybe where we need to grow most of all is in accepting that the storytelling and the story-hearing, and the change that comes out of this, isn’t just reserved for Sundays, but is a part of our whole experience as followers of this storyteller, every day and every moment. In the early morning, at nine, at noon, at three o’clock, and at five.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Much inspiration comes from AJ Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014).