“Earning a Gift”
Text: Matthew 20: 1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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 the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This story sends me back to growing up in Iowa and working on the farms surrounding my hometown in the summer months. When Heidi and I first moved away from the Midwest, we had to learn the language of the new part of the country we had moved in to. As it turned out, we had to make an adjustment in our thinking with regard to what dinner was. In the Midwest, dinner is the noon meal and supper is the evening meal. I don’t really know if it is still that way or not, but when we moved out of the Midwest we would hear about people going to dinner in the evening and it didn’t make sense. It sounded a little foreign. Now, 40 years later, and having traveled quite a bit, I would say that dinner for the evening meal is the standard in most parts of the country and supper is exception rather than the rule. But when we heard it for the first time it did seem a little odd.
In this story of the vineyard, the manager keeps coming back to the town square or the market place as the text calls it. This makes sense to me and it has to do with calling dinner the noon meal and supper the evening meal. Let me explain.
As I was growing up in Le Mars, Iowa, I had the opportunity often in the summer months to earn a little extra spending money by working on some of the nearby farms. Usually this work was pulling weeds in a soybean field, which we called “walking beans” or it was baling hay. I did a lot of baling hay. It was hard work, but the pay was good and so was the food. There was sort of an unwritten rule that not only would you get paid for your labor on the farm, but you would also get fed. I think the farmers figured you would work better on a full stomach. This is how it worked.
The farmer or the manager would cruise through town and pick us kids up early in the morning; sometimes as early as 5:30 or 6:00 at the latest. We would then drive out to the farm and the first thing we did was have breakfast. This was a full meal. Meat, potatoes, pancakes, eggs, juice, bacon, actually almost anything you can think of, it was there for breakfast. Usually by 7 or 7:15 we were fed and ready to hit the fields.
Around 9:30 or 10 in the morning, we would take a break and the kitchen crew would show up out in the field with lunch. At least that is what they called it. Lunch consisted of cold meat sandwiches, chips, fruit and lemonade or cold water to drink. But they brought all of that out to us in the field; we didn’t go back to the farmhouse for lunch.
Then at noon we would stop again for dinner. This was another full meal served at the farmhouse. Just like breakfast, there was almost anything you could imagine. Usually several different types of meat, chicken or ham or beef, with potatoes and salads and fruit and biscuits and you get the idea. We would eat for an hour and then head back to the field.
At around 3 in the afternoon, it was time for lunch again and we got another break. Again, like the morning lunch, this was brought out to the field and we sat around on the equipment and ate our sandwiches and drank our lemonade.
At 6 or so in the evening we would go back to the farmhouse for supper. Another huge meal was prepared and waiting for us there. After supper if there was any clean-up or light chores to do we did that before it began to get dark and then the farmer or the manager ran us back into town in his pick-up truck.
If I remember correctly, by the time I was a junior or senior in high school, the average daily wage for a full day of baling hay was about $15 cash, but with all the food benefits thrown in as well.
As I read this story of the manager of the vineyard, it brings back all these memories. I can imagine him returning to the marketplace, perhaps to buy food for the laborers, and while he is there, he sees more people who need the work. The spacing of the times that the manager returns to the marketplace line up pretty well with my experience working the farms in Iowa as a young man. This might help explain why he kept returning to the marketplace and each time he did he found more people there willing to work in the vineyard.
As the story goes on, each worker in the vineyard gets paid the full amount. This didn’t ever happen to me, but I can just about imagine what it must have felt like for the laborers who had been out there all day. I can tell you that at times it was hard to stay awake during that last meal of the day that we called supper. By the time we rode the truck back in to town, many of us were nodding off and certainly ready for bed when we got home. If someone new had shown up at the 3 o’clock lunch and worked the afternoon and gotten paid the same as the rest of us, it would have seemed a little unfair.
Think about that. I had to be outside at the curb ready to be picked up at 5:30AM and had worked all day. Then some joker who shows up at 3 in the afternoon gets the same pay as I did? Yeah, I would think I’d be a bit upset by that. But as the text points out, what exactly am I going to be upset about? I did agree up front to work all day for the $15 and the food. It was my choice. But I can imagine it still wouldn’t sit quite right with me. Something about it seems unfair.
But that is the point of the story isn’t it? Grace isn’t fair. As much as we want it to be measured out in proportion to how good we have been, grace isn’t fair. God’s grace is universal and it covers all of us regardless of how long we have been in the field. And sometimes that just doesn’t seem right, but that is the way it is.
If you read the history of the Reformation and the inspiration of Martin Luther you might discover that Martin Luther based much of his reformation theology on the writings of Paul. In some of the Pauline letters, you can find the references to “faith alone” as the foundation for our belief and faith in salvation. And that became the rallying cry for Martin Luther as well; “faith alone.”
You would think that Martin Luther would have read this text and realized for himself that the grace of God, the kingdom of God as the text says, is a gift which cannot be earned. It doesn’t matter how many hours you have in the field. It doesn’t matter what time you showed up for the work party. It doesn’t even matter if you worked or not. The grace of God is a gift which cannot be earned.
But I want to take you back to my farm experience. You see, if someone had shown up at 3 in the afternoon, even if he got paid the same amount, he would have missed all those meals. There was the phenomenal breakfast and two lunches served in the field. There was dinner, which was the noon meal, which was a repeat performance of the phenomenal breakfast, but only better. So what if the newcomer gets paid the same amount of money. He missed all the food and fellowship of those other times we have spent together.
In a few minutes we will have the chance to enjoy another symbolic meal together in the form of communion. I realize that sometimes it is taught that communion is a requirement of our Christian journey and through the sacrament of Holy Communion we help earn our own salvation. That doesn’t exactly square with what Jesus said. The grace of God is a free gift and cannot be earned. Communion is the bonus time you get to spend in the presence of the Divine because you had sense enough to show up early.
And since this entire sermon has sort of been about food, it seems appropriate to say it is also food for thought.