Tom with kids in Kuwait

Tom with kids in Kuwait
Tom with kids in Kuwait

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The untold story of Matthew 20 is ours to tell

Read or listen to  Matthew 20:1-16

What a parable!

I really like the part where the workers who only worked a few hours or only a single hour rush to give thanks to the landowner.  Oops!  That’s not in the parable.  Perhaps that is the part that we should live after realizing how much this parable tells us about God’s Kingdom.

What a parable!

It has been reviewed in almost every conceivable way.  One allegorical interpretation is that the workers hired first are the patriarchs, then come the prophets, then comes John the Baptist, and finally we get to grace.

Those hired first could represent those under the law.  There was an agreement for what they received.  This was a sort of this for that arrangement.  Those hired later were under grace.

Some generalize the allegory and purport that Jesus was illustrating an egalitarian society.  All were considered equal in this dynamic regardless of how much or how little each worked.

Some get very general and just call this the great reversal.  But to just say that those who have the least will be rewarded because they have little asks us to ignore other teachings.  The parable of the talents  comes quickly to mind.  The servants trusted with much  who returned much to their master were rewarded with much.

We need to remember that this is a parable.  It is meant to explain unexplainable things by laying alongside an analogy of explainable things.  In this case, Jesus is explaining his Father’s kingdom.  For this parallel to be effective in our minds, we may need to just let them operate at the conceptual or less specific level.

Allegories want one specific thing to represent another specific thing.  Sometimes they do. 

At other times, we need to be less precise.  Sometimes we just need to listen to the entire story and let the parable speak to us.

What is the story that Jesus told.

There was a land owner.  He was an active landowner.  He went out early in the morning to hire workers.  He went, not his foreman.

He found workers.  They agreed on the daily wage and he sent them to work.  The wage was probably the standard for a day’s work. 

Three hours later, the land owner is out again and finds more men needing work.  He doesn’t chew them out for not getting out and about earlier.  He just hires them and tells them that he will pay them what is right.  These men go to work.

The landowner makes the rounds three more times.   The last one is just an hour before quitting time.  He asks these men why they are just standing around.  They reply that no one will hire them.  He hires them and they go to work.  There is no discussion of pay.

Then comes quitting time.

The landowner turns the job of paying the men over to the foreman.  He tells him only to pay the wages beginning with the last hired and working his way to those hired first.  Notice that there is no mention to the foreman of the wage to be paid.

Perhaps the foreman couldn’t make change, so everyone got a denarius.

Perhaps he knew his master so well, that he knew exactly what he wanted done.

Perhaps the landowner told him but Jesus didn’t deem that detail necessary to the story.

In any case, everyone gets the same pay.

We don’t have a chapter in this story where those who only worked a few hours, or even a single hour, are jumping for joy or running over to give thanks to the landowner.  We don’t get that part of the picture.

What we do get is a picture of grumbling, angry workers who received exactly what they agreed to work for.  They are upset because the landowner valued them the same as those who worked little.  In their minds, he made them equal to them.  They had earned their denarius.  Those others surely did not!

It would be very hard for any of us not to empathize with these workers.  They busted their butts for 12 hours and get the same as the guy who works for the last hour when the sun is lower in the sky and the heat of the day has passed.  We are not talking top level  executive salaries  here.  These are day workers.  They expected to be paid for what they did.  It was God’s law that they be paid at the end of the workday.  These are poor folks.

And they were paid.

They were paid exactly what they agreed to work for.  When they saw what others received, they became jealous, angry, and even coveted the more for less benefit of the other workers.

They were not cheated.  They received exactly what they had agreed to work for.

This parable is double bookmarked, perhaps double bookended is more accurate.

First, it begins (in the 19th chapter) with, many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

It ends with, so the last will be first and the first will be last.

But outside of these two bookmarks are two others.

The story that precedes this one is the story of the Rich Young Man or the Rich Young Ruler.  The man left this encounter with Jesus sad because he had many possessions and Jesus had told him that to be complete in God’s love, he needed to give up these possessions. 

At the other end following a brief explanation to the disciples that Jesus would be mocked, flogged, and crucified; we find a mother seeking something special for her two sons.  Elsewhere, James and John themselves asked for the privilege of sitting on the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom. 

This first and last framing supports the windows of selfishness.  They support the window of me first, self first, it’s all about me.  And these bookend examples are about people who seem to be following God’s ways.

We want our god to be a god that goes along with the way we see the world.

He has told us that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.  Instead of accepting that and trusting God, we would rather make a god that is fair by our standards.

This happens more than we might think.

How many of you have said or heard something along these lines.  I can’t believe in a God who:

·       Would send men to war.  I can’t read the Old Testament

·       Would permit genocide

·       Would allow something like Katrina to happen

·       Would allow suffering

·       Would allow child abuse in the world

·       Would permit evil people to prosper, even for a short time

·       Would send someone to hell

·       Wouldn’t send someone to hell

You can fill in the blank.  Whatever you put there should evoke a change in grammar.


Specifically it involves a change in capitalization.  Take that big “G” in God and change it to the lower case “g” in god.  When we make our own god, it is no longer the one true God.  The one true God is the one who said, “Don’t do that.  Don’t make your own gods.”

For millennia men have made gods out of wood and stone, but in recent days we prefer to whittle our personal gods out of the one true God.

We do this all the time.  We put parameters on God.  We try to squeeze his mind, his thoughts, and his ways into our comfort zone.

They don’t fit.

We have been given the mind of Christ.  We can understand the mind of Christ.  We can know how to live as God’s love in this world.  We can understand the One who commissioned us to go forth into the world. 

We must trust God.

That doesn’t mean trust God if he meets certain criteria.  That we only trust him if he complies with our standard of fairness. 

Trust God!

He is holy.

He is righteous.

He is merciful.

He provides.

He is just.

He is almighty.

We have an Apostle’s Creed that further states what we believe.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

    the Maker of heaven and earth,

    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

    born of the virgin Mary,

    suffered under Pontius Pilate,

    was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell or some say to the dead.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,

    and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;

    from which he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;

    the holy catholic church;

    the communion of saints;

    the forgiveness of sins;

    the resurrection of the body;

    and the life everlasting.


We need to note that we say we believe these things because of what God has revealed to us.  We do not believe in God because we first said these things and he fit the bill.  The Apostle’s Creed is an affirmation.

We trust the one true God.

The workers hired after the beginning of the work day trusted than the landowner would pay them what was right.  They did not negotiate a fair wage.  They trusted.

They trusted.

The landowner told them to go to work.  They obeyed.  They trusted.

The landowner was a generous man. 

He was capable of fairness and justice.  He paid those who worked the full day the full amount they had agreed upon.

He was capable of being a generous man.  He did what he wanted with his money.  He was not constrained by the worker’s version of fairness.  He wanted to be generous.

Those who were treated fairly wanted more.  They didn’t want fairness any more once they saw generosity.  But even then, they would not trust the landowner to be generous.  They wanted their own version of fairness.  They saw generosity and they wanted a revised version of fairness.  They wanted generosity that seemed fair to them.

Remember Animal Farm.  This short satirical story is loaded with more than you would expect from your typical barnyard exploration of egalitarianism.  The initiating premise was that:   All animals are equal.  As the story progressed this was modified slightly:   All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Evil had taken root in the workers hired first because they envied the landowner’s generosity.  They didn’t so much covet what the other workers received, because they had received exactly the same.  They despised the generosity of the landowner.

Our human nature leads us to covet what others have.  The nature of our Master is to be generous and merciful.  Our Master certainly may dispense justice and fairness, but his mercy and generosity are far greater.

Our part is to trust.

Unconditional trust.

Conditional trust is really not trust.

Our part is to trust.

The workers who trusted and obeyed the landowner were blessed with his generosity.

Remember that this is a parable.  It is a story used to describe the kingdom of heaven.  This is a kingdom that Jesus told us was within us and breaking out all around us, so instead of trying to figure out what this tells us about some far away place:

·       It is one that calls for each of us to assess ourselves.

·       Do we truly trust God or do we bargain with him?

·       Do we cherish our blessings or compare them with what others have?

·       Are we resentful of God’s generosity?

·       Has God blessed someone that you think didn’t deserve it?

We recently considered this from Paul’s perspective.  Who are we to judge another man’s servant?

We are to focus on our relationship with God through Christ.  We should be aware of what is going on around us—we are part of a family of faith—but we are not to be distracted by how others serve God or are blessed by God.  Our value is tied to our Creator and our Redeemer and not to what we have done or received in comparison to others.

The economy of the world revolves around competition, negotiation, and a considerable amount of selfishness.

The economy of God is generosity.

The economy of God is generosity.

The economy of God is generosity.

We as God’s people should be telling the untold story of this parable—the story of God’s generosity.