First United Methodist Church
September 24th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
It's Not About the Workers
Do you remember the first time you held your child in your arms? If you haven’t had this experience personally, think about a relative or a friend who has. I don’t know if you had the same experience I did, but I remember holding my tiny little daughter and thinking, “Wow!” Words really can’t describe how I was feeling – it was kind of a combination of amazement, thankfulness, love, joy and relief all at the same time. Do you remember that? Men, how did you feel?
I ask this not because I expect your feelings to be any different, but because for most of us, the wife had the baby and the husband did not. In some cases the child was adopted, meaning that neither one of you had the baby, but you still had that first-time connection, regardless of whether it happened days after or moments after the baby was born.
Once you hold the child for the first time, the child becomes the focus, correct? We don’t look back on the labor or the pregnancy and start arguing about who deserves the baby more. We adore the baby. He or she is a gift to both of us. And I think that this is the perspective that Jesus wants us to take when we read our scriptures today.
Our scriptures offer us insight into the unique trappings of human nature. The workers in the vineyard felt like they were treated unfairly because they were treated fairly. The landowner offered each worker a sum of money, and each worker agreed to work for that amount of money. Here’s where understanding the economic and social realities of the time may change our perspective somewhat. Early every morning, day laborers gathered in the village square hoping to be hired. They literally lived from day to day; if they were not hired, they could not buy food for their families for that day. Those who were hired early in the day knew from that moment that they would not have to worry about feeding their families. Those who weren’t hired at first became more and more desperate as the day wore on, because they didn’t want to face their hungry children with no food. They remained in the village square until the end of the day because they hoped that somebody might still hire them, and a portion of a day’s wage was better than nothing at all. In this story, the workers received a full day’s wage, but they didn’t know that ahead of time, and therefore they spent a good part of the day under a great deal of stress. Although this parable isn’t really about the workers, which worker would you rather be? The one who has a job and peace of mind, or the one who gets lucky?
Our Exodus passage tells a different kind of story but touches on the same emotions that led to the jealous feelings of the contracted workers – discontent. The Israelites struggled under the rule of the Egyptians for years, serving as the slave labor who built the pyramids and countless other sturdy buildings. Finally, God sent a leader to lead them out of Egypt and once they left Egypt, the journey became more difficult. The people began to grumble and viewed the wilderness as a place of hunger and death. Food and water were in short supply. Soon they began to talk about Egypt as if it were better than the promised land, because it was a place where there had been bread and meat. They forgot about the hardships of slavery and some wondered why they had left in the first place. It didn’t take long for the people who had given thanks to Moses and Aaron for freeing them just a few days before to turn against them and begin making demands of God. Moses took this concern to the Lord and was told that every day there would be enough food for everyone. God provided quail for meat and manna for bread for the rest of the journey. Rather than condemn Israel for their worried concern, God offered grace to the Israelites, and as a result they learned to rely on YHWH for food, so that they would not fall back into slavery.
Both lessons this week remind us of God’s generosity and this is one of those times when we have to take a God-view of the world. At this time of the year I often think of the early settlers in Plymouth. With the onset of winter following a poor harvest, I wonder if they looked back on their lives in Europe and forgot about the persecution and poverty they faced there. Cold and starving, did they sometimes ask themselves, “Was it really that bad? At least we had food.”
When I think back on my life, I can come up with numerous examples that reflect the thinking of both the vineyard workers and the Israelites, and I’m sure you can too, especially with all the things this church has faced over the past few years. It is easy to become discouraged sometimes, looking back at what we had rather than to the present and the possibilities of the future.
These passages not only teach us much about ourselves, but they also teach us much about God. The Exodus passage helps us to remember that God provides for us according to what we need, rather than what we have earned. Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard drives this point home as we realize that the landowner challenges our conventional understanding of fair labor practices and forces us to consider the true meaning of grace.
Remember that in the parable of the vineyard, the first workers had a contract and were paid accordingly. The later workers were hired on faith (they were told that the landowner would do right by them), and they were paid by grace. Most likely those early workers believed in grace, just as we do. They just didn’t want it applied to somebody else.
For most of us, our sympathy is with the workers who were hired first, because they really did get a raw deal. We want to believe that the landowner should have paid those who worked all day more than those who worked for just a couple of hours. But he didn’t do that, because this parable isn’t about fair labor practices, or even about fairness in general. We can argue about it until the end of time, and we still won’t be able to justify the actions of the landowner. It’s about the generosity of God and seeing things through God’s perspective, rather than our own.
To fully understand this parable, we have to go back to our Exodus passage. Egypt had been a place where Israel ate as a reward for labor and productivity. But in the wilderness, God simply gave them manna. There was nothing exploitative about food in the way it had been in Egypt. Bread was simply a gift of grace. In the wilderness, Israel also celebrated the Sabbath. This, too, was different from Egypt. There the demands of productivity and the social reality of trying to provide food in a slave labor camp had meant working seven days a week. Now the Sabbath was included in their liberation. The people no longer had to live under the oppression of productivity. And neither do we, because we have received the grace of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Quite often we become discouraged on our Christian journey and forget what it was like to live without Christ. Think about a time when you were walking or riding a bicycle and all of a sudden you were going downhill. Sometimes the landscape is distributed so that the uphill climb is so gradual that you don’t notice it. You don’t remember going uphill, so the downhill part is kind of an unearned reward. In fact, there are some routes that I will choose intentionally, because depending on which direction I go, it seems as though I won’t ever have to run uphill. As a runner this is an amazing thing, especially for a person who grew up in West Virginia, where the hills only go up.
As a Christian, however, running downhill all the time may cause us to forget that we got to the top of the hill because of God’s grace and generosity, not because of the amount of work we put in. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a story that reminds us that God’s promise is the same for all of us. No matter what happens in our lives, God will be God, and as hard as it may seem, we have to let God be God. Some of us will realize this early in our lives and live with the joy and peace of mind that comes with knowing God’s love for us. Others won’t experience this joy and peace until much later. The reward, or the promise, however, is the same for all of us. Let us pray…
Loving God, help us to place our trust in your mercy and your compassionate love and enable us to feel your comforting power. Forgive us when we stray from your ways and wander into paths of self-pity and self-destruction. Put us back on track and give us confidence in your presence and your direction throughout our lives, for we ask these things in Jesus’ name. AMEN.