God's Big Love / Even Our Virtues Burned Away

Matthew 20:1-16

God’s Big Love / Even Our Virtues Burned Away

September 24, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          The Parable of the Landowner is . . . upsetting.  It’s unfair and unrealistic, and no way to run a business.  Fortunately, it wasn’t intended as payroll advice.  The story is intended to tell us about the kingdom of heaven--that is, to tell us about God and about our life together with God. 

          Let me share with you three things this parable suggests to me about the God Jesus wants us to know:

  1. God is more concerned with grace and love than with work and worth.  I know, we’ve heard that before, right?  We’re saved by grace through faith, not by works lest anyone should boast.  We say we believe that, and probably we do.  But when Jesus puts it in the form of this story, it catches our attention, doesn’t it? 

     God doesn’t give us good things because we’ve worked for them, but because we need them and because God loves us.  And God doesn’t give some of us more good things because we’ve done more for God; God gives each of us what we need because God loves us.  God’s grace doesn’t keep score.  Grace doesn’t track our hours.  Grace doesn’t rank us by merit or worth.  Grace is simply given to us because God loves us.  That’s one thing this parable tells us about God.

  1. God works out of an assumption of abundance.  God created everything and called it all “very good.”  When there were 5000 people and not much food, the disciples were afraid there wasn’t enough.  But Jesus believed, and there was enough for everyone and baskets left over—an abundance!  In the parable, not only did the landowner have enough to pay the first workers a denarius, or the usual daily wage, turns out he had enough to pay all the workers that much—an abundance! 

     And an assumption of abundance leads to generosity.  Having more than enough, God just lavishes love around.  Children often fear that if their parents have another child, there will be less love for them.  But at least with the best of parents, that’s not how it works.  There’s enough love for the first child and the new baby, and the next, and even the next.  God’s love is not a limited supply, but a boundless ocean, and therefore God can be as generous as God chooses to be.

  1. Finally this:  God’s main concern is not making a profit, nor getting in the crop, but the people.  The landowner doesn’t hire more workers because he needs them, but because they need him.  One commentator says: this is a story “about a God who wants everyone in the vineyard.”1  God is not concerned that everyone work hard.  God doesn’t care if the process is unfair.  God doesn’t mind if unworthy people sneak in.  God just wants everyone in.  God is like the grandma who is not content until every son and every daughter, every grandchild and every cousin, until everyone is at the table.  To grandma, old disputes don’t matter, how far you have to drive doesn’t matter, the fact that some brought food and helped cook while some just plopped down in a chair doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that everyone is at the table. That’s what God is like.

 

          Now if we learned things only about God in this parable, it would be an interesting little story, pleasant even.  The difficulty in the story, the rub,  is that we also learn things about ourselves--unflattering things, uncomfortable things.  Or let me not speak for you:  I learn unflattering and uncomfortable things about myself from this story.

  1. For example, God is more concerned with grace and love than with work and worth.  And I love that about God, but there’s something inside me that doesn’t like that, that resents that about God.  I’m not the only one who felt that way, am I?  When you, who had worked all day, found out the landowner was paying those who’d only worked an hour or two the usual daily wage, you began to expect a little something extra in your paycheck, right?  And when you didn’t get it, you felt, what? Angry?  Cheated?  Taken advantage of?  I mean, yes, we got what we agreed to.  Yes, it’s a reasonable wage.  The trouble isn’t what I got.  The trouble is what they got—unearned, unfair.  I mean, if it’s going to be like that, why did I bother to work all day?  What life lesson does this teach those freeloaders?  We think we’re in favor of God’s grace . . . until someone else receives it.  And then it doesn’t sit quite right.
  2. Here’s a second thing we learn about ourselves from this story:  while God has an assumption of abundance, we have a model of scarcity.  Those who worked all day felt like they had less when those who worked fewer hours got the same amount.  Even though they had exactly what they’d been promised, an amount they’d once been happy with, it felt like less when someone else got it too.

     We’re like that, aren’t we?  Cathy Davis and I went to a seminar on “Healthy Relationships,” and the leader talked about how if your friend develops another relationship, you’re afraid you’ll get less friendship from them because someone else is getting friendship from them too. Of course, that’s probably not true.  Your friend may become an even better, more caring person because of this other relationship.  Maybe we can all three hang out together, and you’ll have more friendship.  But we still feel that way.  It’s a model of scarcity.

  1. Finally, God just wants everyone to be in the vineyard.  And we want that too . . . sort of.  But we also want to be special.  When those who worked all day grumbled to the landowner, they said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  They didn’t mind if these lesser creatures got in the vineyard; they just didn’t want to be their equals.  They wanted to be, well, special.  I know, it doesn’t sound very flattering when put that way.  But you felt it, didn’t you?

 

          If this were the only place in the Bible where Jesus said things like this, I might just let it pass, not bother point these things out to you.  But of course, there’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the father forgives his wayward younger son and kills for him the fatted calf, only to have his hard-working older son complain, “Hey, where's my fatted calf?  What am I, chopped liver?”  And essentially the father tells him to get over it and welcome back his brother.

          Jesus praises the idle sister Mary over the hard-working sister Martha, and it doesn’t sit well with Martha.  Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners and tells the rich to give away what they’ve earned.  He makes the hero of his story not the well-respected priest or Levite, but a despised Samaritan.  And he says he came not for the righteous and the well, but for sinners and the sick.  We pastors, of course, prefer the hard-working, the righteous and the well.  It just goes to show you, if you needed further proof, that pastors aren’t Jesus.

 

          Flannery O’Connor writes in one of her short stories about a comfortable, middle-class Southern lady--with 1950’s attitudes--Mrs. Turpin. She liked to thank Jesus for not making her poor or too rich, for not making her lazy or black, and especially for not making her white-trash.  Mrs. Turpin has a humiliating experience, which shakes her sense of superiority.  And at the end of the story, this experience results in a vision:

          There was only a purple streak in the sky, writes O’Connor, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. . .  She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of Blacks in white robes. . . And, last of all, bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and her husband, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable and respectable as they had always been. . .  They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.  In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. 

          At length she got down . . . and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house.  In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward in the starry field and shouting hallelujah.2

 

          And we want to say, “But I want to be more than just “in.”  I’ve worked all these hours.  I’ve got all these lovely virtues.”  But then we notice that even our virtues have been burned away, useless.  We might want to say, “I’m not sure I even want to be in, if those people are going to be in too.”

          But God just says, “That’s okay.  You don’t have to want to be in.  But you’re still in, because I love you.”  

 

          If God’s love is at the heart of our life together, then what we have to do is let God’s love be at the heart of our life together.  Not our hard work, not our fine virtues, not our rules and our superior opinions.  You’re in because God loves you.  And I’m in because God loves me, but I’m no more or no less in than you.  And the person you least want to be in is also in, because God loves them.  We have to let God’s love be at the heart of our life together. . .  It’s harder than it might seem.

 

1 Craig Kocher, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (September 9, 2008), 2.

2 Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” Everything That Rises Must Converge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).

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