Laborers in the Vineyard
By Pastor Emmanuel N. ILAGAN
Matt. 20:1-16 — Sept 24, 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is good to be back and see you all again here at Trinity. I’d like to thank Pastor Longan for inviting me to preach this morning. It is a great gift from God that we are able to see friends and together gather around God’s Word and Sacrament.
Something in our Gospel lesson this morning doesn’t seem right. It seems that the owner of the vineyard was unfair to the laborers he had hired. It seems an injustice has been committed here.
The hiring of laborers in the vineyard runs a parallel here in our situation today. We see right here in New York, and even in Dallas, Texas, men – perhaps mostly from South America – who early in the morning stand at certain street corners waiting to be hired to do manual jobs. We have them in the Bronx near the 6-train station or in Queens near Home Depot.
You can talk to them on the job you want them to do, agree on the price and give them the job. Maybe some of you have availed of their services at one time or another.
In the parable the hiring of workers for the vineyard must have been during the harvest season around September in Palestine –when grapes were ready to be gathered in. Timing was important as the ripened grapes had to be brought in before the rains came; otherwise they would be ruined. It was important to do it quickly. That explains why the vineyard owner got up early in the morning to hire workers; it also explains why getting additional workers for even an hour of work was welcome.
The daily wage was at subsistence level – barely enough to put food on the table for the family. It was simply “no work, no pay, no food.” These hired laborers were therefore eager to be selected to work – that is why some of them stayed on even up to the 11th hour – hoping to at least to bring home even a little money for the family.
Thus, the laborers who were picked early in the morning were happy they were selected to be hired. Not that they enjoyed working under the heat of the sun and sweating, but at least they had a job for the day and would bring home something for their families.
As the hours go by the vineyard owner supervises the pace of the harvesting and realizes he needed more workers. He goes back to the marketplace and hires some more workers at 3-hour intervals, until just one (1) hour before quitting time.
At day’s end the vineyard owner instructs his manager to pay the workers starting with those who were hired last at the 11th hour. He pays them the full daily wage.
When the word got around on how much the latecomers were paid, those who were hired early in the morning thought they would be paid more. Perhaps while waiting in line they did the mental calculation – if those who worked one (1) hour were paid one day’s wage, therefore those who worked 12 hours would receive 12 times as much.
But to their disappointment they were also paid exactly just one day’s wage. So they send a representative from their group to complain to the vineyard owner; after all they produced more output than the rest, laboring under the heat of the sun. They tell the vineyard owner that they deserved more; that he was being unfair.
But the vineyard owner tells their spokesman: ”Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Therefore take what is yours and go. I choose to give to this last group of workers the same as I give to you it is up to me what to do with what is mine.”
That evening there were two categories of men going home – one group disappointed and sharing their resentment to their wives; and another group of men going home telling the totally unexpected “good news” to their wives and children.
So what is going on here?
David Lose, president of the Lutheran Seminar in Philadelphia, writes that the issue here is not about fairness; it is about love, expressed through generosity – because ultimately love is manifested through giving generously and looking after the well-being of the person loved.
Perhaps we can also state it this way: The issue here is not about justice; it is about grace.
Moses Mendelssohn the grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn was a brilliant, warm and compassionate young man. He was so wise that he was considered the Socrates of his time. He was called “Rabbi Moses”. The merchant Guggenheim was so impressed with his wisdom that he told Moses he would be honored to have him as son-in-law. He invited Moses for a visit to see his daughter.
Mendelssohn was shy and retiring because he was very wise and compassionate he was short, ugly and a hunchback. But he finally set out on the trip and visited Guggenheim’s daughter.
After a few days Moses made a visit again to Guggenheim’s house. Guggenheim was very kind but said, “Revered Rabbi, I must be honest with you. You are a philosopher, wise and compassionate. You will not take it against my daughter that she was shocked when she saw you, because….”
“Because I have a deformity,” said Moses. “I thought so. But may I kindly speak with her before I go?”
So he went to see the girl and they began to talk. After a while Mendelssohn spoke: “I’d like to tell you a story.” This what he said:
“As you know, according to the Talmudic saying when a child is born it is announced in heaven who the child’s wife would be. But something extraordinary happened in my case. When I was born my wife was called out for me – but it was also declared that she would have a fearful hunchback. And so I prayed to God and told Him that a maiden who is deformed will be the object of scorn and contempt. Dear God, give me the deformity and let the maiden be well-formed and beautiful.
Then Moses paused for a moment and said, “God heard my prayer and granted my wish. I am that boy and you are that girl.”
The young woman looked at Moses Mendelssohn. But this time she viewed him with different eyes. The man now she saw and later married was wonderfully attractive, a man of warmth and compassion.”
The question for us is this: Was it fairness that prompted Moses Mendelssohn to take on upon himself the hunchback and deformity so that the woman he was to marry would not be the object of ridicule and scorn?
Was it fairness that prompted the vineyard owner to give those hired laborers who worked for him the same pay – regardless of whether they worked 12 hours or just one hour?
But most importantly, was it fairness that prompted God to send His own Son to receive the punishment that we so deserve for our disobedience?
Of course the answer is “no”, it was not fairness. It was love. It was grace.
I am quite sure that many of us have heard the story of John Newton, the man who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” which is so popular it is estimated to be performed 10 million times every year. He was a slave trader who led ships that carried slaves to Britain but who eventually was converted into the Christianity. In writing the hymn Newton recognized he was wretched and unworthy; he did not deserve anything except punishment for his wrongdoing. Only God’s grace could rectify the grave wrongs he had done that affected the lives of so many fellow human beings.
I am glad Newton wrote that it was “grace” and not “justice” that found him and released him from his spiritual blindness. I am glad St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote in I Corinthians 13 that “faith, hope and love abide,” rather than “faith, hope and justice abide.”
I am glad that 500 years ago Martin Luther discovered in Holy Scriptures that God deals with us not through our ability to obey the Law nor our ability to do penance and sacrifices, but only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who is our loving and always present Savior. Amen.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 2
Davis Lose, In the Meantime, Oct. 16, 2014