Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Gracious Landowner” (Matthew 20:1-16)
September 24, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When I was in third grade at Orange Hunt Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia my teacher’s name was Mrs. Stephens. Mrs. Stephens was “old school” in the best sense. She ran a tight ship. In fact, I do not remember even seeing her smile until that November. But Mrs. Stephens took an out of control smart aleck who was a slacker with schoolwork and set me on a better path— showing me shelves in the library loaded with histories and biographies because she somehow knew I would enjoy those books, teaching me firsthand the joy of reading, a joy that has never gone away. Thank you, Mrs. Stephens.
Mrs. Stephens also taught me and the rest of us in her class something else, something that at the time was incredibly annoying and seemingly unfair, something that slowly began to make sense as I grew older but that still cuts against the grain. At the beginning of the school year, when she would ask us to line up to go to lunch or recess or P.E. we would all sprint to the front of the classroom—ducking under one another, elbowing one another, cutting off one another—doing whatever it took to be as close to the front of the line as possible.
But this behavior quickly stopped—not because Mrs. Stephens yelled at us, she never yelled at us—but because when we had finished “earning our place near the front of the line,” she went to the back of the line, where the slower, noncompetitive, “unmotivated” kids were, and gently took the hand of the last person in line and began leading us all where we needed to go.
Of course, the next day, thinking we had cracked the code, we would scramble to be last in line, but she would always pick someone else to be first in line anyway, someone who was used to being at the end of the line. So eventually when Mrs. Stephens asked us to line up as a class, we simply got in line wherever we happened to fit. The scrambling to be first stopped, because when it came to our place in line, it was not up to us, it was up to Mrs. Stephens, who always got us where we needed to go, and who as school year progressed, smiled more and more.
Today’s parable from the Gospel According to Matthew makes many people uncomfortable. It cuts against how we are hardwired to scramble to be first in line, to get what we think is due us. Jesus tells of a landowner who at several points throughout the day hired laborers for his vineyard—“early in the morning…nine o’clock…noon…three o’clock…(and finally) five o’clock” (Matthew 20:1-6). So far, no feathers have been ruffled…but that quickly changes when it comes to paying the laborers, as Jesus continues:
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.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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” (20:8-12).
Feathers had been ruffled. The grumbling had begun. And although the laborers who had worked all day had been paid exactly what had been promised them, they still felt entitled to more. And to their chagrin the landowner did not agree with them, as he replied to the leader of the grumblers:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? (20:13-15).
Then Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (20:16).
God is a God of grace, the Gracious Landowner who chooses to be gracious to all—as we read together from the psalmist today, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Psalm 145:8, The Book of Common Prayer 802). And yet, in response to God’s grace, there are often grumblers, who have spent their whole life scrambling to be first in line, who have “borne the burden of the day”, who believe they deserve more than others, and who, as the landowner put it, are envious because God is generous. Believe it or not, such grumbling about the grace of God can even occur in the church.
In today’s Old Testament lesson we see that even the prophet Jonah grumbled about God’s grace. God had sent Jonah to Nineveh to preach repentance so that the Ninevites would be spared God’s judgment, and to his shock, they listened to him and repented, and therefore as scripture tells us, “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them” (Jonah 3:10).
But instead of rejoicing, Jonah did the same thing the entitled laborers in Jesus’ parable did, he grumbled about the grace of God. Jonah did not want the Ninevites to repent and be spared; he wanted them to be punished, to get what they deserved, and so he prayed one of the oddest prayers in scripture:
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:2-3).
And of course, Jonah is not the only one offended by the grace of God, because the grace of God means God is in charge of who deserves to be first in line, not us. We live in a world that embraces what legendary actor John Houseman said in the old television commercials, “Smith Barney: they make money the old fashioned way; they earn it.” That’s how the world works, right? If you labor all day bearing “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” you should be entitled to more wages than the slackers who worked for an hour, right?
In the world, yes; but not in the kingdom of God. In another parable Jesus rebuked the grumbling religious elders who resisted God’s grace: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). In his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul puts it this way, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
This is because the Gracious Landowner received the wages of sin, death, in our place on the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus intentionally stood at the end of the line, bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” on behalf of every laborer in the vineyard, including the overachievers scrambling to be first and those who have never been first in line. Jesus offers this free gift of eternal life to all.
As a third grader I had no idea Mrs. Stephens was teaching me about grace, about how the God of grace is the One who meets us at the end of the line, gently takes our hand, and leads us where we need to go—that the grace of God, not our grumbling, has the last word. This grace is very good news, because regardless of how the world works, in the kingdom of God the Gracious Landowner, Jesus Christ, chooses to give us what we least deserve, total forgiveness and eternal life.
A couple summers ago I visited Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, home of the great Southern Gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor. Flannery was a devout Roman Catholic in the predominantly Protestant South. In a letter she wrote on December 29, 1957 she reveals her humorous view of Episcopalians:
Not long ago the local Episcopal minister came out and wanted me to get up a group with him of people who were interested in talking about theology in modern literature. This suited me all right so about six or seven of them are coming out here every Monday night—a couple of Presbyterians, the rest Episcopalians of one stripe or another (scratch an Episcopalian and you’re liable to find most anything) and me as the representative of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church (O’Connor: Collected Works 1057-1058).
When Flannery O’Connor was only twenty-five, she was diagnosed with lupus, the same disease that took her father when she was only fifteen. Nevertheless, in the midst of her suffering, she went on to write two novels and many short stories and essays over the next fourteen years until her death at age thirty-nine. As her lupus progressed she had to begin using crutches to get around. When you enter the main house at Andalusia Farm, on your left is her bedroom, with the desk where she wrote, and leaning against the wall are those very same crutches. Physically, Flannery O’Connor was used to being at the end of the line.
If you read her stories you see the thread of grace woven into them in surprising ways, just like in today’s parable—as she wrote in another letter: “The action of grace changes a character…all my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not willing to support it” (O’Connor: Collected Works 1067). In today’s scriptures neither the grumbling laborers nor Jonah were characters willing to support the grace of God—but that did not stop God from still giving that grace.
Today’s parable always reminds me of my favorite Flanner O’Connor short story, entitled “Revelation” from her 1965 posthumously published collection entitled Everything That Rises Must Converge. The main character is Ruby Turpin, a self-righteous southern lady who looks down on others, keeps her husband Claud in line, and is used to being in the front of the line. At yet at the end of this story Ruby Turpin has a stunning vision that completely catches her off guard:
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 in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom see recognized at once, as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
Flannery O’Connor then concludes the story:
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods behind her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah (O’Connor: Collected Works 653-654).
The good news of the gospel is in spite of the grumblers, Jesus, the Gracious Landowner, still chooses to give grace to all…including you.