The Right Place, God’s Time

Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 20/Year A ▪ September 20, 2020
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

The Right Place, God’s Time

Lord, take our minds and think through them; take our mouths and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire!

The early bird catches the worm; you snooze you lose; right place, wrong time. Anyone who applies these sayings, trying to make sense of another’s misfortune implies that the one who endures it has somehow caused it—that the chronically-late bird misses the meal of that one scarce worm; that a persons’ inattentiveness causes them to never win; and that person who shows up to the right “marketplace” at the wrong time is SOL—simply out of luck.

In Matthew’s gospel today, Jesus told a parable to describe what the kingdom of heaven was like, which upendended these less-than compassionate familiar sayings.  In Jesus’ parable both the early birds and the perceived late birds eat; those perceived as snoozers trade in their losing streak for winning; and the right place claims no wrong time.

We have the vineyard owner, one set of laborers he hired early in the morning, and a whole other set of laborers he hired throughout the day up until one hour before the end of the work day. The early hires agreed to the daily wage of one denarius—one day, one denarius. At 9am the landowner went back to the marketplace and noticed that there were other laborers whose work potential was going to waste. Unlike the early-bird hires, these laborers were hired with the guarantee from the landowner, “I will pay you whatever is right,” (v.4). He returned to the marketplace twice more, at noon and at 3pm, hiring and sending more laborers into the vineyard. and sent them also into the vineyard. So, we might assume that there was no shortage of work in the vineyard.

While the scripture does not explicitly inform us as to whether or not the laborers had been standing in the marketplace alongside the early hires or progressively showing up. But the landowner’s question to the last-hired group, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (v.6) offers a clue. The landowner had noticed them all day as he returned to the marketplace. Their response was, “Because no one has hired us” (v.7). In that one response, we hear both the willingness to be used for work, and the hopefulness, that as long as they were rightly positioned, there was still the possibility to earn something, rather than nothing.

These laborers were poor and one day’s pay, one denarius, could feed a whole peasant family for one day. Within the hierarchy of Roman society, the laborers were at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, with their livelihood dependent upon the mercy of the powerful.  Work, as it does today, meant maintaining the livelihood of their families—their very survival. And with that exchange, the landowner sent that last group into the vineyard, making them the 5 pm addition to the vastly-expanded workforce. That group would labor for only one hour.

Here’s what we know: there was no shortage of work to be done; no shortage of workers; and no apparent apprehension by the employer to hire the workers. So, where’s the twist? The landowner instructed his manager to call up the last-hired laborers and to pay them first.  And because they were paid first, the early hires, witnessed the one-hour workers receiving the usual daily wage, not a portion of it. These workers had come hours after them, and did not endure the scorching sun as they had, after all.  In their earthly eyes the reward was unjust, and they wasted no time grumbling to the manager.

Paying close attention, we can see that what really triggered them was the assault on their self-image of supremacy. They believed that they were better than the other workers who had come after them, “…You have made them equal to us…” they grumbled to the landowner, and they were offended (v.12).  From the landowner’s perspective, he had done them no injustice; as he paid them exactly the agreed upon payment—His choosing to give the others more took nothing away from the early hires. From our standpoint, the landowner was obedient to Mosaic law. We look to Deuteronomy 24:15, which says, “You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them…”  Not only did the landowner fulfill the law, but the fulfillment was done in abundance.

Thomas à Kempis’ classic devotional, The Imitation of Christ, written between 1390 and 1440, is considered the most influential work in Christian literature, with the exception of The Bible, and has been my personal devotional during the pandemic.  The Imitation of Christ identifies our human understandings and behaviors and contrasts them with what is expected of Christ’s followers—to seek and be guided by heavenly wisdom and to exhibit Christ-like behaviors.

There is a section titled, “Self-Abnegation and the Renunciation of Covetousness,” of which the following excerpt has particular relevance to our passage today:  “Those who think only of themselves and are lovers of themselves; the covetous, the curious, the pretentious…concerned with their own comforts and not the interests of Jesus Christ…are bound with chains of their own making…True heavenly wisdom goes against nature because it does not hold a high opinion of self, nor does it seek worldly renown.”

The grumbling laborers were prideful and nosey, and they coveted the perceived privilege of the one-hour workers who were called first (which means they also left first), and their equal payment.  And the chains of their own making, of which à Kempis spoke, were made with the chain links of covetousness and resentment—self-inflicted spiritual bondage.

Had the disgruntled workers been grateful for the gift of being chosen for work at all; had they focused on the gift of having additional hands to ease some of the burden; and had they appreciated the compassion and generosity of the landowner, they might have rejoiced that his ongoing hiring, meant that all of the workers and their families could eat one more day—like manna from heaven.

On any given day, at any given hour, we have the potential to be like the grumbling early hires. And, the reality is that at any given day, at any given hour, any one of us has the potential to experience the desperation and helplessness of not being able to maintain our livelihoods for ourselves and our families.

While poverty and food insecurity have always been the reality for too many families in this country, the financial devastation of this lingering pandemic has led to catastrophic consequences for our neighbors, perhaps even your own loved ones. Remember, the landowner’s full day’s payment for all took care of feeding one family for that one day; but there would be days beyond that where a full day’s pay would be needed. Jesus calls us to be like the compassionate and generous landowner, who out of our abundance can choose to ease the hardships of our neighbors, even if it is for one day or for one hour.

Brothers and sisters, we are the vineyard—and there is no shortage of work to be done in building up the kingdom of heaven within ourselves and amongst others.  We are also the willing laborers who are sent by God into the vineyard of this broken world to show up and participate in God’s mission of restoring all of creation to God’s self through Jesus Christ.

And, when we are blessed to witness God’s unrestrained and abundant grace blessing another—grace which can never be earned by his creatures—let us be set on fire to give our lives to labor in Christ’s love all the more. For our reward is not an earthly reward; it is heavenly. And, we are to wait, with hopeful expectation, for the coming of that kingdom where the inequalities of this world are no more; where both the early birds and the so-called late birds eat; where those who may snooze are not punished with loss; and where those who imitate Christ are always in the right place, in God’s appointed right time.