a sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on September 18, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It hardly seems like three years ago that the stock market crashed, the housing bubble burst, and the economy went south, but exactly three years ago today the government began the process of bailing out failing financial institutions. Three years ago, the last time we heard this parable from Matthew in worship, we were just beginning to see the massive confusion and disruption that would occupy our lives for so long. The last time we looked together at these words, I don’t think any of us anticipated that we would still be in this position the next time we read them, yet here we are today, hearing again Jesus’ parable about God’s economics when ours are such a mess.
We’d always like to think that we are working toward the right kind of economic system,setting up everything for the fair and equitable treatment of people, offering opportunities for investment, advancement, safety, and security all along the way, and building something that will work for generations to come. We’d like to think that we are looking at economics God’s way – but something tells me that we probably aren’t.
In the parable we heard this morning from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus challenges his disciples to think differently about the economics of labor and wages and work. Here a landowner needed day laborers for his vineyard, so he went out in the morning and hired those who were waiting in the market to work for the usual daily wage. He did this several more times over the course of the day, hiring as many people as he could from those who were standing idle in the marketplace. Even just an hour before the day was done, he went out and brought in a few last workers who had not yet been hired.
At the end of the day, the owner told the manager to pay everyone, starting with the last and going to the first. The people who had been hired for only an hour of work were surely startled when they received pay for a full day’s work. Those who had worked all day got excited at this news – they figured that this landowner must be particularly generous with his workers and thought they would be paid more too! But when the next group of workers who had worked longer stepped up to be paid, they too received the usual daily wage. As each group who had worked a few more hours more stepped up, they all received the usual daily wage – the same as those who had been hired at the end of the day and worked only one hour.
The workers – especially those who had worked all day – began to grumble and complain. They said it wasn’t fair to pay people the same for different amounts of work. By their logic, if the landowner wanted to pay those hired last a full day’s wage, he should also pay extra to those who had worked all day. But the landowner rejected their complaints, noting that he had paid everyone the usual daily wage – exactly what he had agreed to pay them. He owed them nothing more, he said, and if he chose to be generous with what was his and pay other workers a full day’s wage for only a partial day’s work, that was his right. If the workers wanted to be envious because he was so generous, that was their problem, not his.
God’s economics seem to work like they do in this parable throughout most of the Bible. In God’s economics, people don’t get what they deserve – everyone gets what they need. Those who have received much are expected to give back with similar generosity. Those with greater need can look to others to help fulfill that need. And those who take more than their share are called to account for their actions.
But in our system, we think about things differently. We insist that people be paid only for exactly what they work – and look for every imaginable way to short them. We seek less and less from people to support others and insist only that everyone be given a fair shake to make it on their own. And half of Americans even think that the Bible tells us that God helps those who help themselves – when in fact it says essentially the reverse, that God helps those who cannot help themselves. We figure if our economy worked like this parable, no work would get done at all – people would just show up for an hour and get paid no matter what. People would be lazy and just milk the system for everything rather than putting any value into the economy. And without the fundamental fairness of equality of pay for the hours worked, we would lose so much productivity that the economy would just stop functioning.
Or would it? Have we ever really tried to operate in this way? Have we ever thought of ourselves as having everything we need rather than worrying about what we do not have? Have we ever moved from the human economics of scarcity to God’s economics of abundance? Sure, there are some real problems with operating like this – some people will take more than they need; some people will skip out on work or show up at the last minute because they know they will get paid anyway; some people will find a way to game the system – but are those problems any worse than our current system?
The last three years have made it all too clear that our current system is broken. The housing market is still a mess, and all indications are that we are a long way from getting everything sorted out. Millions of women and men are still unemployed or underemployed – and many of them have simply stopped looking for work because it is too depressing to continue. The rich keep getting richer, but the poverty rate is higher than ever before. While we may not technically be in a recession, things just don’t feel right for us these days, and another official recession feels like it could only be a matter of days away. No one seems to be willing to take the blame for the problem – or to take the risk of finding a real solution.
So why don’t we try God’s economics, at least in our own lives? Why don’t we approach each day with a mindset of abundance rather than a fear of scarcity? Why don’t we try to be more generous than we are fair? And why don’t we seek out ways to make sure that all people have what they need to be whole and complete? We do a lot of this as a congregation – we pay our staff the fairest wage we can afford, we give away several thousand dollars every year through the Deacons’ Fund and other mission offerings, and we offer the community special events around health and wellness that are less about what we can get out of them and more about what we can offer to others. Yet we can always offer more abundance in our world – there is no such thing as an overabundance of generosity, and that kind of grace can and will change the world.
So we ought to try it more and more, I think. Maybe we’ll find that generosity works as well as anything else we’ve tried to fix our stuck economy. Maybe in three years when we come back to this parable we’ll have a good story to tell. Maybe nothing will change – but maybe our hearts will be opened and broadened anyway.
So may God strengthen us to think about God’s economics for a change, to take generosity seriously and work to make sure that everyone has what they need so that we all can know the fullness of God’s love for others and for ourselves now and always. Amen.