The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 20:1-16

  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;  and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  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.  10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,  12 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.’  13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’  16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s something about this parable that makes us nervous.  Most of us, anyway.  If we’re honest, we really don’t like the idea that the workers who were only in the field for an hour or two got paid the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  It’s not fair.  It offends our sense of justice even if it is Jesus who’s telling the story.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it any  easier to swallow. 

We have a built-in sense of fair play and fair pay and when they don’t go the  way we think they should, we tend to let people know how we feel about it.  Here’s an actual letter written to the head of a government relief agency: 

Dear Sir:
It seems worthwhile to call your attention to what is going on in nearby Hoboken relative to “relief”…True relief is approved by the people of the USA but merely making loafers out of individuals who don’t want to work is definitely to the detriment of the country and is disastrous to the taxpayers of the country. If the situation as it now exists is not soon changed the voters of the country will give the present administration a thorough cleanout next November. 

Yours truly, [1]

That letter was written in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, to Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.  The writer of that letter didn’t feel that workers on local WPA projects were being required to work long enough or hard enough for the money they were receiving.  He didn’t think it was fair that his tax dollars were paying salaries to people he saw as “loafers.”

A sense of what’s fair and what’s not may be built into us.

In 2003, Psychologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal did an experiment with female Capuchin monkeys.  They trained the monkeys so that each time they did the “work” of bringing them a granite pebble they got “paid” with a slice of cucumber.  The monkeys really like cucumber, so they learned to do this “work” very quickly.  Then one day Brosnan and deWaal gave one of the monkeys a grape instead of a cucumber slice as payment for her pebble.  Capuchins like cucumber, but grapes are their absolute favorite food.  All the other monkeys saw this and there was suddenly much excitement.  Wow!  Grapes!  But when the next Capuchin came to redeem her pebble and instead of a grape she got the usual slice of cucumber, she went ballistic.  She threw the cucumber back at the handlers and started shrieking at them and violently shaking her cage.  After repeating this experiment several times, the monkeys went on strike and wouldn’t bring their pebbles at all any more unless they got paid in grapes. 

 Not too long ago the Governor of Massachusetts was on a radio talk show outlining plans to provide temporary, safe assistance for some of the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who had been crossing our southern border.  One woman who called in asked,  “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?”[2]

A lot of people would ask that same question.  A lot of Christians, concerned about immigration issues, would ask that same question. Why should we take responsibility for this?  Why should we take responsibility for a lot of other things?

Why should I have to wear a mask?  What about my personal freedom?

Why should I have to take responsibility for standing against racism?  Why do I have to learn to recognize white privilege and other systemic and cultural factors that have made life difficult for persons of color?  What does that have to do with me?

Why should we be concerned about income inequality?  

I think the short answer from Jesus, especially as we see him in Matthew’s gospel, would simply be we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

For Jesus and for his followers, fulfilling righteousness, or, more simply, doing the right thing is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew.  It starts in chapter 3 when Jesus is baptized.  John the baptizer says, “This is all wrong, you should be baptizing me!”  And Jesus replies, “Let’s just do this for now ‘so that all righteousness may be fulfilled.’”  In other words, it’s the right thing to do.  

In chapter 7, after telling us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, Jesus reminds us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  In other words, those who do the right thing.   

This theme of doing the right thing is expressed with crystal clarity in chapter 25 where Jesus uses the metaphor of separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous.  The ones who enter the kingdom and inherit eternal life are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, heal the sick and so on.  They’re the ones who do the right thing and in doing it they minister to Jesus, himself.

The parable in today’s gospel is another example of a “do the right thing” story even though our gut reaction to it is that the landowner is doing the wrong thing. 

We usually call this story The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The problem with that title is that it puts our focus on the workers and the vineyard, the place where they’re laboring all day in the hot sun.  That means that we’re going to have a tendency to be  thinking about this from the workers’ point of view.  But what happens if we call this story The Land Owner and the Marketplace? 

The story starts with the landowner and ends with the landowner, so let’s keep our focus on him.  He goes to the marketplace at 6 in the morning and hires all the laborers he needs for the day.  He goes back to the marketplace at 9 and sees that there are still workers who haven’t been hired.  Now if we’re Jesus’ original audience listening to this, we have assumed that he doesn’t really need any more workers—a smart landowner, and you don’t get to be a landowner without being smart—would have hired all the workers he needed the first time out.  But he sees workers who haven’t been hired by anyone else, so he hires some of them. He goes back at noon and it’s the same thing so he hires some more.  Then again at 3 and finally again at 5, almost at the end of the work day.  

One has to wonder, of course, why those workers are available.  Why are they “standing there idle?”  It’s tempting to make up stories for them, but there’s no need to and it doesn’t really suit the purpose of the parable.  They’re there because, as one of them puts it so succinctly, “No one has hired us.”  There are more laborers than there is demand for labor.  End of story.  

At the end of the day it’s time to pay them.  The landowner had agreed with the first workers he hired that he would pay them each a denarius, the usual fair rate for a day’s labor.  A Roman silver denarius would feed a family for 3 to 6 days depending on the size of the family, so these first-hired workers are happy to make the deal.  It’s decent pay.  When the landowner hired the others later in the day he simply said he would pay them “whatever is right.”  

The landowner pays the last-hired workers first, and it turns out that his idea of “what is right” is a denarius;  a full day’s pay for an hour’s work.  The workers who had been hired first see this and think they’re in for a huge bonus, but when they only get paid a denarius, in keeping with their contract, they’re upset.  “They began to grumble against the owner of the estate, saying, ‘These last worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

We sympathize, but the landowner has a point when he replies, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what is yours and be gone. I choose to give to this last man 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?’

Okay, so fair enough.  A deal is a deal.  Still, it all seems kind of unfair to those workers who were out in the vineyard all day. So what’s going on here?

Well to really understand this we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the parable where Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Those words are our clue that Jesus is telling us a story about kingdom values, God’s values.  And it’s important to remember when we think about these values that Jesus isn’t just talking pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  Jesus was announcing that the kingdom was enngiken, arriving, obtainable, drawing near, within reach.  Jesus was expecting us to embrace God’s vision and then to work to make it a reality “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus says that this is a parable about economics and righteousness—this world economics and this-world righteousness as God would like to see us practicing them.

Why does the landowner go out repeatedly to hire more workers when he already hired all he needs with his first visit to the marketplace?  He hires the others because they need jobs and he can afford to hire them.  It’s that simple.  

In hiring them, even the last ones hired, he gives them the dignity of earning a wage so they don’t have to beg.  He provides for their families so they don’t have to rely on the charity of the community, and thus he preserves the community’s resources.  He honestly meets the terms of his contract with the first ones hired and he generously goes beyond the expectations of those hired later.  He performs both an act of righteousness and a mitzvah, an act of generosity.  He is focused on the needs of the community more than on his own needs.  He voluntarily distributes his wealth so that the community is more stable.  

At the end of the parable when the early workers imply that he is being unfair he asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  That, at least is how it’s translated.  What it actually says in the Greek is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

It’s a reminder that how we see things is vitally important.  

Years ago when a number of players for the Yankees were renegotiating their contracts there was scuttlebutt that a number of them were unhappy with the terms they were being offered.  A reporter happened to catch Yogi Berra as he was leaving the owner’s office and asked him if he was happy with the terms of his contract.  Yogi replied, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!”

We live in a time that’s ripe for change, Kairos moment, and so much of what happens next depends on how we see the world.  Is our eye evil because God is generous?  Or can we see God’s astonishing generosity and learn to emulate it, to copy it, to practice on earth as it is in heaven?

In our rite of baptism and in our affirmation of baptism, we have vowed “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

In other words, we vowed to be like the owner of the vineyard, to see the world with God’s vision of generosity.  Because it’s the right thing to do.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu

[2] Paul Santmire, Preaching On Creation, https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/sunday-september-18-24-year-1-santmire/

Make a Wish

Make a wish—

If you could make one wish, not for yourself, but for the world, what would it be? If you could make one wish for your significant other, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids, all your friends and neighbors and family, for your town, for your state, for your country, for the world—what would it be? What would you wish for?

How many of you would wish for Peace? That’s a pretty good wish. I think that’s what most people in the world want. Almost everybody wants to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about violence erupting around us at any moment. There aren’t too many people who actually enjoy conflict, and those who do usually end up getting some kind of professional help or incarceration, whichever comes first—although some seem to go into politics. A good debate is okay. Fighting not so much. Sometimes opposition can help us sharpen and clarify what we’re thinking or planning, but opposition can be friendly. It doesn’t have to disintegrate into aggression. Competition has it’s benefits. It can bring out the best in us, it can even be fun when you know it’s part of a game. But it’s pretty destructive as a lifestyle. Debate, opposition, competition, they all have their place but they can all too easily degenerate into conflict if we don’t learn how to rein them in. And we have to rein them in if we’re going to have peace.

What does it take to make peace? What does it take to remove the seeds of conflict? If you’re going to wish for peace, aren’t there other things you need to wish for first?

If you want peace, wouldn’t you first have to wish away greed? Wouldn’t you have to eliminate coveting? Wouldn’t you have to find a way to short-circuit the human tendency to always want more, even if it means that someone else gets less? Wouldn’t we have to find a way to fill that endlessly hungry place in the human heart that never feels like it has enough? Wouldn’t you have to remove the desire to keep score by means of money and possessions and status symbols? Wouldn’t you, in fact, have to eliminate the desire to keep score at all? And wouldn’t you need to find a way to take away the fear of running out of money before you run out of life?

And what about Tribalism? Wouldn’t we need to wish that away if we’re going to have peace? How about our tendency to be fiercely territorial? Wouldn’t we have to tone down nationalism? Wouldn’t we need to develop a healthier kind of patriotism, pride in our country that’s rooted in a deep respect for all that’s good and reveres the price that others have paid to create and sustain and maintain that goodness but at the same time a patriotism that isn’t blind to our faults and defensive about our shortcomings? And wouldn’t we need to open our eyes to what’s good and worth celebrating in other countries and cultures, in other histories? Shouldn’t we wish for all that if we’re going to wish for peace?

For peace to happen, what would we have to do with religion? Wouldn’t every religion have to dial back their tendency to insist that they’re the only ones—that we’re the only ones—who get it right, who understand God, who really get Jesus? Wouldn’t we have to learn to find some peace in our own ranks with the idea that our voice is a valuable and important instrument in the symphony, but it’s not the only instrument playing the music of heaven? Wouldn’t we all, for the love of God in whom we live and move and have our being, for the love of God who is among us and within us and beyond us, for the love of God who transcends all knowing and yet is more intimate with us than our most dearly beloved fellow passengers on this earth—shouldn’t we learn, for the love of God, to practice some sincere humility in our God talk? Shouldn’t we wish for understanding and cooperation between religions if we’re going to wish for peace?

To have peace, wouldn’t we have to first get rid of every last vestige of racism so that nobody feels put upon simply because of their color? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the existence of our own latent or not-so-latent bigotries?  Wouldn’t we all have to purge ourselves of all those lingering internal voices and habits and conditioning that want to assert that some people are better or even more human than others simply by virtue of the color of their skin?  Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge that some of us have blithely and blindly lived lives of privilege simply because of the color of our skin while others have had to develop stringent habits of caution for the same reason in another color?  Wouldn’t we have to take a hard look at the painful history of racism and not simply suppress it deep in our collective psyche if we want to be healed of it? If you want to have peace, wouldn’t you have to wish away all those ugly words we have used to describe each other when the other doesn’t look like us? To have peace, wouldn’t we have to wish for something the opposite of color blindness—a what?—a celebration of color? a gratitude for color? a love of color in every shade of humanity? Shouldn’t we wish for that if we’re going to wish for peace?

If we really want peace, if that’s our deepest, truest wish, wouldn’t we have to first wish away sexism and paternalism and patriarchy and every other ism and archy that wants to maintain systems in which half the human race has more value, more power, more rights, more freedom than the other half simply because of gender, as if that’s some kind of accomplishment? If we really want peace, doesn’t it mean that we have to discard archaic and primitive structures of our societies and cultures and religions that not only have outlived their usefulness, but that were, in fact, never really useful at all, structures that evolved simply because one half of humanity was generally more capable of physically dominating and subduing and forcing its will on the other half? Isn’t it time, for the sake of peace, for us to take a step above our cousins the chimpanzees in this particular matter? If we really want peace, should we not wish first for real parity between the sexes?

And doesn’t our endless focus on differing sexualities undermine our quest for peace? Doesn’t the fact that someone is always ready to hate or censure or exclude or diminish someone else because of who they are attracted to or who they love or even because they are still trying to understand who they are kind of get in the way of peaceful coexistence? Aren’t we all children of God even if some have different love interests? Just because some men wandering through Judea 4000 year ago found certain things distasteful, are we bound to their prejudices forever? They also didn’t care for shrimp, barbequed ribs and pulled pork and we seem to have got past that okay. So wouldn’t it be a step toward peace if we could all just stop worrying about sexuality and realize that in God’s creation it seems to come in a variety of flavors?

If we’re going to wish for peace, wouldn’t it make sense to also wish that there would not be so many weapons at large in the world and that they were not so readily at hand?

If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish away hunger and homelessness? Don’t people fight for food and shelter?  Wouldn’t you be tempted to if you didn’t have it? If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish for health and healthcare? And should we not wish for equal access to systems and medicines and technologies that heal and sustain life? If we’re going to have peace, shouldn’t we eliminate the possibility of people ruining their financial health just to maintain their physical health?

If we’re going to wish for peace, shouldn’t we first wish for justice? When the people are chanting “no justice, no peace” in the streets, isn’t it more than a slogan?  Isn’t it a prophetic voice calling us to make the rough places plain and the crooked straight so that peace has a straight and easy pathway to our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation and our world?  If we’re going to wish for peace, don’t we first have to wish for equity and fairness and level playing fields? If we’re going to have peace, don’t we first need to eliminate injustice and replace it with restorative justice? In fact, isn’t justice the one word that encompasses everything we need to have peace?

Of course, there is another way. You can simply eliminate everyone who doesn’t see things the way you do. You can eliminate everyone who doesn’t look like you or think like you or worship like you or vote like you or love like you or contribute as much to society as you think you do, or isn’t the same sex as you, everyone who you think is competing with you simply because they want the same basic necessities that you want. In the end, if you’re really diligent, you would, in fact, eliminate everyone who is not you.

How peaceful would that be?