Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2020 + Lectionary 25A
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester
Pastor Nathan Pipho

Watch Here (Minute 25:30)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

It seems obvious why the all day laborers grumbled [Matthew 20:1-16].

At the end of the day, when the laborers were paid, those who worked just one hour received a full day’s wage. But, the all-day laborers didn’t grumble when these workers got paid this exorbitant amount.

If the hourly rate was a full day’s wage, then those who worked a full eight hours were in line to receive eight (or ten, or twelve) days-worth of wages, right? Maybe they were licking their chops at the unexpected windfall coming their way? And yet, when the all day laborers were paid, it should be noted, exactly the amount they had signed up for, at exactly the time they expected to be paid … they grumbled.

It’s good for us to be clear about why they grumbled. 

  • Did they grumble because others got paid too much – that those who worked just one hour got paid a full day’s wage? 
  • Did they grumble because they got paid too little – that they should have received the same hourly rate as the part-time workers. 

Or, was it really not about the money?

Look again at verse 12 … when the workers who had worked all day, got paid exactly the same as the part-time works they grumbled “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.” The Greek Word there is isos (ee-sos) – meaning equal in quantity or quality.

Could it be they grumbled against the equality of the situation, the unfairness of a situation where the one-hour workers were made equal in status and compensation to the all-day laborers?  

Isn’t equality why Jonah grumbled in our First Reading this morning [Jonah 3:10-4:11]? At the end of the day Jonah was upset because the Ninevites, residents of the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s enemy, were made equal to the Israelites through God’s mercy and grace.   Jonah could not fathom equality with his enemies – that’s a consistent theme throughout Jonah’s story.   

When God tasked Jonah to preach repentance to the Ninevites, he booked a one-way ticket out of town in the opposite direction. After his “come to Jesus moment” in the belly of the great fish for three days, Jonah finally went to Ninevah to deliverer the message he was called to preach, though one can’t expect that he was an enthusiastic preacher.  One commentator (Pr. Hank Langknecht) suggests we might find in Jonah’s preaching in Ninevah “the reminder that, as important as we earthen vessels are in the proclamation of God’s word, the word itself is efficacious sometimes in spite of its mistreatment in the hands of those of us who proclaim it.”

And yet, the Ninevites repented!  They begged for forgiveness! “When God saw what the people of Ninevah did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” Jonah 3:10

In response Jonah grumbled: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. ‘For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,’ Jonah complained to God, ‘slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:1)

Jonah did not want equality with the Ninevites – he wanted them judged and condemned.  He believed himself superior to the Ninevites and at the end of the story he was just as angry that God didn’t save a bush that was providing him shade in the heat, as he was that God had saved 120,000 residents of Ninevah. 

But, if we pick on the all-day laborers, and on Jonah, for being angry about equality, and do not pause to reflect on the ways the all-day laborers and Jonah live in us, than we are not being honest with ourselves.  Don’t we also grumble against equality? For the sake of fairness, in the interests of getting what we deserve, don’t we desire seniority, tenure, and hierarchy?

Lutheran Pastor Hank Langknecht writes: The picture we get [of Jonah] is of a prophet who would be right at home in too many Christian communities today: red-faced, posturing, belligerent, and resentful of any suggestion that the mercies of God extend much beyond the walls of the church.”

In a former congregation, I experienced a parishioner who in demanding to be heard would say, “I was the first male baby baptized in this congregation.” He couldn’t fathom equality with new members, that new members were actually full-fledged members of the congregation who were his equals. He desired a hierarchy where long time members, and certainly the first male baptized in the congregation, called the shots and those who came late knew their place and were quiet.

We see this happening all throughout society. In the Dialogues on Race study on Tuesday nights, we’ve been discussing the ongoing impacts of centuries of racial hierarchy in this country, hierarchies that continue to exist today in subtle, sinister, and sinful ways. This past week we discussed the intersecting realities of oppression that women of color face, as they navigate systems of hierarchy based on both gender and race.   

The truth is, at our core, humans do not like equality. We use all sorts of characteristics to create hierarchies: race – gender – age – physical ability – economic class – education – religion – citizenship –  sexual orientation – profession. And then we determine worth and value based on those hierarchies and distribute wealth, privilege, and opportunity to those deemed deserving, and away from those deemed undeserving.

Today, however, God’s word catches us red-handed in our grumbling against equality. Today we encounter God’s liberating word, that makes sinners, outsiders, and our enemies, all equal to one another in God’s mercy and grace.   

The story of Jonah and Ninevah, “urged Israel to move beyond its narrow religious and ethnic boundaries and to acknowledge that God’s mercy is meant for all peoples” (Sundays and Seasons). In God’s surprising mercy – Israel’s enemies were made equal to Israel!

“It is likely that by the time of the writing of Matthew’s gospel, contemporary church leaders were being negatively compared with ones closer to the time of Jesus, and the evangelist wishes to negate such criticism” (Sundays and Seasons).In God’s surprising mercy – new church leaders were made equal to church leaders there from the beginning.

The Paulist Biblical Commentary suggests “it is likely Jesus told this parable to defend his association with those conventionally branded “tax collectors and sinners.” The parable addressed the resentment felt by those long faithfully observant of the Torah at the welcome Jesus gave to such latecomers to righteousness.”  In God’s surprising mercy – tax collectors and sinners, latecomers to righteousness, were made equal to the religious insiders there all along. 

Today’s Gospel reading is framed at the beginning and end with the phrase, “and so the last will be first and the first will be last” (19:30 and 20:16). Though one commentator suggests in this gospel story “the first are not necessarily made last, but the last are made equal to the first.”  

Yes, God’s word crashes up against our notions of fairness, worthiness, and hierarchy which we use to perpetuate inequality. God’s Word leads us past the ways we slice and dice community into haves and have nots – God’s Word leads us into a radical equality. 

The Good News today, is actually bad news in a way to those of us who desire inequality, the Good News is that there is no seniority in the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is not divided into First, Business, Premium Economy, Economy, or Basic Economy classes – boarding preference is not given to some and withheld from others. As Hank Langknecht points out, there is “No proportion or gradation in the kingdom of God. Whether the reward is forgiveness or God’s blessing or salvation itself, we either have it or we don’t.  And once you have it, you have it all.”

With faith in the promises of baptism and in the meal we share, we celebrate that sinners, that you and me, are made full citizens of the kingdom through God’s grace and mercy. Not provisional, not probationary, not part-time citizens, but full-fledged inheritors of all the promises of God. Not just some with the right characteristics – but all people, in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, are made equal citizens in the kingdom of God.

Lutheran pastor Angela Zimman suggests what it means for us to live in this good news. “It is not about keeping score,” she writes. “It is about sharing in the suffering of humanity for the sake of sharing the message of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice to everyone – especially those we judge to be unfit recipients of it.

Alive in these Gospel promises, may we resist and reject all systems of inequality. Proclaiming God’s love and grace showered upon all peoples, we work as disciples of Christ for equality among races, among genders, among all residents of earth – especially those we would deem unworthy.

May the Holy Spirit lead you to confession and repentance of the ways you both  profit from inequality and grumble against the mercies of God and against those you feel are getting more than they deserve. 

May the Holy Spirit strengthen you in the ways and times you are made to feel like an outsider.  If you are made to feel inferior and less worthy in any way, know that all the promises of God are for you – that you are made an equal recipient of grace and equal citizen in the kingdom of God.

May the Holy Spirit grant each of us the courage and grace, to pour out equal love and blessing upon all peoples in our congregation, in our communities, and in our nation.  

Thanks be to God.