Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Sermon - "Scandalous Grace"
Series - "Here to There" Lent Week 5 of 5 Preached March 29, 2020, at the 9:30 am Virtual Worship
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown
Its Lent, the 40-plus days from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter.
Today is the last of 5 sermons from Matthew 17 to Matthew 21, and the theme, “Here to There”. We’ve been looking over what Jesus went through from the Mount of Transfiguration, where everything was bright and shiny and amazing, to Palm Sunday, where everything was about to turn, and wondering what we could learn from him on our own journey into a season of unknowns.
Today, we turn to Matthew 20. Let’s pray, and listen for the Word of the Lord…
Scripture Matthew 20:1-19
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius [a full fair days wage] for the day (‘s work) and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You (can) also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long?”
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You (may) also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius (a whole day’s wage)! 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But the landowner answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work (a day) for a (day’s wage) [denarius]? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you resentful because I am generous?’
16 “Just so (in the Kingdom of heaven) the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
17 Now Jesus was headed up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. But on the third day he will be raised to life!”
This too is the word of the Lord…
I have 11 versions of the song “Amazing Grace” in my iTunes library. I didn’t mean to do that, but over time, it just happened. So far, my Amazing Grace collection has versions from folks like Judy Collins, Joan Baez as a singalong with her concert audience, Willie Nelson, Alabama, Ray Charles with the London Symphony, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a punk Americana version by Ani Defranco, a contemporary Gospel version by the group Selah, a piano soloist version by Ralph Russell, a bagpipe solo version, and an acoustic guitar solo by Shinobu Sato. Each of them has their own unique feel and flavor, but underneath is the same song that apparently means so much to so many, including me.
When Jesus told this parable of the workers in the vineyard, it was his version of Amazing Grace long before the song was written. As sentimental as we might feel about the song, Jesus’ version of Amazing Grace as less soothing and comforting, but more rattling and confusing.
The way Jesus tells of God’s Amazing Grace, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a land owner who hires folk at the beginning of the day and promises a full day’s pay for a full day’s work. Then this owner keeps on hiring anybody he sees all through the day; he hires at mid-morning, he hires at noon, he hires again in mid-afternoon, and he even hires those who are still standing there at late afternoon when the sun and sky have begun to change color.
When the sun touches the horizon and the day is over, he tells his manager to gather everyone together to receive their pay and adds two special instructions. First, “Pay the ones who got here last, first,” and second, he whispers into the managers ear, “Pay them all the same. Anyone who worked, no matter how long they worked, give them all the same, a full day’s pay.”
The last ones to arrive, the 5 o’clockers, are called to the pay-table first. They line up and get their pay. Its too heavy. Its a whole denarius, a whole day’s wage. Can you imagine the shock, the doubt? Has the manager made a mistake? Is this right? They might say to the manager, “Uh, sorry, we are the ones who got here the latest, sir.” The manager says, “Yes, I know”, and glances over to the landowner. They, too, turn toward the landowner, whom I imagine in overalls and well-worn boots, sitting on the back of a pick-up truck with the tailgate down, whittling on a stick. They see from him a wry grin, a wink, and a small nod.
“WOO HOO! Yes! Wow! Thank you! Thank You! Can we come back tomorrow? Wait till I tell my wife! Wait till I tell my husband! Wow! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Can you imagine how their energy spills over onto the rest of the crowd. “What happened? What’s going on?” “The owner has paid them a full days wage!” “What? They only worked a few hours.” “Yeah, I know, but the owner was generous.”
The earlier ones begin to do the math. They began to imagine for themselves, “Geesh, if the landowner paid those late-comers a full day’s wage for just a few hours of work, imagine what we are going to get!” They assume since they’ve been there longer, or worked harder, or given more, they deserve and will get more attention and reward.
The line moves forward, and the manager puts coins in each of their hands, and they count them. The ones who came at 3 o’clock get a full days wage. “Wow, that is generous. Thank you. Thank you.” The ones who came at 1 o’clock also get a full days wage for a half day’s work. “Okay, yes, thanks.” The ones who came at 10 o’clock-ish and maybe worked three-fourths of the day also get a denarius, a full days wage. “Yeah, okay, uh… excuse me… oh, nevermind.” Then, the ones who were hired first, who actually did a full day’s labor, who had been there the longest and worked the hardest through the hottest times, they stick out their hands, feel the metal settle into their palms, scrape their fingernails through the coins to find they too were paid a denarius, a full and fair day’s wage for a full day’s labor.
They grumble against the landowner. “You paid them the same as us, even though they didn’t earn it, even though they didn’t deserve it? We worked the whole day, and we worked through the hottest part of the day. They didn’t. They shouldn’t be given the same! We deserve more because we worked harder. You wanna pay them extra, fine, but that means you have to pay us extra too. To be fair, we have to be compensated better than them, because we deserve it, earned it, and they didn’t, and by paying them the same, you have made them equal to us.”
The way Jesus sings it, we should probably call his version scandalous grace! One commentary I read om this text said, “We wonder if grace does not undermine the whole reason for being good, for observing standards, for keeping rules, for living justly. We second guess a God who breaches the system and equalizes pay like this.”
Amazing, scandalous Grace seems to suggest our time in the field and our efforts with the hot sun on our backs don’t matter. Grace seems to suggest we could spend our whole lives doing whatever we want, as long as we make it into the field before sundown.
Grace is not the way we run businesses. Imagine if we paid all employees the same, a fair, living wage, no matter what education or degree they have, no matter how long they’ve been with the company.
Grace is not the way we do relationships. Imagine if we gave the same time and attention to our brand new friend as we give to our lifelong friend. Imagine if we shared our table and our wine with someone we met the same as we do with someone we’ve known for years.
Grace is not always the way we do church. Imagine if the first time visitor or the newest member, who’s hasn’t been around very long or given the same hours in ministry or mission, or given the same resources to buildings and budgets was treated as equal to charter or founding members.
In our world, most things operate on merit. We expect rewards and consequences, resources and punishments to come to those who deserve them, for things to be fair, meaning proportional. We might even imagine God operates on merit. Perhaps you’ve heard a preacher or two in the world dare imagine those who suffer must have disappointed God, and those who have plenty must have satisfied God. Perhaps you’ve heard someone look upon those who are sinking or barely treading water, and ask “What’s their problem? Why aren’t they swimming harder?” Our world assumes to operate on merit.
The Kingdom of Heaven operates on grace, God’s undeserved, unmerited, unearnable love. All God’s creation is compensated with God’s grace according to God’s love, not according to works or hours. In the kingdom of heaven, Grace is given by God to whom God chooses, when God chooses, in whatever amount God chooses.
When God gives grace out in this way, in such a ridiculously generous and equal way, some, usually those most in need, will feel graced and celebrate. Others, usually those who feel like they’ve been good and worked hard and tried their best, will grumble and feel cheated. Those others are suddenly equal, despite their being so lazy or so late?
Note, we cannot earn grace. Grace finds us. The song goes, “I once was lost, but now am found.” Not one of the workers searched, knocked, or found their way to grace. The landowner found all of them, at various times and stages and in various conditions and situations and places. The landowner found them all and brought them all to work together in the landowner’s vineyards. Then, by grace, the landowner paid them all the same, regardless of their differences. That’s equal radical abundant scandalous generous amazing grace.
We don’t know where we are in the line. We all could have shown up a little sooner. We all could have done more. We all have been invited by God to get to work, but not jumped in the truck. Still, this God keeps showing up, asking us to come help grow God’s kingdom on earth, as it is already in the heavens. This God promises a full, fair, generous wage to all workers no matter what they offer, or how long they give it. So lets be excited to be invited. Let’s help others through this time however we can. And let’s celebrate the radical, scandalous, amazing grace of God that loves us all, and brings us all home.
To this God be all the glory and honor, now and forever more. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown