Sermon Seeds: Made Equal
Sunday, September 24, 2023
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 20 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 • Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8 • Philippians 1:21-30 • Matthew 20:1-16
The Vineyard (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
A couple of weeks ago, I went to an area hospital to visit a member of the church I pastor after she had fallen in her home. I went on Sunday after the worship service and coffee hour concluded. This particular facility was a satellite center of a major research and teaching hospital. When I went to the front desk, I found a phone on the counter. It was turned toward those approaching the desk with a sign next to it that instructed visitors to call the operator for assistance. This did not appear to indicate that someone was taking a break; rather, there was no one staffing this desk, at least on a slow Sunday afternoon. I called the operator who connected me with someone in the main office who then transferred me back to the location where I was standing and growing increasingly frustrated. After going through this routine a few times, offering potential solutions along the way, I gave up.
All I needed was her room number. I’d been in this hospital before, and I started walking along the main hallway toward the elevator bank. Once there, I saw the sign that indicated, in general terms, the units located on each floor. I made an educated guess and took the elevator to that floor. Once I got there, I gave her name at the nurses’ station. She was only a couple of steps away. I felt like I had solved a rubik’s cube–relieved, frustrated, and a little exhausted by it all. I also felt grateful that I thought to look for the unit when I could not find the person.
Over the last few years, much attention has been devoted to the struggle of recruiting, hiring, and maintaining a staff adequate to an organization’s needs. My story happened because there was not someone at that desk. While it’s possible that the hospital was cutting corners, it’s more likely that finding and retaining sufficient staff to perform all the necessary roles can be challenging. Many of us have heard of the Great Resignation prompted, or at least expedited, by the pandemic. We also know that unemployment this year has been at all-time lows. It’s not just that people aren’t looking for work; it’s that jobs are more plentiful than workers. The harvest is plentiful, and there aren’t enough laborers because they’re already working somewhere else.
Of course, my story isn’t about recruitment or employment practices. It’s not about compensation. It’s a story of hospitality…or the lack thereof. The gospel story isn’t about workers, compensation, or recruitment. It’s a story about grace in the kindom of God.
God’s grace turns our lives upside down and inside out—although it actually gets turned right side up and outside in. Jesus makes this point by tucking the parable into two bookends. In Matthew 19:30 he introduces the story by saying, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” He concludes by saying it again in Matthew 20:16—“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” In Jesus’ day (and often in our day) there were two clearly defined groups: the “firsts” who sat at the table gobbling up course after course of spiritual blessings, and the “lasts” who sat under the table waiting for a few spiritual crumbs to fall their way. According to Jesus, God’s grace threatens to upset these predictable seating arrangements: the “lasts” get raised to the best seat and the “firsts” might start missing the meals. Primarily, this story serves as a warning to the “firsts,” those who received the first invitation to the table of grace, those who had the first chance to obey and serve the living God….Jesus constantly warns the “firsts” not to take their firstness for granted. In the Gospel of Matthew God despises spiritual smugness and delights in the spiritual poverty of a Jesus-liberated heart (Mt 5:3). This theme is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scripture, where over and over again God warned his people to remember the privilege and duty of their firstness. They were chosen by God to be blessed and to bless the whole earth (see Gen 12:1-3; Is 49:6).
This story, like the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s narrative, often evokes an objection to the unfairness of treating unequal actions with equal or (seemingly) superior rewards. In both these stories, Jesus makes it clear that God is not concerned with fairness, which is not a spiritual discipline or fruit of the spirit. There’s no commandment to be fair. Fairness is a human construct that attempts to substitute for and masquerade as justice. Fairness pretends to treat everyone the same while justice attempts to make everyone whole. Pursuit of fairness stifles hospitality, generosity, and grace. Fairness pretends that everyone is equal in all things while hospitality acknowledges that we are mutually dependent upon one another. Fairness pretends we have equal access to meet our needs while generosity proclaims that we never lose by sharing our abundance. Fairness encourages us to live in shame, fear, and deprivation. Grace invites us to live as forgiven, free, and complete.
One wonders how this parable of the reign of God was understood by the hearers. Who would they associate with the “latecomers”? Are they the “sinners and Gentiles” that are being included in the community? Are the grumbling workers the religious leaders who have all the usual objections to this inclusion? (9:9–13; 11:16–19) Or perhaps the grumblers are members of Matthew’s community who—like Peter, James, and John—are expecting special advantages for their great sacrifice but find that God’s grace is extended equally to all. However the characters in the parable are understood, this is a story of reversals and unexpected equalization. It presents a generosity that goes beyond calculation to grace. Hearers today may make theological connections. Our “calculating” ways are brought up short by God’s incalculable grace.
Once again, Jesus exposes the contract between the world we know and the one we seek in the kindom. The first-last dynamic is an explicit reversal found in a gospel full of them. It’s not that the first become less worthy and the last become privileged. The good news is that we need not compete with one another to be valued. We get to participate in and receive the blessings of the kindom without respect to our contribution. There’s no seniority clause or performance appraisal in God’s economy. The rule is abundance. We need not jockey for power, position, or privileges when we all get to feast at the table Jesus prepares for us. We all find our place in a house not constructed by human hands but by the Architect of beloved community.
The content of his instruction concerns household matters….Why this cluster of material on households? Various philosophical traditions (Aristotelian, Stoic, neo-Pythagorean) as well as Hellenistic Judaism (first-century writers Philo and Josephus) understood the household as the basic unit of a city or empire. They envisioned ideal households as a microcosm of imperial society. Households were, then, to be patriarchal and androcentric, reflecting and constituting elite imperial society in privileging male “power over.” The husband/father/master was to “rule over” wife/children/slaves. He provided the household’s economic well-being and represented it in society. Given this link between households and empires, Jesus’ manifestation of “the empire of the heavens” predictably includes instruction on households. The Gospel imitates this cultural pattern, just as it continues to privilege male power in recognizing twelve special male disciples (among other disciple figures, including women). Yet simultaneously, it also contests this dynamic to some extent…. A parable about a wealthy householder and day laborers exemplifies God’s empire. It in part treats all people equally (20:12), reversing hierarchy.
Human constructs create hierarchies in virtually every facet of life, interaction, and state of being. As a result, the way of the kindom may surprise, confuse, or even disappoint us. Of course, the Holy One is not obliged to meet our expectations. We are the ones invited to reorient ourselves toward the work we were born to do. We were made for this.
In God, we are made equal.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“During the past seven days of this holy pilgrimage, while undergoing the rituals of the hajj [pilgrimage], I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God—not only with some of this earth’s most powerful kings, cabinet members, potentates and other forms of political and religious rulers —but also with fellow‐Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, and whose hair was the blondest of blond—yet it was the first time in my life that I didn’t see them as ‘White’ men. I could look into their faces and see that these didn’t regard themselves as ‘White.’”
—Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz)
For Further Reflection
“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ” ― Carrie Fisher
“And face-to-face with the lush vineyard, I feel my worries melt away. The grapes glow with that magical golden sunlight, but from here, it feels far more real. I turn and turn, drinking in the sights of the green vines, thick with plump grapes, the same sage green as the broad leaves fluttering in the breeze. Dusty paths stretch between the rows, and I want to walk through them forever, listening to the almost-quiet of this strange, beautiful world.” ― Julie Abe
Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” — Karl Barth
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite members of the faith community to consider how they may relinquish some area of privilege in order to cultivate generosity and gracefulness as a communal practice and value proposition.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 • Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8 • Philippians 1:21-30 • Matthew 20:1-16
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=160