Matthew 20:1-16

My friend, Karen, has a daughter Emily. When Emily approached the sometimes challenging age of thirteen, the two of them sparred regularly; mostly over what Karen—single mom and fulltime pastor—was failing to provide or neglecting to do to keep Emily perfectly satisfied. “It’s not fair” Emily would complain, over and over and over again.

After a particularly trying weekend full of negotiating, angry words, and grumbling on both sides, Emily demanded that her mom drop everything and drive her across town NOW to see her friend. And NO it could NOT wait until school the next day.

Having had quite enough, Karen looked her puffed up daughter straight in the eye and said “Emily, you are not the sun and I am not one of your planets.”

As in this very human family, there is a proper way of ordering things in the world of God’s making. We are not the sun, and God is not one of our planets. Prone as we are to posit God as an extension of our wants, our needs, our desires, God refuses to be downsized or domesticated to serve our purposes. God is God. And we are not. (Sweet)

Jesus shines light on the difference between our desires and the desires of God’s holy purpose in this morning’s parable. He draws a contrast between fairness and generosity; between notions of merit and the experience of grace. We demand fairness. God gives grace. It makes us crazy.

The first workers hired to labor in the vineyard are grumbling. At day’s end, the landowner—God in this parable—utilizes a stunning; some would say reckless; pay scale. Those hired at sunrise, and at nine and at noon and at three and those hired at five—who worked only one hour—receive exactly the same wage.

The first hireds complain bitterly; adrenaline pumping, resentment rising. Having borne the heat of the day, having endured the scorching sun, they believe they deserve more than the latecomers. Getting right to the heart of the matter, they raise the question of merit. How is this fair? You have made them equal to us!

The landowner—God—invites the first hireds to consider the possibilities of grace. “My friends, I have dealt fairly with you. I have paid you exactly as I promised. Surely I may do as I wish with my own money. Surely you do not begrudge me my generosity?”

Actually, we do. We do begrudge this extravagance. For the parable exposes us—as individuals, as churches and communities, as a nation. We evaluate almost everything through the lens of money.

We are earners, tracking our pay stubs, our frequent flyer miles, our Starbucks rewards. And as earners, we know fair when we see it. Equal pay for equal work? Fair. A reward for going the extra mile or for our loyalty? Fair. Merit pay for extraordinary effort or productivity? Fair. (McArthur, Taylor)

And yet notice what happens. In the quid pro quo of money and merit, grace never enters the calculations. Church reformer and theologian John Wesley says we should not be surprised. “There are few matters” he wrote “more repugnant to reasonable people than the grace of God.”

We want fairness. God gives grace. It makes us crazy.

The last hireds, unchosen in the world of merit, discover in the landowner a generous presence, a fountain of mercy, an occasion for joy. It matters where we see ourselves in this parable.

In Santa Biblia, Justo Gonzalez describes the applause that breaks out in Latino communities as the landowner gives the last hireds a full day’s pay. Jean Pierre Ruiz sees in the parable the circumstances of immigrant day laborers across the United States. To ask them “Why are you idle?” is not a benign question. Estefan, a twenty-six year old indigenous farmer from Chiapas speaks of the harshness of a daily search for work. “Sometimes you don’t go because you weren’t chosen. You feel crushed.”

Those waiting to be chosen on street corners or at strip malls, those traveling in pickups from field to field seeking work, those on the margins of the work force vulnerable and exploitable—for whom “Give us this day our daily bread” is a plea for the mercy of God: these God chooses to receive an extravagant grace.

God has a sense of humor. For God seems to enjoy upending our carefully ordered meritocracies. And for those waiting to be chosen, God’s grace becomes life and hope.

We live in a time when meanness has gained hold of our lives. Envy and jealousy blind us to the goodness of God’s grace. Always trying to determine who is getting away with something when, truth be told, we are all getting away with something; it shrinks the heart and produces bitter enmity. When what matters is money alone, is getting what we think we deserve and too bad for everybody else, the wells of compassion and kindness dry up. We can labor all day in the vineyard and miss the blessing; oblivious to God’s mercy, resentful of God’s grace. (Leon)

Facing the truth about ourselves in the deepest places, we know that what we most desperately need, we do not merit and can never earn. More than anything else, we need God to be God. We need thought higher than our thoughts, prayer better than our prayer, power beyond our power; that we may spend and be spent as glad and generous workers in the vineyards of God’s love and light. (Godsall)

Every morning when Russell Moon arrived in his church, he lit a candle. The candle sat in a visible place on the corner of his desk. Everyone knew if the candle was lit, Russell was somewhere on the church property.

For over forty years, Russell served United Methodist churches in the small town, rural farming communities, and ranchlands of South Texas. People may not think of places like Edna, Texas as having faced the same challenges as the Deep South in the struggle for civil rights. And yet they did, and on two fronts; in the struggles of African Americans and in the struggles of the first generation of Mexican immigrants.

Russell served with unfailing grace and courage in the rough days of this journey. Almost thirty United Methodist clergy were ordained in that part of Texas during the toughest years. Beaten up and broken down by the visciousness of the struggle, one by on they began to fall away; leaving parish ministry for other work, until only four remained. Russell was one of the four.

Whatever happened to him during those years made him wise, made him deep, made him a person of prayer. I never heard him complain. All I ever heard him say was “By God’s grace, I was faithful. By the mercy of God, I survived.”

Russell bore the burden of the day; endured the scorching heat. And at days end, he never received a big steeple church, never held a prominent position, never earned a big salary. Younger clergy, myself included, surpassed him if money, prestige or power are measures. None of us surpassed him in sheer goodness and grace.

Russell was one of those people you would drive three hours across the hot, flat Texas coastal plain to see; just to take him to lunch at the local diner. Because talking to Russell would be a balm for the soul and a kick in the pants all at the same time. He was prayer and prophecy, steely and soft, resident scholar and a disciple of Jesus on the road all rolled into one.

Russell loved all God’s people more generously and with less jealousy than anyone I have ever known. I asked him once about the candle. “Well, dear” he said “I light this candle to remind myself that I am not the light. I follow the light, and that makes a big difference. Jesus calls me to follow him and live in such a way that others might catch a glimpse of God’s grace. And if you do that every day, every day, every day—that candle shining in this office can have an effect on this church, and if on this church, then on this town. And soon people get caught up in the grace of God’s heart and they don’t even realize it’s happening.”

God is God. And we are not. And yet, and yet, we bear God’s likeness; are made in God’s image. It can grow in us as surely as it grew in Russell and grows in all of us—the little ones that God chooses. Thanks be to God.

These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. Gina Gilland Campbell


I am indebted to Leonard Sweet for the phrase “God is God, and we are not” that forms the weave for this sermon.

Leonard Sweet, “God will be God,” Homiletics, volume 8 #3, July—September 1996.

Jean Pierre Ruiz, “The Bible and People on the Move: Another Look at Matthew’s Parable of the Day Laborers,” New Theology Review, Vol 20:3, May 2007.

Justo Gonzalez, Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes, Abingdon Press, 1996, Nashville.

Anthony Robinson, “Wild Zucchini,” Christian Century, August 25-September 1, 1993.

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End,” The Seeds of Heaven.

Leander Keck, “To be Specific, Three Sermons,” The Bible in the Pulpit. Abingdon, 1978.

Anna McArthur, “Seventh Hour Workers,” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2002.

Luis Leon, transcript of a sermon from The Protestant Hour, September 9, 1999.

Walker, Bourgois, Loinuz, Schillenger; “Social Context of Work Injuries among Undocumented Day Workers in San Francisco.” Journal of Internal Medicine, Vol 17:3, March 2002.

Ralph Godsall, unpublished prayer.

Additional Resources: