This sermon was the second-to-last sermon of an eight-week series on the kingdom of God. I wanted, with this sermon, to pull people into an experience of God's kingdom—its upside-downness, its radical inversion of worldly values, its startling God-centeredness. This parable of the vineyard seemed a great text with which to do that. The best homiletical approach to any parable is to retell it. I did this, with just enough modern touches to create fresh narrative tension. Then it was simply a matter of reflecting on our emotional reaction to the story: our sense of the master's unfairness, cruelty, naiveté. And that's where the subversiveness of the story lies in wait. Why do I assume I'm one of the workers hired first? And if I am, how did it happen that my overwhelming gratitude of being "chosen" turned, in a mere 12 hours, to bitter rancor at being "cheated"? Fundamentally—and my own exegesis and homiletical shaping of this sermon kept pushing me to this—the story is about a God whose generosity is so other-worldly, so counter-cultural, that it's only by becoming like him that I can hear the story as good news.
Twice I've visited heaven, or close to it: the Masai Mara, perhaps the greatest wildlife preserve in the world. The Masai Mara is part of the vast grasslands that stretch over the fertile plains of East Africa. Here, elephant, cheetah, gazelle, wildebeest, water buffalo, giraffe, crocodile, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and hundreds of other furry or scaly, tusked or horned, fleet-foot or slithering, flying or crawling, sun-loving or night-stalking creatures roam and soar and wade and burrow, without fear of man.
But the guides I had for the two trips could not have been more different from one another. The first guide, Stephen, made the trip a thing of joy and wonder and endless surprise. The second guide, William, almost ruined the trip entirely.
The difference was one thing: Stephen paid attention; William didn't. Stephen had good eyes; William didn't. I don't mean the power and clarity of their organ of sight. I mean, Stephen looked at the right thing at the right time with the right focus. And William didn't.
Stephen was a Masai man in his early 20s who grew up a few miles from the very ground we crossed together. The land was in his blood, every hillock and grove and bend of river. He knew in his bones the personal histories of many of the animals we saw. And he had an intuition for finding animals that, at least to a suburban-living white guy like me who thinks a squirrel is a major wildlife sighting, seemed supernatural. He would stop and gaze at something two kilometers in the distance. Looked to me like more grass and acacia. He would drive toward it. Maybe 300 yards away, I'd finally see what he saw: a mother rhino and its baby grazing in scrub brush, or a pride of lions sleeping beneath a tree, or a pair of cheetahs sunning themselves on a shelf of rock.
William was a Comba man in his mid-50s who grew up in Nairobi. He couldn't see for looking. But he wasn't looking anyhow. He spent most of his time chatting in his language with his friends on his CB. He just followed the crowd. Wherever other vehicles congested, he went. We saw the animals, yes. But we saw them from within a swarm of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other sightseers, each jockeying for a better view. One time we were traveling alone from the pack. A herd of elephants grazed at the roadside, mere feet away.
William sailed past them. William didn't see them.
I'm not kidding.
I tell you that to tell you this: the kingdom of God is at hand: Pay attention. You could miss it entirely if you choose to look at the wrong thing.
If I had to sum up every parable Jesus told about the kingdom of God or, as Matthew puts it, the kingdom of heaven, I would say this: they are stories calling us to pay attention.
The kingdom of God is like many things, Jesus says: a farmer sowing seed, a man hunting treasure, a woman kneading dough, fishermen casting a net, a man forgiven a debt, a wedding guest who forgot his jacket, virgins waiting for a bridegroom, a landowner being generous. The kingdom is like seed, yeast, pearl, fish, banquet, vineyard. It's so many different things, it's hard to say it's any one thing.
It's seemingly random. It's hidden. It's surprising. It's disruptive. It's unexpected. It begins small. It's something you desperately need or passionately want, but it comes mixed with things that you vehemently scorn but can't rid yourself of until God says so. It's something you receive and cultivate. It's something you seek and lay hold of. It's something you await and stay ready for. It's something you're invited to and come prepared for. It's something of great value and need to discover. It's something that reverses values and expectations, and you need to adjust. It's something an enemy seeks to destroy.
But this unites all that: Pay attention.
We tend to see the parable of the vineyard as bad news.
I'd like to take a single kingdom parable and pay attention to what Jesus is telling us. The parable, in Matthew 20:116, is about vineyard workers. What strikes us about this story is its patent unfairness.
Imagine yourself in this story. You show up bright and early, dressed for work, lunch pail in hand. You're thrilled when the owner comes by in his flatbed pickup and hires you without so much as an interview, a resume, a list of references. He promises a generous wage to boot: a whole denarius. You already start thinking about the bills you can pay and meals you can provide and clothes you can buy with that. You needed this job.
The first hour flies. The day is still cool. Even when the sun comes up—and what a jewel of a day this is going to be—it's low enough that you can hide in the lace of shadow from the vines. And the community! You feel an instant connection with the other workers with whom you rode in from town.
But you're glad to see, a few hours later, a fresh batch of workers join, though they don't quite know how to do the job as quickly or efficiently. But they're quick to learn, and it's not long before it's like they've always been here too, from the beginning.
But a few hours later, and a few hours after that, when more workers show up, it feels different. You feel relief—there's so much work to do. But you also feel a touch of, hmmm, resentment. They don't do the work right. They don't understand the culture here. They're too eager. And you're so blasted hot and sore and tired, and they're chirping away, no dirt under their fingernails, not even one bead of sweat on their brows.
But what kills you is the crew who shows up 11 hours into the shift. The day's already cooling again. The heavy lifting's been done. They work a single hour, if you could call it work; you could do by yourself single-handedly in 10 minutes what three of them barely accomplished in the full hour. You never attempt to talk to any of them.
But then an amazing thing happens.
It's pay time. The foreman calls up the guys who just showed up last to collect their pay first. That's galling, until you see what they're paid. A denarius: a full day's wages.
You start doing the math. A denarius per hour times 12 hours equals—ooh. You're about to call the wife on the cell, tell her to get onto Google and book that holiday in Paris, and go onto Amazon and order new luggage while she's at it, when you notice a disturbing trend. The guys who showed up 3 hours ago get a denarius. And the guys who showed up 6 hours ago get a denarius.
When the foreman finally calls you up—last, though you were here first—and he puts in your hand a denarius, you can barely hold yourself back from spitting on it.
This parable is rarely heard as good news in North America. It's rarely heard as good news in Western Europe, or among the intellectual elite, or the financially well-to-do. In other parts of the world, among other sectors of society, this parable is heard as uproarious good news.
It depends on whether you're used to being first or not. And it depends on how much you think you're owed.
Our elders spent a day together a few weeks ago to talk about church life, and we had a pastor come for part of that time to talk about some changes he initiated at his church. One of the things he commented on repeatedly was his shock at how many times he heard the phrase, "I'm one of the founding members here." It was always used in the context of, "I am owed more"—more say, more sway, more honor, more entitlement, more influence.
My value is greater because I've been here longer. If you pay that man a denarius, you owe me 12. I earned it.
Who can't understand that perspective? I understand it perfectly well. When I get in a line at Wal-Mart, it would offend me deeply if the owner came out and said, "Hey, all you people at the end of the line, you're next. You people at the front, get to the back of the line." I'm taking my business elsewhere. The longer I've been there, or the more I've contributed, the more I expect. I earned it. I'm owed it. Owners get that.
But here's an owner that doesn't. It's galling.
This parable is about God's generosity.
This parable is about two things: one obvious, the other only obvious after I say it.
The obvious thing this parable is about is the master's generosity—a generosity that to some appears as stinginess, depending on how much they think they've earned. The less-obvious-until-I-say-it thing this parable is about is the master's naiveté. Who would think that those guys who had worked for 12 hours are not going to resent the master? How naive is that?
I'm waiting in the doctor's office, have been there quite awhile now, waiting for an appointment I booked two weeks ago. The doctor comes out and says, "Whoever just walked in here with no appointment, come on in. I'll see you next." I'm supposed to cheer this?
Or you've worked at your job for 30 years. The next hire is straight out of college. The boss asks you to move out of your office to make room and announces the novice gets the same pay. He gets perks and holidays it took you 30 years to accumulate, and a signing bonus to boot. Hip hip hooray.
Who thinks this is generous? How naïve is that?
There are two keys to this parable. The first key is verse eight. It's the owner's instructions to his foreman: "pay them their wages, beginning with the last one hired and going on to the first." This is crazy. He could have avoided all the fuss and fuming had he the common sense to start with those who came first. They'd be on their way, none the wiser. And there'd be a growing chorus of thanksgiving rather than complaint as he went down the line.
But he flips it, starts with the guy who showed up last, and pays him in full view of everyone. It's a ritual calculated to create bitterness.
Or is it calculated to do that?
It is, rather, an invitation to thanksgiving of a different order: thanksgiving for the nature of the owner.
The kingdom is about a generosity on a scale and of a kind the world has never seen and can't understand. The world's generosity is always about earning. It's always tied to a bonus system. Lurking behind all forms of worldly generosity is the idea that I actually have this coming to me. You tip the waitress big who bent over backwards for you. You give a little more commission to the realtor who delayed his personal holidays to close the deal for you. I put in extra effort on the project, I expect to reap more of the profits.
Generosity, so called, is rarely generosity. It's almost always reward.
Kingdom generosity is the real deal: it doesn't work on a bonus system at all. It is not granted in response to some goodness in the recipient. It's not a reward.
This brings us to the second key to this parable, in verse 15. The owner makes a comment to the embittered laborers: "Don't I have a right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I'm generous?"
This is a radically owner-centered story. It is a story, not about us, the work we do, but about the owner, his rights, his nature. If you insist on making the kingdom about you, your rights, what you're owed, you'll likely end up embittered. Because for some reason, we all think we're the one who showed up to work early. Few of us hear this parable and think, That guy who showed up last, that's me. The least deserving. Over-appreciated.
No, most of us identify quickly with the aggrieved worker.
But the story isn't about us, whether we showed up late or early, worked a lot or worked a little.
The story is about the owner. The story is about the owner's generosity that flows, not in response to what we've done, but out of his rights and nature. It's just who he is. Can you see it? Will you rejoice?
Two Greek words are important here. The one translated as "generous" in verse 15 is the Greek word agathos. This is the single instance where agathos gets translated as "generous." Almost every other occurrence of this word in the New Testament translates as "good." And it means inherently good. Good in and of itself. Goodness that does not ebb and flow with circumstances, or mood, or the worthiness of others. But good by nature. Agathos is goodness inherent in the character of its possessor and independent of the actions of others. The owner is agathos. He's good regardless of whether you've earned it or not.
The other Greek word is translated here as "envious": "Are you envious because I'm generous?" That's a tricky compound word: opthymalosponeros. Literally, "the evil eye": Are you giving me the evil eye because I'm generous? Because I'm good?
The phrase opthymalosponeros occurs earlier in Matthew's gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:2223. Jesus says this:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
If your eyes are bad, you'll miss the owner's generosity. It will embitter you rather than bring you joy. You'll see it as stinginess, not what it is: a goodness independent of what you've earned.
The kingdom of God has a generous owner, deeply good. To you, and you, and you. Not because you've earned it. It's not about you. It's about him. And he loves to give. I hope you can see that. Pay attention.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?