By Deacon Timothy Siburg
RCL Reflection for Proper 20, Year A
September 24, 2023
Key Verse: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15)
“But it’s not fair daddy!” This isn’t the most common statement I hear as a father, thankfully. But it is one that I hear from time to time from my kids. I often hear it when one gets an experience that the other doesn’t, or when one gets to ride in daddy’s car, and the other in mommy’s. Perhaps you can relate? I think Jesus probably can based on the parable he tells and that we hear from Matthew 20 this week.
This week’s Gospel parable concerns a landowner, laborers, and the landowner’s benevolence to put everyone to work and to pay “whatever is right” (Matthew 20:4). But what constitutes what is “right” might be up for interpretation. It certainly does not seem to match the common human conception of what we might call fair, and there is a lot of wisdom to recognize in this. The question of fairness, though, really doesn’t come into play until the landowner begins to compensate the laborers for their efforts. Jesus tells the story, “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first’” (Matthew 20:8). The landowner is apparently compensating in reverse order, which is perfectly his right.
The landowner went out to look for workers frequently during the day, to the point that there was apparently no one who might have been unemployed. It reminds me of the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The landowner is providing so that all might have what they need for daily living. This is a beautiful example of abundance in God’s love. It’s also an example of God’s unlimited grace. But that’s where we start to have problems as people. Our human nature says that some should have more than others. We buy into notions of scarcity, whereas that some will get more and others less. But at the heart of this parable is a rebuke of that notion. For in God’s economy, there is enough for everyone. No one is greater than another, for all have the shared identity of being beloved children of God.
Jesus concludes the parable famously, with the landowner responding to the grumbling laborers who believe that they are being compensated unfairly:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:13-15).
God will not be forced into a box – made to be vengeful or to lovingly care about only a few. God will not be manipulated into acting a certain way that we as human beings might want God to act. And most certainly God’s true abundance and love cannot be limited. This parable provides a stewardship lesson about God’s generosity that far exceeds any human notion of what generosity, abundance, and fairness might look like. And just as that might be hard to wrap one’s head around, the parable includes with Jesus’ repeated notion that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (v. 15). There is a great reversal in God’s kingdom; perhaps a more level playing field so that all might have enough and what they need, and no one would have too much so as to prevent others from enjoying their own daily bread.
What might this look like for us? At the very least, it might be the idea for this young father (me), that my two children get along, share, and stop arguing as much about what is fair, and instead just embrace the idea that they and everyone else are loved more than we could ever imagine by God. But I also know that this notion is not just something that five- and two-year old’s wrestle with.
Just as the laborers in the Gospel story argue and moan, Jonah does, too, in this week’s first lesson. He does so, so much, that God eventually asks him, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” (v. 9). Jonah doesn’t think the situation he’s observing is fair. And again, from a human perspective, it might not be. But this isn’t about human perspective. Just as the Gospel lesson isn’t.
These are stories about just how far God’s love, grace, mercy, generosity, and abundance will go. God will go to – and through – the point of death on a cross so that God’s love might be known, seen, heard, revealed, believed, and lived out. And God will do this, because that is who God is as the psalmist reminds, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8).
In that sense, perhaps, at the heart of this week’s stories is recognizing this and then responding as stewards of God’s love. Paul gives us the key: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ,” (Philippians 1:27). And responding as the Psalmist describes, “They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness” (v. 7).
I wonder if Jesus is inviting the disciples of all times and places to hear this parable with fresh ears this week. What would the world be like, if we did, and then took it to heart? Perhaps the kingdom of heaven might just break in to our world here and now a bit more.
Questions for Further Reflection and Preaching:
- Why do we always feel tempted to focus on fairness? What might it look and feel like if we instead focused on being generous?
- What might a modern or current parable in your particular context be that exemplifies or expands Jesus’ parable for us this week in Matthew 20?
- What might our response be for the generosity and love that God provides as Jesus tells us this week?
Given that the Gospel reading is very familiar, this might be a good week to offer a bit of reflection time during the sermon. If it makes sense in your context, what would it look like to invite the congregation to respond to one or more of the questions above (or similar) and to share those responses in some way? Perhaps they might hint at something God might be inviting in your context or larger community and calling you as God’s people to consider or be a part of.
Additionally, in thinking about this story, I have the lyrics of a newer hymn singing through my head. Perhaps this might be a good hymn to include in your worship. Adam Tice beautifully wrote the words to “What Is the World Like,” set to a tune called “New World” by Sally Ann Morris. A couple of the verses are as follows:
“What is the world like when God’s will is done?
Mustard seeds grow more than we can conceive:
Roots thread the soil; branches reach for the sun.
This is how God moves us each to believe.”
“What is the world like when God’s will is done?
No more is neighbor just ally or friend; peace thrives in
places where once there was none.
This is God works when rivalries end.”
This hymn can be found in All Creation Sings, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2020), 1047.
With youth and children
If the question of fairness seems to be poignant in your context, perhaps that very question could serve as the starting point for a children’s message. Invite the children or young adults of your congregation to think about a time where they themselves thought or said, “But, it’s not fair.” Invite them to think about why they felt that way. To name their feelings honestly. And then to share how we all feel that way sometimes, but even in those moments God’s love is present and God is with us. It might just be a message that I feel is needed in my own home from time to time, but I suspect it could be useful in many congregations too. Perhaps a closing prayer for this message might go like this as a “repeat after me” prayer:
Repeat after me:
Thank you for today
Thank you for your love
and for how you share with us
everything we need.
to share your love
no matter what
even when times are hard
or we might feel that it isn’t fair
Help us to remember
that your love
always holds us
and is always with us
Thank you, thank you, thank you
In Jesus’ name we pray
Here are previous reflections for Proper 20, year A:
2020 – Life’s not always fair (but God is still good)
2017 – Just give already!
2014 – The problem with generosity
2011 – It’s not fair! God’s grace and human nature