Message for Sunday 20 September 2020: “Managing Expectations”

Today’s message showcases a parable relating to fairness and economic justice.

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-16 introduces a landowner with who hires workers, some early in the day and others later. The landowner makes a separate contract with each group of workers. The controversy centers on how the manager paid workers who had worked the shortest time the same as those who had labored longest.

The parable presents one group of laborers who worked at least eight hours longer than the last group of hired laborers. The landowner honored his contract with all the workers, but those who had worked the longest time assumed that they would receive more money. Sadly, the workers who had worked the longest time made false assumptions. The landowner contracted to pay them a certain wage and he honored that commitment. However, this group of laborers felt angry and cheated when they discovered what the other employees had been paid.

Especially to modern readers there are levels in deciphering Jesus’ parable.  An obvious, initial lesson from the parable involves false assumptions by one group of workers in the story. This error from the first group of workers was that they would get more money than promised. Their cry was this: “Hey, we worked longer so pay us more!”  Keep in mind that every worker was paid per the contract.  So, the issue for some readers shifts to that of fairness and economic justice.

Was landowner manager fair in paying everyone the same? How you answer depends on your personal values and work ethic.  For some people, the landowner should have paid the longest working group of laborers more money and his failure to do so means that he violated fairness and created a situation of economic injustice, indirectly pitting one group of workers against the others.

Perceived another way, the landowner was more than generous—at least to those workers who labored the least amount of time.  In this view, the landowner for unknown reasons paid the short-term workers a huge sum given how little they worked.  Keep in mind that the landowner honored his contract with all workers, both with those he had hired first and those whom he had hired last.  The workers in all instances received and accepted an offer which only later did the first group dispute.

When the first group of workers complained, the landowner responded that, since it was his money and that he had honored his contract, he didn’t need to answer to anyone. Critics argue that this type of answer often comes from people who elevate private ownership at the expense of broader social concerns. Some people also cite the lack of the landowner’s accountability to a higher authority. Other interpreters argue that private privilege outweighs anything else and that an individual’s rights reign supreme over social good. These issues echo ongoing debates in contemporary America?

If the landowner is a symbol for God, then the stakes are higher.  In the traditional view, God doesn’t have to answer to anyone.  However, the justice of the wages paid to each type of worker remains a divisive issue.  For workers on earth the struggle in Jesus’ parable can lead to pitting one group of people against another, such as in class warfare, social unrest, and the rights of unions and the labor movement.

In historical perspective, the workers who labored the longest could represent the Jews since they were God’s original people.  The workers hired last could represent the Johnny-come-lately Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians.  Interpreted this way, God’s promises and blessings—the wages—are available in the same measure to all people.

Do you feel like a cheated laborer?  Are you envious of God’s generosity toward others who seem to have it easier?  These questions are productive if it leads you into a transforming frame of mind. When is the last time you negotiated with God, the ultimate landowner, about your circumstances?  As weird as it seems, Jesus’ parable could awaken you toward a new, more productive life contract with both divine and earthly landowners.     –Reverend Larry Hoxey

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