Matthew 20: 1-16
Often, when we hear the parables of Jesus, we want to make a straight and strict similarity, one to one, between what he says and our lives. When we hear the story of the prodigal son, we want the father to be God, and we either cast ourselves as the younger wayward brother or the resentful, dutiful older brother.
The thing about parables is that making strict equivalences is a mistake. Some similarities between some of the characters and our own lives are to be expected, but the stories of Jesus are not journalism, just like the rest of the Bible is rarely factual reportage of historical facts.
The point of a parable is to tell a story where the point of the story is something about God. A characteristic about God that Jesus wanted to highlight.
When we read this parable this morning, I wanted to make a straight equivalence-the people who haven’t gone and helped flood victims yet are just as eligible for the love of God as the ones who were filling sandbags a week ago Thursday. But that was the wrong way to go.
One of you said to me last week when I was asking for names of volunteers, “I don’t know what I‘ll be able to do, but I‘ll put my name down anyway”, knowing that they couldn’t do paneling stripping, or sludge shoveling, or other suchlike work. But sure enough, the first need I heard about was the sorting and folding of clothes at one of the drop-off points, and that person, who thought she wouldn’t be able to do anything, was the first one called to help.
We all have work, and we all have responsibilities. We are not always able to respond to emergencies the way that we want to. We’d love to help, but we’re not always ready to. I called around for a team to go help someone else later in the week last week, and many of you understandably could not go help because of previous plans, working, etc., and it feels bad, knowing you’d put your name on a list to help, and then not being able to follow through when the call comes. I know.
This parable is a comfort to those of us in that predicament, because it’s point is that the time we arrive, the time we’re called isn’t important. God’s grace, god’s equal wage, is available to us all.
The last church I served in Texas was in a little town called Commerce, where I was a campus minister for the local university. There was a spot in the town where day laborers, mostly Central Americans, would gather to be hired, and where employers would know to go to find them. It was probably illegal to hire them, some of them were probably undocumented workers, but it is a time honored and practical system that seemed to work pretty much the same way in Jesus’ time.
So a guy would come by, and he would talk to a few of them men there, if he knew Spanish. If he didn’t, he would just hold up his hand, and however many fingers he held up, that was how many workers he’d need. They’d climb up into the back of the pickup, and off they’d go. I don’t remember seeing any negotiation about wages, I don’t know how they agreed on the pay for the day. Maybe the workers got whatever they could. But off they went.
So, imagine if a guy came up in his pickup truck and needed workers in his cotton patch. He goes at daybreak, he goes at nine AM, noon, three, and five, and they all work until dark, getting his cotton in. It’s understandable for all the workers to think that the early ones would get paid the most, and the 5:00 ones the least. But the owner of the cotton field pays the five-o’clockers the living wage that was customarily paid to the guys who’d been bent over in the hot sun for 14 hours. It’s perfectly understandable that the early guys would start to think they’d hit the mother lode, right? But then they get the same wage as the late guys.
In the world run by humans, you’d understandably be ticked, right?
Well, that’s where the parable bit comes in. Jesus is not making a point about living wages, or the unfairness of migrant work, or the racism of taking advantage of undocumented workers to pay them less, or the need for a farm workers union.
Jesus’ point is this: God’s love and salvation is available to everyone, whether they were born into faith, came to it early middle or late. When I was a little kid, and it was time for all of us on the street to go into our houses and take our baths before bed, we’d end the game of Hide and Seek by yelling Olly Olly Oxen Free, and everyone who was still hidden could safely come out without getting tagged. God’s grace is like that, God’s love and grace is available to us all.
Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, and Episcopal priest and spiritual director, writes it this way in her commentary on this passage;
• God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.
• I and all others are made in the image of God.
• God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imagination.
• There is nothing I can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.
There is no room for grudges in this worldview. God does not harbor ill will, everyone is a child of God, and everyone is created in the image of God.
This is what this parable is about.
This is what Jesus is about.
This is what we should be about.
How we doing with sharing the unlimited love of God?
Anyone you’d rather not include in that love? Yeah, me too. But God’s living wage goes to all, whether we like it or not.
Olly, Olly Oxen Free.