September 20, 2017
By Sara Ofner-Seals.
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “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.’
Jesus makes a radical claim in this week’s Gospel passage, challenging the merit-based religious views of many of his contemporaries. In the verses leading up to this week’s passage, the disciples are busy taking pride in just how much they have sacrificed in order to follow Jesus. In response to their pride, Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard, reminding them that God’s grace is generous and unconditional—no matter what.
We may no longer adhere to a merit-based religion, but we do still live in a merit-based culture— one that encourages us to establish our worth based on how we compare with others. We may hold the belief that all are equal in the sight of God, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking to ourselves every now and then: well at least I’m a better worker than so-and so…a better parent, a better American, a better Christian… and on and on it goes.
The truth is, it can be exhausting to live this way. Maybe there are times when it puffs us up and makes us feel good about ourselves. However, there will always be people who are smarter, more attractive, more charitable, or more deserving than ourselves. And so the more we seek validation by comparing ourselves with others, the more we will tend to put ourselves above others in order to maintain our sense of worth.
But there is good news in all of this, which is that we can stop the endless comparisons, because our worth lies not in how we compare to others, but in the fact that we are created by God— and that whether we deserve it or not, we were created to receive God’s grace. And that’s good news for all those times when we aren’t the ones working from dawn till dusk— all those times when we mess up, slack off, or act selfishly. It is in those moments when we can be thankful that God’s ways are not like our ways-- that God is perhaps not always fair, but God is always generous.
God, help us to remember that our worth lies not in how we compare to others, but in our identity as your beloved children. May we extend the same generous grace to others as you have extended to us. Amen.
Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals is co-pastor at First Congregational Church, New London and moderator of the New London Association of the United Church of Christ.
September 20, 2017