16th Sunday of Pentecost September 20, 2020


First Reading: Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 145:1-8
Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

Prayer of the Day:

Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants.  Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Hymns of the Day

If you don’t have hymnals at home,
look up the hymns on YouTube or other websites.

Will You Let Me Be Your Servant – ELW #659
For the Fruit of All Creation – ELW #679
Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer – ELW 618
618On Our Way Rejoicing – ELW #537

Reflection on Matthew 20:1-16

by Pastor Kelli Schmit

I think most people know this, but for anyone who is new to our congregation, my husband and I have a toddler.  He is the greatest, smartest, best, cutest, and most amazingly talented toddler in all of human history.  This is a unique experience – just ask any other parent.

But our greatest, smartest, best toddler in all of human history…is still a three-year-old.  All the toys surrounding him in the living room suddenly become invisible when he decides he wishes he had that one toy his friends have.  The despair he has to endure because he has to witness the neighbors enjoying a toy that his parents have failed to produce for him is a crime against humanity.  This is also a unique experience – just ask any other parent.

I couldn’t help but think of these unique experiences when reading about how the workers grumbled against the landowner in today’s Gospel reading.  No, I am not saying that they are toddlers, but are there similarities to their behavior…?

Jesus tells a story about a landowner who sets out to hire workers for his vineyard.  He hires five groups of people – some at 6 AM,[1] some at 9 AM, Noon, 3 PM, and again at 5 PM.  This wasn’t a permanent position or a full-time gig.  These were day laborers.  They stood at a strategic location in their village, hoping to be chosen to work for the day.  There wasn’t a line establishing the order in which people arrived.  There wasn’t a “first come, first hired” protocol.  If one seemed strong and healthy and competent, they got to have a job for the day and were paid “the usual daily wage.” (v2) This was roughly the amount one needed to feed their family for the day – i.e. the daily wage.[2]  If someone wasn’t picked, they were left standing in the marketplace and their family went to bed with empty stomachs.  Better luck next time.  Then this whole process started all over again the next morning.

Most of us, and our good midwestern work ethic, we relate strongly with the 6 AM workers.  We work hard all day long, bear the burden of the day, and persevere under the scorching heat.  We see more and more people join us in the vineyard throughout the day.  Finally, when the quitting bell tolls at 6 PM, twelve hours later, we see those who were brought on the job just one hour ago get paid a full day’s wages…and we’re thrilled.  Our mind starts to race with the math.  We’ve worked so much longer!  Early this morning we agreed to a day’s wage, but surely, we’ll be getting some sort of financial bump.  If you get a full day’s pay for one hour, what must we be getting for twelve hours!?!?

When this doesn’t come true…we are incensed.  When filing their complaint, a unique truth is revealed.  The 6 AM worker says, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…” (v12) Their anger lies not in the fact that they weren’t paid more, but that they were made equal to people whom they saw as undeserving.  They were treated as equals when they were operating as if there was an obvious hierarchy of value. 

But what about the perspective of the 5 PM worker?  They were in the marketplace since the early morning and were picked over all day long.  They’re not lazy.  They want work.  The landowner asks them why they are still standing here and their reply simply is, “Because no one has hired us.” (v7) Because of whatever physical attribute they possess, they have been rejected all day long.  Maybe this happens often and they know the dehumanization and depression of spending the day being scanned and then mentally discarded by strangers.  They’re all too familiar with the humiliation of coming home and registering the desperate eyes searching their empty hands.  Failure…again.

And yet, for whatever reason, this landowner chooses not only to hire them but also to pay them a full day’s wage.  They are empowered to feed their families.  They can raise their chin knowing that their family will walk with pride to the market to buy fruit and bread, maybe some meat and herbs.  They nearly shake with excitement at the prospect of coming home and revealing their good fortune to those they love.  Sweet aromas will swirl through their home, stomachs will be filled, and spirits will be lifted…at least for one day.  And what a glorious day, indeed.  What kind of landowner must this be?

The gospel reading closes with the landowner asking the 6 AM workers – of all times and places – a rather poignant question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v15) We are left to chew on this question and dare to answer it truthfully, even if not publicly.

This story is paired with our reading from Exodus – another story about grumbling.  The organizers of the lectionary readings picked these two stories about people who are gifted with life, freedom, dignity, and salvation, and yet they still complain a lot.  When preparing for this morning, I read these two texts and thought, “Surrounded by blessings but still complaining?  Yeah, I can work with that.  Now please quit reading my diary.”

The Israelites were suffering as slaves in Egypt when God hears their cries.  God called Moses to lead the people to freedom.  God sends plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the people go.  God teaches the people a way to be spared from the final plague: the death of all the firstborn, and the festival of Passover is begun.  God’s unfailing presence guides the people toward safety, through a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day.  God provided a way for the Israelites to cross the expanse of the Red Sea on dry land.  God had the waters overcome the pursuing Egyptian army.  They are on their way to the Promised Land and about a month and a half into the journey the whole congregation of the Israelites complain, saying “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt.”

God sent leaders and plagues and saved the firstborn and guided them night and day and opened the Red Sea and not even two months later, they’re hungry and complaining.  Full disclosure, I’m not my best self when I’m hungry either, but this is a pretty quick turn after all the divinely-inspired events they just witnessed.  It’s not even two months and they’ve already lost their trust.  They want to go back to Egypt, where they suffered physical, emotional, economic slavery.  It was terrible, but they knew what to expect.  At least in Egypt, they had food.

God graciously responds to their concerns by raining manna on everyone, every single day apart from the sabbath.  In Egypt, bread could be earned or it could be taken away,[3] but manna was for everyone all the time.  It was not a reward or punishment but a sign of God’s presence and God’s commitment to covenant faithfulness.  In order to provide bread from heaven, God had to be there.  God responds to their complaints with a promise of food, which is also a promise of companionship.

In our readings today, everyone is showered with manna, everyone receives a daily wage.  No one earns or gets more.  There is no hierarchy.  Keep in mind, the parable of the landowner is not a proposed business model – that would be a terrible plan – but it is, in Jesus’ words, a description of the kingdom of heaven (v1).  This story holds a description of God’s love.  So instead of focusing on who we are – are we the 6 AM worker or the 5 PM worker or the Noon worker – instead of focusing on who we are, we are called to shift our focus to the landowner who is pouring riches, empowerment, dignity, and sustenance on everyone. 

God showers a daily wage of grace, forgiveness, mercy, hope, and salvation on everyone.  Even when we’re grumpy, complaining, and living out our entitled worst selves, God doesn’t wash God’s hands and give up on us.  God doesn’t respond to our toddler tendencies with, “I don’t hear whining, please use your words.”  This story reveals that we can’t earn or work toward or prove ourselves worthy because we’re not.  We’re all undeserving.  This story isn’t about who received what reward, it’s about the landowner inviting everyone into the vineyard.

This parable is offensive because most of us are comfortable with procuring for ourselves what we need to survive.  We are used to being able to depend on ourselves and our skills and abilities to gather what we need.  But this…this gift of manna, this gift of a daily wage, this gift of love and grace and mercy and hope and compassion and forgiveness is out of our reach.  And to those of us who can usually take care of ourselves, to find out that everyone gets the same gift is really uncomfortable.  But if some of us could reach it and others couldn’t, it wouldn’t be the gift that it is.  The good news is that no one can reach it – no one can ever earn or deserve or work towards or try hard enough to get it for themselves, because there is no hierarchy to God’s love.  There’s no metric that determines who is worthy and who isn’t.  God loves each and everyone God made.  God loves every piece, corner, and part of creation.  We are all 5 PM hires being showered by unreserved and undeserved mercy we did nothing to receive. God gifts grace and love to everyone, even when it makes us uncomfortable or upset, because it’s not about us, it’s about the landowner.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Dennis C. Duling, footnote to “Matthew 20.1” in The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated NRSV ed. Harold Attridge (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006), 1702.

[2] David Lose, “Craft of Preaching, Dear Working Preacher: That’s Not Fair!” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, (accessed September 6, 2020.)

[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 815.

Let Us Pray

God of endless compassion, though we forget your mercies and grumble, you promise to never leave us or abandon us.  Give us hope when we are afraid, perspective when we are incensed, dignity when we are dismayed, and nurture our faith in you.  Be with all who work and encourage those who desire employment.  Sustain those who are wandering, yearning for food, community, and safety.  Inspire us to be instruments of your generosity.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.