Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Kelli

Light a candle

Read Matthew 20:1-16

As we begin a new programmatic year, we are shifting the format or focus of our Facebook Live meditations.  On Wednesday mornings, Pastor Tim and I will record a devotion exploring the Gospel reading assigned for the coming Sunday.  Speaking only for myself, sometimes this will be bullet points of interesting notes from scholars, sometimes it will be a more cohesive narrative, or sometimes a mix of the two – something to chew on as you explore this text yourselves.

Then, on Thursday evenings at 7PM, Huldah Ellestad – McFarland Lutheran’s Coordinator of Lay Ministry and Adult Education Extraordinaire – will be leading a discussion on Zoom based on the text and this video recording.  If you would like to join Huldah and other adults for that conversation and Bible Study, feel free to email her and she will get you the Zoom link for the Pre-Sabbath Word Devotion and Discussion.

So let’s dig in…

Today Jesus tells us a story describing the kingdom of heaven.  It’s about a landowner and the five groups of people he hires to work in his vineyard.  People are hired at 6AM[1], 9AM, Noon, 3PM, and 5PM.

These people weren’t hired as permanent employees.  This was not an interview, check the references, hope for a full-time gig sort of situation.  These were day laborers.  They stood at a strategic location in the village, hoping to be chosen to work for the day.  If you looked or appeared strong, healthy, and competent, you were chosen.  If you didn’t look that way, you were left standing there.

Keep in mind, if you were picked, you were paid “the usual daily wage.” (v2) Scholar David Lose wrote about how this was not a reliable salary but was estimated to be what one needed to feed their family for the day, i.e. the daily wage.  To be chosen meant you went home with enough money to feed your family the next day.[2]  To be picked over meant another night of empty stomachs.  Then you started this process all over again the next morning.  And about a daily wage, Dr. Lose also wrote that this “sheds some insight into the practical earnestness of Jesus’ prayer: ‘give us this day our daily bread.’”[3] 

When the 6AM folk saw the 5PM folk, who only worked one hour, get paid a full days’ wage, they expected to receive more, but they “also received the usual daily wage” (v10), which was the agreement.  Did you notice, the complaint isn’t that they didn’t get paid more but that the landowner “made [the last to be hired] equal to us who have borne the burden of the day.” (v12) The discomfort is not the pay but, rather, being made equal to someone who they deemed undeserving.  We, in turn, are made uncomfortable by the truth disclosed in this admission.

Dr. Lose also points out the connection between this story and that of Genesis 3, when the first two created beings eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden.  For him, this story is “primarily a story about how through our own insecurity and lack of trust we come to understand and assess our lives not through the abundance we have been given by God but instead by what we feel we still lack.  Because of this gnawing sense of lack, we define ourselves over and against others, comparing and begrudging their good fortune because it wasn’t our good fortune.”[4]  In the garden, humanity has plenty to eat – is surrounded by food and possibilities – but we are instructed to leave just one tree alone…and it’s that one tree that sticks in our craw.  It’s the one tree we lack.

[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] Lose.

[4] Lose.

Reflection Questions

1) After the initial reading, did you identify more strongly with the 6AM hire, or the 5PM hire? What is your emotional response to everyone being paid the same wage?

2) The 6AM worker reveals he is unhappy to be made equal to the 5PM worker. How do you feel about that confession?

3) Remember – this is a description of the kingdom of heaven. What do you think about Jesus using this particular story to describe God’s kingdom?

4) How might God be calling you to respond to this passage?

Extinguish the candle