He’s relentless, isn’t he? For the third week in a row, Jesus takes us to task. Two weeks ago, we heard him say “If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone…” and last week through the story of a lord and a servant, Jesus tells of how God will deal with us if we are unmerciful to one another and if we do not forgive our brother or sister from our heart. And now, Jesus takes our privilege and puts it right up as a mirror in this story of the landowner and his laborers, exhausted by keeping count of what they get and what they think they deserve. You are a courageous people, so stick with us for one more sermon on this Matthew pericope…
A generous landowner pays all the laborers in his vineyard equally, regardless of hours worked. An extravagant landowner functions in Gospel economics, not by the count of the culture that surrounds him. A tired, frustrated set of workers grumble that they deserve more and a grateful, humbled set of workers sit stunned at the heavy weight of the unexpected pay in their hands. An unsettling flipping of the script – “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
When I read this passage to Blair, my constant homiletical test subject, he said, “Here’s the thing – if we ever read the Gospels and think that Jesus is saying, ‘You’re doing a really great job! Keep it up!,’ then we’re probably missing his point.” Blair’s right. No amount of massaging can make this text tell us we’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing. The Gospel isn’t meant to keep us grounded but rather is meant to push us beyond – beyond ourselves, beyond our sight lines, beyond our earthly understandings. The Gospel brings the kingdom of heaven here to earth over and over again because the kingdom of heaven isn’t here yet. The Good News is but glimpsed; it’s not fully seen.
I imagine that for most of us, this text is one that elicits anger but perhaps for different reasons. There’s anger because this story is just plain ridiculous and impossible to employ in the here and now. Anyone who uses Jesus’ business model will have a shuttered storefront in a manner of days. There’s anger because some people deserve to be paid more because they do more work or work harder/better/smarter… or at least that’s what we’ve been told all our lives. There’s anger because there are idle people who waste their days and then get rewarded for doing so. There’s anger because some laborers do not have access to resources all because of where they were born or who they were born to or what color their skin is or what gender they identify as. There’s anger because the first are always first and it seems that no manner of Gospel can undo that cycle of privilege this side of heaven. There’s anger because the laborers who get picked up last are deemed lazy and abusive of the state’s resources rather than seen as people who deserve dignity. There’s anger because this story is Gospel, which is to say, this story is a dream of the kingdom of heaven and it can be hard to dream when we can’t see beyond ourselves.
But perhaps the anger that most of us feel is the anger that comes when we’re busy keeping count. The first laborers came and “they thought they would receive more…” or rather, they thought they should receive more because that’s the way it is supposed to be, right? They looked around and thought, “Who’s here? Who can I talk to to make myself look better?” / “I have done everything for you or for this place. I deserve to be treated differently.” / “I give enough money that I get to decide how it is used.” / “I have taken all the AP classes and the SAT prep courses and if I don’t get in early decision, something is wrong with the admissions committee.”
We do and so we think we get. We build and so we think we own. We earn and so we think we keep. We keep count all day long, running a tab for all that we’ve done and all that we’ve earned and all that everybody else hasn’t done and hasn’t earned. This tab runs so long and so thick it ensnares us, building a wall around our hearts so tall we can’t see around it or over it or through it. We’re stuck in our own fortress of privilege, beside everyone else’s neat and pretty fortresses of privilege.
When I was in eighth grade, I applied to the best public high school in the state of Kentucky. I, of course, got in which is not to toot my own horn but to say, I had every resource available to me and parents who were in the know and this is just the way things go, isn’t it? This school – Manual High – is a magnet school and has an outstanding Visual Arts track, a wing dedicated to every aspect of visual arts. I remember a knock-down drag out fight with my stepdad, Rick, during the application process. He said, “I don’t think it’s right that you’ll have all those resources and other kids won’t.” In all my thirteen-year-old feistiness, I fought back and said, “But I deserve it! I’ve been taking art classes all of middle school and I have a really good portfolio and I did all the tests to get in and passed them and I have good grades so I earned it!” He said, “Everyone else deserves it too, Taylor. Just because you can draw doesn’t mean that other kids shouldn’t get the best art classes in the state, too.” It took me years to let this fight go. I thought about it over and over again as I sat in my beautiful, gothic school with my brilliant art teachers showering me with endless art supplies and endless praise. I deserved all of this, I thought. I do work really hard. I am a really good artist. I went on to college with this attitude, keeping count of all the things I’d earned and deserved and making sure that I kept count of what everyone else was doing, too. It was a tiring life but I knew nothing else – perhaps you know the feeling.
And then, and then the Gospel came and hit me upside the head. As many of you know, after I graduated college, I became a special education teacher deep in Brooklyn and all I understood about having “earned it” crumbled. I taught a child who, as a fourth grader, didn’t know the alphabet because she was told she wasn’t smart enough to learn it. I taught multiple children who lived with their grandmothers because their parents were incarcerated or addicts. I taught a child whose mother ignored his eczema because she didn’t have the resources to care for it. I taught children who were deemed “special education” not by any test scores or evaluations but because they were in their second and third foster homes within a year and had bounced around so many schools that principals didn’t have time to assimilate them into a general education setting. By the end of my two years, I was exhausted but not the kind of exhausted I had been – I was exhausted because it felt like for the first time I was seeing but a glimpse of what God sees – how the world is keeping count by measures meant to divide and demean, to otherize and ostracize. And yet, I also saw a glimpse of the Gospel as the fortress I’d built began to crumble – that there are people beyond myself that deserve a place at the table simply because they are a created being from our loving God.
In our story, the landowner is keeping count but keeping the kind of count that Jesus keeps – of who is ignored and unseen. This parable moves along by the needs of the workers, not of the landowner. We hear nothing of how the landowner needed more laborers or that the vines in his vineyard were so heavy with fruit that hands upon hands were needed to harvest. All we hear is that there were people who needed work and so the landowner came and gave the opportunity to labor. The landowner isn’t keeping count by asking, “How much more money will I earn with all this labor?” or by patting himself on the back with “I’m such a brilliant businessman!”. Instead, the landowner is asking the questions that matter – is keeping the kind of count Jesus keeps. “Who is being passed by? Who doesn’t receive the dignity all my children deserve? Who is without?”
Do you remember when we did the SNAP Food Challenge a while back and several of us tried living on the dollar amount equal to the SNAP benefits that low-income families receive for food? A friend came into my office during the week and said, “Do you know what I’ve realized by doing this? Staying within the budget isn’t the only part that’s hard. It is everything else that goes with it. I can get in my car and go get an ingredient if I forgot something. I don’t have to wait for the bus or carry my groceries home by hand. I have access. I have resources even beyond the money.” Keeping count, keeping Gospel count.
Our privilege does not mean that God is more generous with us. Our privilege is not a gift from God. It isn’t even a responsibility. It is a product of a system meant to keep very few at the top and most at the bottom. Rather, what comes from God is the Gospel and with the Gospel comes a response to our privilege – to keep count by the Gospel – by who is being ignored and who is being silenced, by who has access to resources and who doesn’t, by how we handle, treat, and use what was never ours to begin with, by the gratitude we give to God through the giving of our resources over and over again until we feel like the kingdom of heaven is so close to here on earth that we can see it among the crumbled ruins of our former fortresses.
I think we’re all a bit exhausted, don’t you? I think that we all want to stop keeping the kind of count the world keeps but we don’t know how to stop – how to stop sizing ourselves up against our neighbors, our bosses, our Facebook feeds; how to stop comparing our children to other children or our salaries to others’ salaries or our houses to others’ houses. What would it look like if we began to keep the kind of count Jesus calls us to keep? I don’t think it would be any less exhausting – I think that’s just life. But I do think we would feel differently at the end of the day – like we’d co-labored with Christ for a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May it be so and may it begin with us all the while remembering that we are the laborers in the vineyard, working for a generous landowner who keeps count – who counts us – not by the number of hours we work or the wages we earn or the length of our resume or the power of our position or the wealth we’ve accrued or the goals we’ve reached; but rather, we work for a landowner who keeps count of all the days that were written for us before we were even born, who keeps count of every hair on our head and every word on our tongue and every worry in our heart, who keeps count of our dreams and our hopes and our doubts and our hurts, who keeps count of us one-by-one. What generosity, indeed. In the name of Christ, who is countless in grace. Amen.