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laborers2Matthew 20: 1-16
Jonah 3:10 – 4: 4-11
Introduction to the reading

Today’s reading is a classic parable:

  • its structure as metaphor (“The kingdom of heaven is like…);
  • the slow introduction of characters and unfolding of dramatic details;
  • the unexpected conclusion.

So, the with metaphorical in this parable:

  • think of the landowner as God
  • the workers as people of that ancient time – Jews, to whom Jesus came first, and then the church, as the followers of Jesus came to be known;
  • the vineyard as God’s whole created world or even an individual person’s attitude toward life.

Have you seen the wild vine growing in the shrubbery bed on the Mendham Road side of the church, near the entrance to the Cottage School? (Here’s a piece of it) Mike Sockolof, whose company now does our lawn and garden work, showed it to me back in August, before I left on vacation. He didn’t know what it was exactly, but we agreed that the flower looked like some kind of squash. It was interesting but unsightly, rambling all over the place, forcing its way around and under the other bushes. Certainly no one had planted it there on purpose. But he asked if I wanted to leave it, let it keep growing and see what happens? I said, “Yes, let’s do that”.

In just the past couple of weeks, the wild vine has really taken off. Its leaves are huge and its tendrils have made their way up and over and into the boxwood, the native azalea, the rhododendron and the butterfly bush. And … we are growing gourds! (show a basketful).

Now if you’d been in on this discovery from the start, some of you might well have said, “That’s an ugly giant weed. Yank it out. Doesn’t look good for the church grounds to be so messy.” But I have to tell you, I visit the vine almost daily, and I delight in discovering what God has chosen to do there on our property!

For God, you know, has a wild side, from the simple to the sublime. We cannot contain God within our institutional churches or box God neatly into a mission project. We cannot program God to fit into a 90-minute televangelism broadcast. We cannot tame God into lovely hymns.

We need these experiences of communal worship and fellowship, personal piety, study and service. We certainly do. But God is out there in the world, in every experience, delightful or terrible. And with God, we have to expect the unexpected, to be surprised, to be caught off guard. God does not fit neatly into our definitions or strive to meet our expectations.

God is sovereign, independent and loving upon the whole of humanity. The scripture readings for today make the point.

Take Jonah, for instance. Jonah was angry that God did not punish the people of Nineveh for their wickedness even though they repented and changed their ways. He sat down and sulked. God cause a bush to grow up quickly to give him shade, but then just as quickly God caused the bush to be destroyed by a worm. And so Jonah was angry about that too. God messed with Jonah’s sense of justice, but God calls upon Jonah to see the world as God sees it, with forgiveness and love. “You are concerned about the bush,” God said to him, “for which you did not labor and which you did not grow… And should not I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty persons who do not know their right hand from their left…?

And then, the workers in the vineyard. In the world that humans organize, what the landowner does is clearly and simply not fair. The workers who started late in the day got the same pay as the ones who had begun in the early morning and besides that, the late earners were paid first. The ones who worked longer were angry: …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.’ So it’s another issue also – power. Work becomes not simply the means for earning a daily wage but also a source of envy, competition and division, a means of reinforcing the categories of superior and inferior. Do we not see ramifications of this idea in today’s campaigns to raise the minimum wage?

So then, what are we to take away from this parable and from the Jonah story?

  • God challenges Jonah and Jesus challenges us to see the world from God’s point of view, no mean feat for us prideful human beings. God is concerned for the whole of Nineveh, whose citizens apparently are not too bright, since they don’t know their right hands from their left. Even so, they will be saved, despite Jonah’s attitude. God’s concern is for the vineyard as a whole and so the workers should recognize that the opportunity to work in the vineyard is a gift in itself. There is no room for human pride, since one’s only choice is either to answer the call to work in God’s kingdom or to stand idle and waste one’s life altogether.
  • God extends the invitation indiscriminately and repeatedly in order to a) save a whole city full of God’s people; and in the Gospel reading, b) gather as many workers into the vineyard as possible. All are equal before God. Reward comes not from individual merit or quantity or quality of work but from signing on to God’s covenant in the first place. Each receives the same reward – a single denarius, the accepted wage for a day’s work. Each receives their daily bread.

On a more particular note, the Consistory has begun to discuss the results of the survey that this congregation participated in last May. We’ve taken notes on your comments regarding strengths and weaknesses, ideas for change and how to generate more participation in the life of this church. You’ll begin to see reporting of results next week as we begin our annual “October is Pledge Month”, along with commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

What challenges? What outreach possibilities? What reformations here? What wild ideas might be growing in this vineyard? Ah, but also, what sulking Jonahs are among you? What grouches?
God’s generosity and love have no bounds. We are invited and challenged to transform hard feelings into hope and possibility and thanksgiving and celebration for the gift of life and breath.

Surely, this day is the day that the Lord has made!
Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
September 24, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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