Sermon: Pentecost 15 / Proper 20 – “Getting Paid”

"Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet
“Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet

Charmaine came down the bayou paddling furiously. She ran the pirogue up on the bank and jumped out, she didn’t even tie it off before running in the house. “Pack your bags I just won the lottery!” she yelled as she ran around the room. Boudreaux started running around and dancing too, “We won.. we won.. we won the lottery!” Charmaine pushed him in the bedroom saying, “Pack, pack, pack. Hurry, hurry, hurry!” Boudreaux grabbed his suitcase and asked, “What should I pack? Beach clothes, city clothes, cowboy clothes?” “I don’t care Boudreaux,” Charmaine said, “just put something in there and get the heck out!”

Some of the funniest and at the same time cruelest videos on America’s Funniest Home Videos are the ones with the fake lottery tickets. There they are scratching away, then the sudden realization that if that last number happens to be right they win. The frantic scratching followed by the stunned silence and then – the dancing, the shouting, the tears of joy, the hyperventilating. Within seven seconds of scratching that number, they have the money spent. They know which bills they are going to pay off. The new truck they will buy. The family vacation they will take. Then a pause as they read a bit closer the “rules.” You can see it come over their faces when they realize they’ve been had. As you are watching, your TV set suddenly sounds like a video game because of all the “beeps,” due to the tirade of expletives.

In our parable today we are told about workers who have gone into the field for the harvest. Some are called at the beginning of the day and others at the end. The master of the vineyard knows the Law of Moses which says in Leviticus 19:13, “Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” So at the end of the day the workers come together to be paid. Those who came last receive theirs. To their astonishment and everyone else’s, they receive a full day’s wage. The second to last group hired also receives a full day’s wages. But can you imagine what the first group hired was thinking at this point? “Holy jumping dreidels, we’ve hit the lottery! If they’re getting the normal daily wage, we must be getting three, four, maybe even five times that!” Like those with the fake lottery tickets, within a few seconds, they’ve got the money spent. “Oi! There will be no sharing a Passover lamb with those nosey neighbors the Weinsteins this year. We’ll have enough money for our own!”

When only a day’s wages is placed in their hands, they likely experienced the same let down as those who had the fake lottery ticket, “What do you mean? We worked ten times longer than they did. We deserve more!” In the world’s economy, the world’s way of doing things, that may be true, but not in God’s. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. What are the Lord’s ways in this case?

A woman has two beautiful young children and an adoring husband. For her birthday the husband goes out to find something truly special. He searches this store and that, but finally comes across a beautiful ruby bracelet. It is expensive, and just out of the budget, but he buys it anyways. When she receives it she knows in her heart that it is the most beautiful gift she has ever received. That same year, her little children make her a birthday card out of colored construction paper with a binding of yarn. The holes were clearly punched with a pencil. On the cover they have made a heart out of elbow macaroni. “We [heart] Mommy” is the message. On the inside they have made hand prints out of – well – the only thing she can think they used for paint was possibly some of her nail polish. On her birthday 50 years later, her husband has been dead for several years and her children are grown and living across country. She is now alone. As she reminisces, she remembers the bracelet and the card. Finding them both she sets them out on the kitchen table to admire them. The bracelet has lost none of its beauty. It sparkles just as it did on the day she received it. The card on the other hand looks a bit rough. The macaroni is missing and in its place is some dried Elmer’s glue in the shape of a heart. The yarn binding is barely hanging on by one hole and their small hand prints on the inside have all flaked off. As she looks at these two gifts, which does she love the most? Does she pitch the card in the trash and ask, “Why did I keep that garbage?” Which brings her the greatest joy? Which has the greatest value?

There are some in this world who live ruby bracelet lives for God and my goodness they do sparkle. By comparison we can look at our own lives and sometimes think we are nothing more than an old tattered card. It’s like that old joke, “How would you like to find yourself in line at the Pearly Gates, only to discover that Mother Theresa is directly in front of you?” But as God looks at the two, which does He love more, the ruby bracelet life or the one that’s a bit more tattered? Which brings Him the greatest joy? Which one has the greatest value?

Jesus had been teaching in the temple when scripture says, “As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” In both cases the amount that was put into the treasury was irrelevant. It was the attitude in giving. The sacrifice that was made.

In the parable, those who worked in the field thought they had given a ruby bracelet kind of days labor. They knew they had earned their reward, their pay. We often think of our lives in the same way. We have a job, we work, we get paid. The harder and longer we work, the more we get paid. And so we mistakenly think the same is true about our life with God. We go to church, say our prayers, do a bit of outreach, put something in the offering plate, and we get our reward. If we do this for a lifetime, we think that our reward from God will be all the more grand. We see someone else who might darken the doors of the church on Christmas and Easter – “Can you believe they only put a fiver in the plate” – and think their reward should be far less than ours. Is God going to look at that second life and think, “Why did I keep this piece of garbage?” and pitch it in the trash or is he going to look at those two lives in the same way that the mother looked at the ruby bracelet and tattered card? Whether you agree with it or not, you know the answer. It is why someone once described this parable as being “a bit like cod liver oil. You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.”

At this point, would you be surprised if I said, “I know what you’re thinking.” You’re thinking, “If that is the case – if God sees both as the same – then why the heck am I working so dang hard? I’ve got things I could be doing on Sunday morning. If nothing else I could sleep in. If I hadn’t put that much money into the offering plate I could have bought that new toy I wanted! If that’s the case, shouldn’t we all just back off and slide through. I may just barely get into heaven, but Hey – I’m in!”

That seems to be a valid point, but as a Christian people, we are not working for rewards or pay. We live our lives for the pure joy of serving the One we love and each other. Khalil Gibran made an excellent point when he wrote, “Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

Regardless of what others are doing or not doing, live your life as a beautiful gift to God. If in the end you’ve given your all and there’s nothing left but a pile of bones – so what. You didn’t give your life for a reward. You gave it because you loved.


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