Parable of the Generous Landowner

Texts: Exodus 16: 2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Let us pray:

God of grace, you have given us minds to know you and hearts to love you; 
fill us with your Spirit, that we may worship you in spirit and in truth, living our lives as members of your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our two texts for today, the Exodus story about manna in the wilderness, and the Gospel parable about the generous landowner and the laborers in the vineyard can be read together with some surprising conclusions. Commentator Charles Campbell points out that the story of the manna can be used as a lens with which to view Matthew’s recounting of the parable Jesus taught.

If we understand the story of manna in the Old Testament from the perspective that God has brought the Israelites out of Egypt to make them into a people different from the ways of Egypt, then we see an interesting pattern emerge. In Egypt, culture and society were built upon a hierarchical structure: that is, one of domination and submission, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. In that structure, the Israelites were –at the bottom of the pyramid, so-to-speak. They were poor and powerless slaves dominated by the Egyptians; a far cry from the days of Joseph, the visionary Israelite overseer of Pharaoh’s household and kingdom.

Moses is called to bring the Israelites out; when they begin their wilderness journey, they are steeped in and socialized by Egyptian culture. Of course they grumble about their new status in life – wandering and homeless-at least in Egypt under Pharaoh they new their place, had roofs over their heads and a peasant meal. Why bring them out into the wilderness? To turn them into a nation of their own where they became the top dog and other nations and peoples became their subjugated slaves? No, that would be a pendulum swing, which perpetuates a system characterized by inequality, greed, and brokenness.

They just escaped from such a system, and it has already proven to violate the very fabric of God’s economy. So why did God call them out in the first place? To create a renewed people, instilling in them an embedded cultural understanding following God’s Rule for a heavenly kingdom. In God’s manna economy, all the people each have enough for the day. There would not be layers of class existence perpetuating haves and have-nots, rich and poor, just and unjust.

In God’s manna economy, each one is given enough for the day. If a person hoarded up more than needed (for example two days worth of food instead of one), extra would go bad. Campbell reminds us that, “The leaders and the servants receive the same amount; the people who work all day and the people who have little to do receive the same amount. The able and the disabled receive the same amount: plenty, but not too much—and it is all a gift.[1]

Now, applying that lens to the parable of the laborers, or as I have titled the sermon, the parable of the generous landowner, we see a new ethic emerge. The landowner chooses to pay each worker what the worker needs for a daily wage. It is not about the amount of work that gets done or some intricate graph containing apportioned earnings based on hourly expenditure, instead it is about what each person needs. In other words, the landowner, while taking care of his land by hiring laborers, goes the extra mile to take care of the workers as well, in an act of unbounded compassion for their own need to live with enough for the day; plenty-but not too much.

Commentator Dorothy Day puts it this way: “[Jesus] spoke of [a] living wage, not equal pay for equal work, in the parable of those who came at the first and the eleventh hour.[2]

Without drawing too close a parallel between the two stories, we can still see that God brought the Israelites out into the wilderness to establish a new social order on God’s terms. Similarly, Jesus describes the same social order – which is God’s heavenly kingdom – in new terms for his present day.

That is not all however. Simultaneously the parable Jesus speaks also exposes. It exposes what for us too often has become a fundamental social reality. It painfully unmasks embedded realities that shape our lives to such an extent we cannot even imagine alternatives. Of our realities, Campbell says: “winner and loser, superior and inferior, insider and outsider, honored and shamed. [This parable] unmasks an order that often encourages us to pray, “Give me this day my daily bread,” rather than, “Give us this day our daily bread.” [3]

Now comes the hard part. How would we describe this same Godly social order in today’s terms? Even more importantly, how would we enact it? Let’s review for a moment that line in the Lord’s prayer just alluded to. “Give us this day our daily bread.” In that phrase, perhaps, lies one of the keys to the entire Kingdom of God, or we might say the Realm of God. Jesus taught us not to pray for ourselves alone, but to pray for ourselves within the context of community. When we understand ourselves as so interwoven that we cannot distinguish ourselves from the community in which we live and move and have our being, then we cannot, ever really be members of either the haves or the have-nots. Instead, we lift one another up and support one another with everything we have. For, together, we have much, much, more than we have individually. Are there those in this community that need our help? Help them. Are there those whose lives are heavily burdened? Hold them up. Are there those who hunger? Feed them. Thirst? Give them sustenance. Struggling? Give of ourselves and our own treasures to ease their struggle. It is what we are called to do.

Commentator Charlotte Cleghorn writes, “This parable is essentially about the generosity of God. It is not about equity or proper disbursement of wages but about a gracious and undeserved gift. It is not about an economic exchange but, rather, about a bestowing of grace and mercy to all, no matter what time they have put in or how deserving or undeserving we may think them to be. God’s generosity often violates our own sense of right and wrong, our sense of how things would be if we ran the world.”[4] To which all I can say is, “thanks be to God that we are members of this alternate reality of God’s heavenly kingdom. Thanks be to God that if my brother or sister is in need, I am enabled and given the gifts I need in order to share when needed, as an expression of deep caring for another of my community.

Perhaps our challenge for the next month or so is to open our eyes to the needs in this community, and, pooling our resources, meet those needs in new and creative ways, all for the glory of God, who has given so much to us in the first place. Including the very gift of Jesus Christ himself, our Lord, who is our own Generous Master.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer, and to the implanted Holy Spirit among us. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), 205; as quoted in
Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[3] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[4] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).


About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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