Thompson’s Sermon from Sept. 18

September 19, 2011

The Jesus Jobs Bill
Matthew 20:1-16

20‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage,* he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.* 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.* 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?* 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”* 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’*

So if you want to get elected these days you’ve got to have a jobs plan. We have an inordinate number of people out of work in our country and this is a large national concern. There are a lot of people who are hurting for lack of work these days. I’m largely worn out by the current political rhetoric, but I’ve been paying a little attention to what various politicians are saying about how they would get the economy going so to speak. And I can tell you that nobody has a plan that is similar in any way to what Jesus had to say in this parable.

Jesus didn’t offer this parable as a jobs plan, but it sort of comes across as one. Pay everyone the same amount of money regardless of how long they work – which is not a plan that’s going to go over well with with any political party. We’ve all got our forms of measuring what’s good and fair, and I’m guessing there’s something inherently troubling about this scenario to all of us. If there was a party that would support a government program that would function in this way, they would be called The Let’s Just Have A Party Party or maybe the Te- quila Party.

There are plenty of people who would like to have one of those jobs where you show up for an hour and get a day’s pay, but it would be hard to know how to get one of those jobs. The way Jesus told the story the choice of who went to work when was entirely random. There are some people who would say that preachers only work for one hour a week – which is a terrible exaggeration. I don’t think I ever preach for more than 15 minutes.

This work/compensation issue is a sensitive one. It evokes passion in some powerful ways. This is one of those issues that just doesn’t generally come up in polite conversation. A politician can talk about a jobs plan, but people don’t generally talk about how much they get paid for the work they do. Sometimes people don’t want others to know how little they make. Sometimes people don’t want others to know how much they make. It’s a sensitive issue, and Jesus stepped right into the middle of it. He brought it up in a way that highlighted our tendency to get defensive about how much we think we deserve, but actually it illustrates the abundant way God loves us regardless of what we deserve.

Once again, we are presented with some funny math from Jesus. Last week we were told to forgive our offenders an unfathomable number of times. This week we are presented with the story of a really wacky compensation system. We have here the story of a landowner who paid the same wage to people who spent wildly different amounts of time in the field, but the scoundrel in the story is not the landowner. The way Jesus told the story, the scandalous behavior came from the man who worked all day and complained that it wasn’t fair, but his complaints were dismissed by the landowner as having no merit.

It’s not hard for any of us to see where the man who had been working all day was coming from, but once again, Jesus was wanting us to see that the Kingdom of God functions with a different set of values. This story does a good job of blurring our understanding of who is most deserving in the eyes of God. Jesus didn’t want any of us to get into the business of defining who was most valuable in the eyes of God.

This parable actually reminds me of the wildly diverse manner in which pastors are compensated in the United Methodist Church, but I don’t think our compensation system presents the same message of the parable. It’s oddly reflective of the situation in the parable because in our Annual Conference its the amount of money that different pastors are paid that varies wildly while the amount of time spent in the field is relatively constant.

I guess I play the role of the scoundrel in this story because I’m often harping among my peers about what I consider to be an unfair labor practice. In fact I’m doing my best to get people to look at the unfairness of our system, but I wouldn’t do it if I thought we functioned in the way we do in order to illustrate the extravagant grace of God that comes down where it will without regard for who is most deserving. If that’s why we pay pastors the way we do I would shut my mouth and be grateful I get to participate in such a faith-based-Bible-inspired drama.

I wish I believed this parable is what had inspired our conference to have unfathomable variations in the compensation packages within our clergy community. I wish it had grown out of our desire to not even care what we received in compensation for the role we get to play, but that’s not what I’m inclined to believe.

Now before I go any further I want you to know that I’m not complaining about the amount of money I get paid. I feel like I’m the guy in the parable who got hired around noon but was paid a full day’s wage. That guy didn’t really have anything to complain about in regard to his wage, and neither do I. And I like to think I wouldn’t complain about anyone else having a better deal if we all just acknowledged that it’s crazy to try to measure worth in the Kingdom of God, and it’s all ok as long as no one is going hungry. But this isn’t the message that our system is sending, and it sort of drives me crazy.

Just so you have a little sense of what I’m talking about, there are some full-time Elders in our state who make less than one third of the salary of of other full-time Elders. I can’t give you exact numbers because I’m having trouble getting these details from the people who have them, but I’m not making this up. These are the extreme cases, but it’s very common for some Elders to make twice the salary of others. These are people with the same credentials doing roughly the same work with comparable numbers of years in ministry that are being compensated in a wildly divergent manner.

Our compensation system greatly reflects a Monopoly Board. Some pastors get paid with rent from Boardwalk and others are living off the rent from Baltic Ave. Now I know we’re in church and I shouldn’t be talking about money, but Jesus brought it up this morning. Now I know we don’t live in a world that’s fair, and clearly Jesus didn’t want us to count on fairness as being the guiding principle of the Kingdom of God, but Jesus had little patience with systems that rewarded privilege and that’s how this system tends to operate. The type of un-fairness Jesus embraced placed more value on the people who were the last to be invited to the table.

Jesus told this parable to illustrate the fundamental element of grace that enables any of us to live in relationship with God. None of us have earned God’s favor. The Kingdom of God doesn’t function like a game of Divine Dodgeball. You don’t get picked to be on God’s team because of your extraordinary ability to hurl a fast ball at evil. And I don’t think he wanted us to labor under the illusion that any of us do work that is more valuable than the work that others have been called to do. And this is what really bothers me about the way our denominations functions.

I’m sorry to pull you into one of my pet-peeves, but I’ve become a little activated about it all. I feel a lot like Don Quixote jausting with a wind-mill, but I just can’t help myself.

Probably the message I need to remember is that the money really doesn’t matter. This is certainly what this parable portrays, and it’s something we all need to remember. And it’s not just about money. This parable points to the fact that there isn’t a place for privilege in the Kingdom of God. None of us are invited into relationship with God because of our gifts, graces, or heroic efforts. Our place in the community of God is rooted in the gracious initiatives of God. The church needs us all to do what we can, but it doesn’t hinge on any of us.

There is no shortage of jobs available for those of us who choose to follow Jesus, and the rewards are wildly abundant, but we don’t need to mistake our positions in society with our standing in God’s Kingdom. It’s easy to get these things confused, but today’s parable helps me to see pretty clearly how Jesus jobs plan works, and it’s nothing like the way the marketplace generally operates.

Being a person of relative privilege I’m not entirely comforted by this passage, but I’m glad to know how things function in the Kingdom of God, and I’m really glad to know that when things go poorly for any of us here on earth it is no reflection of the way God views our value in heaven. I’m not unhappy to hear that there is such a thing as privilege in the eyes of God, and it isn’t arbitrary. In the Kingdom of God it is those of us who are in the most need and who have the greatest pain that are held the tightest by God, and thanks be to God for this! Amen.


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