First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 15

William Loader

Pentecost 15: 21 September Matthew 20:1-16

Who really matters? Like other parables this one doubtless has a history. In Jesus' life setting it uses a familiar image: hiring people who wait about in the town centre for work. The image gets us in touch with the vulnerability of the local people and problem of unemployment. It is not an idyllic scene. These are among the poor for whom the kingdom of God would bring change. Beside the poverty the rawness of being at other people's whim is humiliating, being an expendable resource to be exploited. The farmer's gruffness in accosting these men for standing around all day doing nothing has its echo in stereotypes of dole bludgers or people unemployed because they are too lazy to seek a job. How could you preach on this without touching people among your hearers who live in similar vulnerability and how would you affect them if you simply ignored the issue?

The parable is a story with elements of exaggeration, a certain artificiality which, combined with the ordinariness of the setting, helps the story to work. So it is schematic: hirings at regular intervals right through from sunrise at three hour intervals to the ninth hour, mid afternoon. One might imagine a grape harvest where it became imperative to complete the task of harvesting that day - impending bad weather? All that is left to our imagination.

The casual labourers are called together at the end of the day and paid, beginning with the last hired. They receive a day's wage: a denarius, considered enough to live on for a day. But all the others receive the same amount, including those who had worked since early morning. There is no way that this is equitable. So there is outrage. Jesus has a way of using outrageous people in his stories. Consider the rogue steward in Luke 16:1-7. This is part of the shock tactics. It is subversive story telling which turns normal values upside down. The scene is now not only one of exploitation but also of arbitrariness and injustice.

Yet the story opens new vistas. The employer kept the contract he had made with the first hired but also gave the last hired what they needed to live. The last hired received their denarius, their living. Viewed from this perspective the practice comes close to what for us is a norm: unemployment benefit, making sure people have enough to live on. A different standard is applied: need, not earning rights. To view it in this way puts many things in a new perspective. It does not smooth out all the rough edges, but it is enough to open the door to a different way of thinking.

At what point does it connect with Jesus and his ministry? Probably at the point where many of Jesus' parables connected: at the point of controversy over Jesus' attitude towards the last and least in society. God's grace is there for those who had been righteous all their lives but also for those who had messed up their lives - equally. There is no distinction made in this respect between the prodigal son and the one who stayed with dad all his life and worked on the farm. Unfair! At one level this is true. At another there is a different set of values operating. People are being treated according to their needs, not according to their deserts.

The issue raises the matter of rights. These days it is common to ally the gospel with the demand for human rights. There is a sense in which this undersells the gospel. Our response to people is not to make sure they get their rights, but because they are people and that will often mean going beyond what, according to accepted norms, they have a right to claim. Love of this kind goes beyond human rights. It also assumes the worth of people, human dignity, need for shelter, sustenance, self determination and the like. Needs and rights are closely related and will often overlap, so affirming human rights belongs to caring for people according to their needs, but such caring does not stop there. The argument against human rights that we have no rights and deserve nothing from God sounds pious enough and has validity, but Jesus is trying to get us used to the idea that God is not playing the game of 'Look how good I am; you have no rights and I am generously giving you what you do not deserve! So worship me!' In Jesus we are learning that God is not working with a rights and deserts scale and making exceptions, but simply loving because that, not rights, is what is at the heart of God's being. If we persist in thinking of God in terms of God's rights, we will inevitably view all of life in terms of rights and miss the point of the gospel.

Matthew takes up the story from tradition and places it immediately after the instruction about riches and Jesus' encounter with the rich man (19:16-30). That ends, as it does in Mark (10:31), with the statement that many who are first will be last and many last, first. Its immediate sequel in Mark is Jesus' third prediction of his passion and the endeavour of James and John to have top status in the coming kingdom. Matthew follows the same sequence, but inserts the parable immediately after the statement about the first being last and the last being first. It is striking that he then repeats this saying in reverse order immediately after the parable (20:16). As a result the parable is framed by the reversal saying. The reversal saying connects in Matthew, as it does in Mark, to Jesus' teaching about leadership.

The result is that for Matthew the parable is less a defence of Jesus' practice of inclusion of outcasts and society's least, and more a warning to people in his community who imagine they are deserving of special honour because they have been in the community in leadership for a long time. This is typical of Matthew's tendency to take what Jesus applied to Jewish leadership of his time and apply it to leadership within his own church community. Try doing the same! In a sense John the Baptist was making the same point when he challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees that they should not lay too much weight on being sons of Abraham; it is performance and quality of obedience which counts. Try applying it to yourself. Entrenched in leadership, it is easy to lose touch with what is the heart of the gospel. We become accustomed to employing the rhetoric of radical love. In our very verbal faith, words easily become a substitute for reality. And there is an odd sense of satisfaction we can gain by seriously talking about issues such as poverty without ever doing anything about it - even preaching and being preached to about them.

The trouble with such challenges is that people take a dive into guilt and then try to compensate by being quite unrealistic about what they can or should do. And the trouble is also that preachers can unwittingly exploit that guilt. Some people like being given a hard time. We need to get real and help people to get real. We need to get off the band wagon of being deserving or undeserving. Our opportunity is to live within our finitude and be real and loving as we are. It is OK to be who I am. There is much that I can do and much that I cannot do. I need to live with the pain out there and live with the realisation that I am who I am and can do and be only what I can do and be. All else is a running away from reality. I am not going to do anyone any good by retreating into the 'comfort' of feeling guilty. Guilt is a useful place to be only because it is a place from which to move on; it is not a place to live. The generous love which includes us also wants us to be real about being alive and free. In such generous love and loving we can be real and really play our part in the world.

Epistle: Pentecost 15: 21 September  Philippians 1:21-30

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