Matthew 20: 1 – 15 God’s Strange Arithmetic September 20, 2020


God’s Strange Arithmetic

Matthew 20: 1 – 15

(preached on September 20, 2020)

In the parable Jesus tells in our passage for today, from the gospel of Matthew, the landowner goes to the marketplace again and again.  Every time, he hires a group of laborers to work in his vineyard.  Toward the end of the day, only one group of laborers remains in the marketplace.  The landowner asks them, “Why are you standing here idle?”  They reply, “Because no one has hired us.”

We don’t know why they weren’t hired earlier.  Maybe they couldn’t speak the language.  Maybe they couldn’t afford the increase in the price of gas and had to walk to the marketplace.  Maybe they had to take care of a sick child for most of the day.  Whatever the reason, they were left out.  But this landowner wants everyone to work in his vineyard.  He can’t stand the thought of anyone being left behind.  So he says to the last group of workers, “Go into the vineyard.”  And they go.

At the end of the day, all the workers are astounded when the landowner gives a full day’s wage to everybody, no matter how long they’ve worked.  One group is not just astounded; they’re angry.  They are the early birds who’ve worked at the vineyard since the crack of dawn.  These early bird workers don’t think it’s fair when the late arrivals receive the same pay as they do, for just an hour’s work.  They ask the landowner, “What kind of business owner are you?  We’ve kept this silly vineyard up and running while you were in the marketplace.  We have sunburns and blisters and pulled muscles.  And now, not only do you pay us last, but you pay us the same as those latecomers!  We deserve better!”  It’s not fair.

It’s not fair.  That’s something you and I might say from time to time.  Life isn’t fair.  Life sometimes doesn’t go the way you want it to, or the way it should.  People don’t always get the rewards they deserve.  You see it all the time.  People who work hard and live good, ethical lives might get the short end of the stick anyway.  Like the employee who comes to work faithfully every day and stays at her desk till quitting time, until one day she arrives at the office to find her job has been outsourced to Asia.

Life isn’t fair.  You and I can understand why the early bird  workers react the way they do.  The latecomers get the same pay for very little work.

So what do you do when it hits you that life isn’t fair?  You might want to shake your fist in the air and demand an explanation.  You might go looking for someone to blame.  Or when life isn’t fair, you might wonder if God has it in for you.  You might wonder if the unfairness if God’s way of punishing you for something.

People might even say that to you.  They might say, “No, it isn’t fair.  But God must be doing this for some reason.  Maybe God wants to take you down a peg or two so that you learn not to be so full of yourself.”   Or someone might tell you that God is doing this to make you a better person.  But to me that doesn’t sound like the God who created each of us out of infinite love.  As Rev. Rick Hughes puts it, “A loving God doesn’t make you a better person by breaking you into little pieces.  A loving God shows you how to become a better person by helping you put the pieces back together.”

Jesus told this parable to show the extravagant love of God.  Jesus told this parable to show that God wants everyone in the vineyard; in other words, God wants everyone in God’s Kingdom.  The parable says that God won’t stop going out into the marketplace until everyone has been rounded up.

This is the Kingdom of God:  the Kingdom into which God is longing to welcome us.  God wants every one of us, whether it’s early or late.  God isn’t going to stop till all of us – early birds and latecomers, and everybody in between – until all God’s children make it into the Kingdom.

Robert Moor writes about family life and the Kingdom of God.  He was one of six siblings who grew up on a farm in Canada.  “Back in Ontario,” he writes, “when the apples got ripe, Mom would bring them in and put them in a big pile in the middle of the kitchen table.  She would sit all seven of us down, Dad included, with pans and paring knives.  [We worked] until the mountain of fruit was reduced to neat rows of canning jars, filled with applesauce.  She never bothered keeping track of how many we did…

“[Of course] the younger ones undoubtedly proved more of a nuisance than a help: [They cut their fingers, squabbled over who got which pan, and had apple core fights.].  But when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same:  the [biggest] chocolate-dipped ice cream cone money could buy.  A stickler might argue that it wasn’t quite fair since it was the older ones who actually peeled apples.  But I can’t remember anyone complaining about it.”

Moor goes on, “A family understands it operates under a different set of rules than a courtroom.  God wants all his children to enjoy the fullness of eternal life, in the Kingdom.  No true child of God wants it any other way.”

God wants all God’s children to enter into the joy of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom isn’t ruled by human ideas about fairness.  The Kingdom isn’t ruled by human ideas about who deserves what.  The Kingdom is ruled by a God who loves each of us without conditions or reservations, a God who desperately wants each of us to have a place.  As children of God, all we have to do is take our place.  All we have to do is believe that God loves us that much.


All day long, the landowner is going into the marketplace.  He’s looking for workers who are clever, and workers who are clueless.  He’s looking for go-getters and laid-back types.  He’s looking for workers who are chatty and workers who are quiet.  He’s looking for me, and he’s looking for you.  And when he finds you, don’t be surprised if you hear him say, “You!  I want you in the vineyard.  Go on in and take your place at the front of the line.”


Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 16


Organ Music:

“How Beautiful are the Feet”   George Handel

Maria Ferrante, Soprano