September 20, 2020
The last laborers to join the vineyard had spent their day being picked over. They were the hiring process leftovers. Like the last kids remaining in a gym class team selection, these laborers were for one reason or another deemed less valuable workers by the other landowners. Perhaps they were less physically capable than others. Maybe their strengths were not easily visible. Not being hired for work that day, they were standing around with no purpose or potential for growth.
But we have a generous landowner who does not overlook anyone. This landowner spends his entire day scouring the market for those who have been left behind and securing a place for them in his vineyard. He gives them value and meaning. Jesus will not rest until every lost and idle bystander has a place in the kingdom of heaven.
This radical generosity scandalizes the system that rewards people based on their merits and outputs. But Jesus rewards people of all abilities and work ethics equally. In God’s commonwealth, the leftover workers have as much value as those chosen first.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver was keenly aware of how people with intellectual disabilities were defined by what they couldn’t do. She wanted to provide opportunities for them to develop physical fitness, display courage, and find joy on the playing field. Her vision grew into the Special Olympics movement. This inclusive and expansive glimpse into the kingdom of heaven celebrates the athletic achievements of those who are often excluded from the vineyard.
In worship, we practice leaning into Jesus’ vision as we gather around the table. Regardless of our status or position, we are all on equal footing at Christ’s meal. We are given the same portions of bread. We drink from the same cup. It does not matter if we arrived late or early, young or old, grateful or ungrateful. Jesus has invited each of us here. We have not been overlooked. We have been given our work for this day.
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The Readings in the Bible
According to standard outlines of Matthew, the allegory of the laborers in the vineyard is in the fourth section (16:13—20:34), which focuses on preparation for the death and raising of Jesus, God’s Son. For Matthew, “heaven” is a circumlocution for God, and “the kingdom” refers to the eschatological end of all things, the way it will be in God. Today’s allegory, with the generous landowner being God and the laborers embodying the varying commitments of believers, makes the biblical point that in God all earthly values are reversed. Divine mercy is not fair. It is likely that by the time of the writing of Matthew’s gospel, contemporary church leaders were being negatively compared with ones closer to the time of Jesus, and the evangelist wishes to negate such criticism.
The book of Jonah is an ironic, even comic, short story about a prophet-like figure who begrudges preaching to Nineveh, the capital city of the ancient enemy nation of Assyria. Written after the exile and perhaps long after the destruction of Nineveh in 612 bce, the story contrasts with other biblical post-exilic writings, for example Ezra and Nehemiah, in that it urges Israel to move beyond its narrow religious and ethnic boundaries and to acknowledge that God’s mercy is meant for all peoples. Chapter 3 tells of Jonah’s finally preaching to his enemies and their conversion. Verse 10 leads then to chapter 4, which in short story fashion parallels chapter 1, with the disgruntled Jonah angered by God’s steadfast love for the enemy. The charming last sentence indicates that God cares also for the enemy’s animals.
Paul wrote a letter to the church in Philippi from prison, that, depending on which imprisonment, could have been in 53 or after 60. The letter is filled with Paul’s sense of joy in the faith of Christ and includes the beloved Christ Hymn of 2:5-11, which confesses what much later came to be termed the two natures of Christ: his humility as a human and his exaltation as Lord of all. Introducing one of the letter’s themes, today’s excerpt urges the community to live together in unity.