Series: Tell Me A Story
Mar 17th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Matthew 20:1-16
I am well aware that this is Saint Patrick’s Day and that those of Irish descent will be luxuriating in the day. But, the Scots also have a few things to say about the day. The Celtic-Gaelic peoples covered a great deal of ground back in the day, and not limited to the British Islands. So, I’m not going to wander too far afield.
On one of my trips to Scotland, I was in a shop and saw a little card, neatly framed. There, on the card were these words: “We’re all Jock Thomson’s Bairns.” Now, for the Scots, anything worth saying was said by Robert Burns. Don’t laugh too hard. In America, anything worth saying was said by Mark Twain, or at least, so it seems. But, I can tell you, after exhaustive searching, there is no evidence that Burns ever said it exactly that way. The closest he ever came was in his poem, “A Man’s A Man for A’ That.” There he wrote:
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will, for a’ that.
That sense and worth, o’er the earth,
May bear the gree and a’ that,
It’s coming yet, fo a’ that,
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brithers be fo a’ that.
Did you hear it? Despite the exclusive and overtly sexist language, Burns – the poet of the common folk and prophet of world unity and peace – calls us to pray for that day to come, when the people of the earth shall one great family be. Pray for that day to come and come quickly.
And that’s really what the little sign in the gift shop was saying. “We’re all Jock Thomson’s bairns.” A bairn is a child – in the language of the lowland Scots. And the name Jock Thomson is a general Scots name, like John Doe, or Mary Smith. The saying simply means that we are all of the same family, going all the way back to Father Adam and Mother Eve, back to that day when God created the heavens and the earth and then, in what seemed like a good idea at the time, created humankind and placed them in a garden in the East.
“We’re all Jock Thomson’s Bairns.” If Burns didn’t say it he surely could have, for it was Burns, who, near the time of the French Revolution and the American Revolution, was preaching an equality of all people – an idea that was as far-reaching and progressive then as it may seem to be today.
But unity and common heritage is not the theme of the parable before us this morning. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we encounter something quite different.
The parable is fairly straightforward and does not require a great deal of explanation. A landowner goes out to hire day workers early in the morning, perhaps at day break. At nine o’clock in the morning, he hires more workers. Again, at noon, he hires more workers for the day. He goes out and hires more at three o’clock and even more at five o’clock. At the end of the day he calls together all the workers to pay them for their labor. And everyone receives the same wage. Everyone is paid exactly the same – whether they started work at daybreak or in the late afternoon. The first-hired workers grumble and complain because they have been working since early in the morning. Surely they deserved something more than those hired in the late afternoon.
If we stop it right there, we have to agree with our Girl Scouts who were discussing this very difficult parable as part of their work toward their religious award. Their conclusion was that this story is simply not fair. And they are right. If we stop the parable right when the workers are paid and begin complaining, the girls are absolutely correct – the story is unfair.
You see, we’ve passed on enough of our capitalist culture to our children for them to know that those who work harder and longer deserve more, while those who work less and for shorter hours deserve less. A child of seven or eight can make that case pretty well. And it is a lesson that does not pass away, because adults make the same case, though in slightly more sophisticated ways.
We claim to believe in meritocracy. We believe that power and authority and all that goes with them should be entrusted to those who work hard, prove themselves, and have a record of achievement. (This is true most of the time – except when it comes to elections.) We respect those who work long hours and do the hard work. We honor that idea and have enshrined it in our national mores and we are offended when someone takes a short-cut to success, pays exorbitant amounts to get their kid into a good college, or avoids the work we believe is needed to be done.
We look down on those who do not work as hard as we think they should. You can hear it whenever someone uses the words “welfare recipients.” There is an inherent judgment that those receiving some kind of public assistance are simply less valuable and we label them “lazy” and “indolent.” When you want to rile up the voting public, you talk about “welfare reform” and “entitlement reform” and that usually refers to the poor and not the rich, though the news of the week might lead you to believe the über-rich believe in certain entitlements.
Stop reading the parable just when the workers start complaining and we’re right there, too. Call in the lawyers and let’s get an unfair labor case started. Little wonder there’s conflict in the vineyard.
But there’s more to the parable. It’s another hard thing to hear. The landowner is heard from again. The landowner says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go, I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. – listen – Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you so envious because I am generous?”
The landowner repudiates the charge of unfairness, simply by reminding the complaining day worker that the worker agreed to the wage and was perfectly happy with it when hired in the morning. It is only when comparing the promised wage and the promised work to the lesser work of another that unfairness comes into play. When working as a day worker, you hope to have work for a day. The first-hired workers were assured of a day’s work for a day’s wage. The worker hired at five o’clock in the afternoon had spent the day waiting and worrying that there would be nothing at the end of the day and it might be that the worker’s family would go hungry.
The landowner asserts the simple truth that he has the right to do with what belongs to him as he see fit. If you were looking for a theological concept that fits the story, “the sovereignty of God” might do nicely. God is in charge of the Kingdom of Heaven and God can do as God pleases.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy, or we would call it the Democratic System of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a socialist system, or we would call it The People’s Republic of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy, or we would call it the Realm of Rewards.
What Jesus seems to be telling us about the Kingdom of Heaven – which is, after all, how the parable begins and what the parable is about – is that the Kingdom of Heaven is based on the reality of grace – the undeserved, unearned, and unmerited love and favor of God. The landowner of the parable does not differentiate between his workers – rewarding all of them with the same wage. God seems to not differentiate between God’s people – be they white, brown, black, or any other color. God does not seem to favor one people over another based on where they live, how they vote, or who they love. God does not seem to give more to the one who is native born and less to the one who is an immigrant. God doesn’t seem to care if a building has a cross, a Star of David, a Crescent Moon, or any other symbol that represents the people who gather there.
And if we don’t like that idea, is it because we are envious that God would care for someone who is different from us? Is it because we have, as the Greek text literally says, “evil eyesight?” Do we really want to see ourselves as better than others so much that we would deny them the very grace we ourselves have received? Are we so jaundiced and jaded in our faith that we believe ourselves superior to all other people that we actually believe that God can love only us and those like us?
Have we become so confident of our privilege that we believe ourselves better than others? Do we fancy ourselves as more worthy – more deserving – because we are white, educated, male, or heterosexual? Do we see ourselves as more valuable because we have resources, property, and the means to influence power? Do we expect respect because of our ancestry, our power, or our ability to control others? These are the very things as the very heart of the carnage in New Zealand this week. These are the very elements of white nationalism – a sin so grievous that it will demand future attention from the and every pulpit. Hear this clearly: nationalism – in all its virulent forms – comes from the bowels of hell and those who proclaim it openly, or covertly, have chosen to walk in darkness and abandon the light.
The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s sovereign sphere of generous grace and undeserved favor. The Kingdom of Heaven is where and when compassion and understanding flow abundantly in channels of blessing and approval to all people and not just some people. The Kingdom of Heaven is where and when God’s grace and love is reflected into the world by those who have experienced that divine grace and love for themselves. The Kingdom of Heaven is where and when bridges of understanding and acceptance are built between people of differing and various backgrounds. The Kingdom of Heaven is where and when humble lives are lived and arrogance and self-importance are set aside.
And all of that means that we begin to see ourselves as Jock Thomson’s Bairns, we begin seeing the world as God sees it. It means we begin seeing ourselves in others and others in ourselves. It means seeing and honoring the image of God in everyone we meet. It means accepting each other as sisters and brothers “fo’ a’ that.”
But be sure you have it, friends: we are not one because we say we are. We are one because God says we are. And in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no room for living with distinctions and divisions.
So, in our lives and in our living – in our words and in our actions -- in our talking and in our walking – accepting all people, witnessing to and working for justice for all people, standing with those who stand alone or with those the world stands against – this is our calling.
It may not be in grandiose actions or in extravagant events that we work for the equality and unity of all people. It may be in something as simple as using new words and seeing the world with new eyes. It may be in teaching our children and grandchildren to respect all people, even those who we were never taught to respect. It may be with letters to the editor, or in conversations with our neighbors, or in directly challenging those who would divide and drive a wedge between peoples, that we answer God’s calling and follow God’s example.
God has declared us one people and now is the time to begin living into that calling. As the world fractures people into this group or that, God calls on God’s people to live into a new reality – a new unity based on a new equality and a new understanding of justice for all. It can be done, friends, because God says it can be done.
“Are we all really Jock Thomson’s Bairns?” The answer is “yes, we are.” Really? Really. In Jesus Christ, God has broken down every dividing wall and once and for all time made us one. And the Kingdom of Heaven is a realm of generous grace and compassion.
Work and pray for that day to come when all people rejoice in being the united and equal people of God. For now and evermore. Amen.