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Erediens-werkwinkel | Mtunzini-wyksgemeente | 'n Kort Gedagte vir die Dag

Can People Do the Work of God?

Mtunzini, 13 August 2000

Professor Vernon K. Robbins, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Text: Matthew 20:1-6, The Landowner and the Laborers in the Vineyard

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


It is a pleasure for my wife Deanna and me to be in Mtunzini. We are enjoying the kind hospitality of Bobby and Minnie Loubser and their two children at home: Johannes and Sanmari. Last week we were in Durban at the International Association for the History of Religions, where Bobby made a contribution as President of the South African Academy of Religion. People who study religions all over the world were there. The next meeting will be in Tokyo, Japan, in 2005.

One of the questions that was asked at the meetings was, "What is religion?" This may seem like a strange question. Surely we know religion when we see it? Or do we know it when we hear it? Or is it when we feel it, when we ourselves experience it, that we know it? But what exactly is religion? Is it people gathering together? Or is it one person sitting alone? Is it people dancing? Is it people singing without dancing? Or should it include both singing and dancing? Is religion an experience inside a person or is it an experience of one person with other people?

In addition, what is a religious text? What makes a text holy, sacred? Is it a text that somehow refers to God? Or is it a text that refers to humans living together in the world God created?

I. The word God never appears in our scripture text for today. Nor does the word Jesus, though Jesus is the one who tells the story. Rather, it refers to a "kingdom," which sounds political. It seems to refer to the ruling of a king. But this kingdom is "of heaven," so we know that it is somehow referring to God, even God as king. Or is it referring to the way people rule over each other under heaven, under God’s rule?

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers, workers, in his vineyard. Are we supposed to think of the landowner as God, who made all the world and owns all the land in it? Or are we supposed to think of people like most of you and like me, who claim to own certain land?

Yesterday as Bobby, my wife Deanna, and I were riding in the car from Durban to Mtunzini one of the things we talked about was the strange concept of owning land. Only God owns land. God created it, and only God will decide what will happen to it millions of years from now. But in the meantime, certain humans claim to own land. Native American Indians in the United States have never believed that land can be something that people own. People live on land together, and they must share land with one another as they live on earth together. Perhaps some native people in South Africa have similar beliefs about land.

But in this story Jesus presupposes that one person is a landowner and he goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. Under God’s rulership as king of all the earth, how should landowners treat laborers who work in their fields and vineyards?

II. The landowner hires laborers and send them into his vineyard early in the morning, at nine o’clock, at noon, and at three o’clock. How are we to understand this part of the story? Does God continually call us to do God’s work? Do some respond immediately, while it takes others longer to respond? Or are we the one’s who call others to work? Do we engage in the work of God as we invite others to work together with others to do things God needs people to do? There is a long tradition of interpreting this parable as a call from God to work in God’s vineyard.

When I was twelve years old, I went to church camp during the summer. Every night we heard a person preaching to us, and on Thursday evening there was a call for us to give our life to God and to Christ. I responded, and we signed our name in a book.

Is this what this story is talking about? Does God call us through other people, and are we expected to respond? All of this takes only five verses in the story, and the story is sixteen verses long. It appears that other things are at stake in the story, in addition to God’s call to us.

III. The longest part of the story occurs after the landowner calls still more people at five o’clock, late in the afternoon. After some have been working and sweating all day in the hot sun, some go out and work only one hour at the end of the day.

At the end of the day, the landowner tells his manager to call the workers in to receive pay for their work. This is the place where the story begins to go wrong. If God is somehow running this story, if this story is divine scripture, then surely those who have worked hard all day will be paid first so they can go home, wash up, eat, and sleep. Also, surely they will be paid the most, since they have worked all day in the hot sun. Instead, the landowner tells the manager to have the people queue up so that those who worked only one hour are first in the queue.

Perhaps this is a story about standing in a queue. I do not know about you, but I always get in the queue where some one up front has a problem with approval of their cheque, or they have to get a different product that costs the lower price they expected, or the machine jams and someone has to come and work on it while all the other queues keep moving speedily along. Garrison Keillor, the man who has the American radio show called Prairie Home Companion, hopes to find a computerized detector a person can buy and simply point to all the queues and it will indicate which queue will go through the fastest, so a person can get in that queue rather than another that takes a long time. So perhaps this story is designed to teach us patience in a queue that keeps us from going home to freshen up, to be with our family, and to rest.

Is God a God who shows preference to people who have stood around doing nothing all day and then have gone out and worked only one hour? Or is it simply about standing in a queue? Is this simply a statement about God’s world, that it is necessary for us to learn to watch others receive benefits that seem unearned, while we who have worked hard have to stand and watch?

Is God’s story simply trying to disturb us, or is it trying to teach us something very important about the world in which we live, a place where the last regularly receive first? There is a long tradition that says that an interpretation of scripture that simply makes us feel good, that supports our values and prejudices, is not truly an interpretation of this scripture as the Word of God. The Word of God confronts our human values, our presuppositions, and requires that we think about our life from a different perspective. So is this story designed to disturb us deeply? Is this what makes the story a religious story, a holy story, a story in which God speaks to us?

IV. Finally God’s story becomes totally a problem. The landowner pays the people who worked only a few hours a full day’s pay, one denarius. So surely those who worked longer will receive more. But no, the landowner pays everyone only one denarius, even though some have worked the entire day and others only a few hours.

The final six verses focus on the seemingly unjust system of payment of the landowner. The workers who worked all day complain to the landowner. The verb in the text is "to grumble" [gonguzein], which is the verb the Bible uses for the manner in which the Israelites complained to Moses after he led them out of Egypt into the wilderness. In response, the owner calls one of them "friend" and tells him he has paid him what he agreed to pay. Here it is important to notice that the story emphasizes in verse two that the landowner agreed to pay a day’s wage, one denarius, to the first laborers who went out early in the morning. Then he repeats to them in verse thirteen that he is paying to them what he agreed to pay them.

The landowner says, "I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first last."

So now where has God’s story taken us? Is this what religion is? To believe that God will be generous to people who it seems to us do not deserve it, and we must not be envious? Where is our dependable God, our God of justice? Should we not receive more if we have labored more diligently? Or is the story about us, who have many things. Do we deserve all that we have, or have we received generously from others, even when we have not deserved it? We have been truly blessed, have we not? Are we supposed to learn to give generously to others, even when they have not worked as hard as others? Is this what God’s asks us to learn from this story? Why is it that we in the United States are not able to distribute food, health services, and education throughout our own nation? Why do we, who have so much, have such difficulty finding a way to distribute necessary things to those who need them in our own nation? If we cannot find a way to give generously to our own people, how will we ever find a way to give generously to the nations of the world who need us to be generous to them?


Why is God’s world so puzzling? And why is this story so puzzling? I think this story shocks us to force us to change our usual way of thinking about God’s world. While we are thinking about certain benefits we may receive, the story focuses totally on generosity. We must think anew about generosity, and we must focus on it in a manner that requires our total attention. We must be generous, because we have received generosity in ways that we completely forget.

What is so obvious to us is that some people have so much less than others. Maybe this story asks us to focus totally on the right to be generous and the joy of being generous. The landowner wants to be generous.

God has been generous to us. Do we deserve it? Not really. Life has been generous to us. We have been fortunate. Other people who have worked as hard as we have, or harder, do not have as much as we do.

So what is religion? What is God’s word to us? One of the great traditions in biblical interpretation, as I said before, is that we are closest to God’s word when God’s message offends our basic expectations. Perhaps it offends us by asking us to turn our attention away from what we ourselves may receive to the need for generosity throughout the world.

I remember my days in secondary school when it seemed to me that Lloyd Langemeier received all the trophies and awards for playing football and basketball. He got all the prizes, and it did not seem to me that he had to work very hard for them. He was big and strong physically, and I had not yet gotten my full growth. He could beat me up whenever he wanted to. About ten years ago I saw him again. He had a bone disease, stood stooping over, walked with a cane, and carried a pillow on which to sit so it would not hurt so much. He lived only a few years after that. He is no longer alive now. His body became diseased, and he died at a young age. How does God’s generosity work? How does our generosity, yours and mine, work?

How does your generosity work? Do you fear to be generous because others will be envious? May God help us all to be generous and to accept generosity for others. In the name of God who loves us and has given us so much. Amen.



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Jezus in het Midden, preek in Nederlands deur Ds J. H. Neethling Joh 19:18 voor 1904

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