God's Generosity: A sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, by Joe Ellis, Sept. 20, 2020
Jesus starts out the parable saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like...” and then tells a striking story of a Land Owner and his workers — a story where the one’s who work the least receive the same amount as the one’s who work the most. This story of the Kingdom of Heaven is so unlike what the Kingdom of Earth is like. In the Kingdom of Earth, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. In the Kingdom of Earth, if you don’t study, you fail your course. In the Kingdom of Earth, if you don’t eat your dinner, you don’t get dessert. If you don’t pay your taxes you end up paying fines. If you want to hear a parable about what the Kingdom of Earth is like, listen to the story of the Little Red Hen. The dog, cat and duck are asked to help make bread but refuse. So when its time to eat the bread the Hen says, “You didn’t do the work? You don’t eat the bread.” That’s a parable for the kingdom of Earth. If you want to get ahead in the kingdom of earth, you need to be like the Little Red Hen. This works really well for those who are like the little red hen, but some people may have trouble learning from the Little Red Hen, especially if they have a particularly severe learning disability. They may try and try and try but only learn the lesson that the dog, cat and duck learned — if for some reason you can’t do the work, you won’t eat. That’s the unsavoury reality of the Kingdom of Earth — not all are playing with the same hand and some people have been dealt some rotten cards. As a result they can’t eat the bread, maybe they’re not smart enough, maybe they’re not
attractive enough, maybe they weren’t born into money, whatever it is they find themselves perpetually behind. In the kingdom of earth, not all of us are as good as making bread as the little red hen — and the reality is that the further we fall behind, the less we will eat. Because we know that the story of the little red hen basically describes the way things are in the kingdom of earth, we try our best, knowing that the more we achieve the more bread we’ll have in our pantry. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t like that at all. The story starts as we’d expect, the Landowner arranges for some competent workers to receive fair pay for fair work. They began their day at 6am and set to work — these are the best and brightest Little Red Hens — the Land Owner can rest assured that his vineyard will be well taken care of. And so off they go. But after that, the story begins to get stranger and stranger. The landowner goes out and into the marketplace and sees some workers with nothing to do. So he sends those lazy dogs cats and ducks into the vineyard. He does this three more times. Finally when there is just one hour left in the day, he finds more workers standing around idle. Before he sends them away, he asks, “why aren’t you working?” They say, “because no one has hired us.” Maybe they’re not working because they are lazy, but their answer suggests that it’s far more likely no one wanted them. It’s the end of the day, all the workers have gathered around for their pay. At his boss’s instructions, the foreman calls the last workers first. And pays them for a full days work. The little red hens look on in surprise and rub their
hands together in anticipation: surely we will get paid more — we who’ve worked all day in the hot scorching sun. But when its their turn, they get the same pay and they’re hopping mad! This isn’t how things are supposed to work in the kingdom of earth. We worked harder, we should get paid more! But the landowner says to those of us who are little red hens, “friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a days wage? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Most of us know the story of the Little Red Hen far better than this story of Jesus. We’ve maybe heard Jesus’ parable more, but we’ve lived the story of the Little Red Hen our whole lives. Its been worked into our bones. Its the way the economy works. And so we expect the Kingdom of Heaven to be like the Kingdom of Earth. We expect that those who work harder for God will get better rewards. We expect that when we show up to church, when we do our quiet time, when we serve the poor, when we pray — we expect that God will pay us what is just. We believe that when we are good little red hens, we’ll get the bread that our work has earned. But Jesus tells us that’s not what the Kingdom of God is like! Sometimes he doesn’t give us what we think we’ve earned. He might not give us what we think all our piety has earned us. When we work for God like a bunch of little red hens, he let’s us keep working away because that’s apparently what we want. Maybe we like better thinking that we are earning our keep, rather than receiving God’s generosity. God does not
want us to be little red hens working for the approval of our boss. God is our Father, and He wants to give to his children out of His generosity. God is generous! God gives us what we don’t deserve, what we haven’t earned. When we spend time with God in our quiet time, he wants to give us what we haven’t earned — himself, his presence, his friendship. Last Monday our church council was reviewing our guidelines and practices around our worship services, and one thing that we talked about was whether the continue celebrating the Lord’s Supper every week. The sense from council was pretty unanimous that this is something we should lean into for this season. When I asked, “why? What do you appreciate about celebrating the Lord’s Supper every week,” there were a lot of really meaningful responses, but one response in particular seemed to resonate with what we’ve been talking about this morning. Someone said that so much of what we do as Christians, especially on Sundays, can feel performance based. Was the worship good? Was the preaching good? Did a lot of people who’s up? This person went on to say, “that’s not the case with the Lord’s Supper.” Through the simple act of eating and drinking, Jesus becomes mysteriously present to us through faith. We might not feel like we’re doing much, and that’s the point, its God’s generosity. During the Lord’s Supper, God invites us, maybe for just a couple of minutes, to set our little red hen tendencies aside, and just receive the gifts of God. God invites us to trust, even if we can’t feel it, that he is nourishing us at His table. Its like the call in Isaiah, “Ho, everyone who thrists, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and
without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live. The Lord says, Listen to me. Listen carefully to me and eat what is good. For At last supper, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this in remembrance of me. ”For whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.