Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Sep. 24, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Sep 24, 2023 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Sep. 24, 2023

When Rebbi Zeïra eulogized his teacher Rebbi Abun bar Rebbi Ḥiyya he used a Jewish parable drawn from Ecclesiastes (5:11) to convey something of his most learned mentor. 

“There was a king who hired many workers. But there was one worker more efficient in his work than others. What did the king do? . . . Evening arrived and the workers came to collect their pay. The king gave the more efficient worker the same wage as he gave them. The other workers became boisterous and said, ‘We worked all day long, but this one worked only two hours, but you gave him the same wage!’ The king said to them, ‘This one did more work in two hours than the rest of you did working all day long.’” 

Rabbi Zeïra told the parable to say his beloved teacher was so wise that what he produced in Torah in his mere 28 years of study was equal to what an outstanding student could learn in a hundred years. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 2:8, c. 400 c.e.)

These later rabbinic stories were sometimes passed along for centuries before being written down, so we don’t know if Jesus knew this one or not. We can safely speculate that Jesus had an affinity with some of the later rabbis and rabbinic literature, so he may well have been creating his parable as a twist on the one I just told you. To me they illustrate the same idea from different directions, and we’ll come back to Rebbi Zeïra’s parable.

Our reading from Matthew is what I call the “But that’s not fair!” parable. When some get more while others get less we tie it to deserving or earned work hours. When we use money as a measure or value to our circumstances, “fair” and “unfair” comes to mind rather easily. Yet I cannot remember Jesus even once saying to count our sacrifices as being fair, and I’m hard pressed to see his own sacrifice as fair by any standard. When we read it through a lens other than our earthly material world of wants, things change. 

Through the lens of relationship and community we listen more for justice than fairness, for mutual care more than “us or them”. We have loving compassion for those whom God has placed in our lives, don’t we? They inspire us to be generous beyond wanting the best or most for ourselves, and we lean towards living by Jesus’ Way more than society’s winner-takes-all rules. When we look beyond the ‘fairness’ of what we think we’ve earned, we yearn for that which is deeper and far more powerful. What we have when we let the love and grace of God (God’s currency) rule our hearts — is far greater than those extra dollars or denarii!

What was it about those workers who’d worked all day that made them so angry when the others got paid the same? Again, money is often the way we assign value, not just to our lives but also to the lives of others. Living by that measure  displaces gratitude and generosity in favor of an ethic of getting ahead or having more than the next guy. 

And here’s the thing about generosity and gratitude; they keep us humble. Can we clean our house or pay for utilities? Select and purchase groceries? It is humbling to remember people who have no home to keep clean, and whose groceries are whatever the food bank has left by the time work is over. One fellow sitting outside at the grocery store joked that he had no worries about paying the electric bill; he just asked if I could buy him a can of sterno to heat his tent when it got cold. 

We read that the more you consider how blessed we are, the more we look upon those less fortunate with compassion instead of resentment. That may well be true. What I also find is that the more I know of a person’s conditions or struggles, the more I see them as sister or brother, —the more I want to understand and help. 

What if those hired late in the day were still waiting to be hired because they didn’t look like good workers? Because he spoke a different language or looked too old, appeared sick, or had a disability? Workers missing hand or on crutches are unlikely to be hired given high-output-expectations. Yet obviously they need to eat or feed their families too. Is the point here about what’s ‘fair’ or what’s generous or just?

By this point in our encounter with the parable we need to remember we didn’t learn it from a live news feed or in a police blotter; it’s a parable. So what if we retold it substituting Jesus for the landowner, and replaced the workers with followers or believers? The denarii was an amount sufficient for keeping a family fed for a day, yet what might Jesus have had in mind? “Why are you standing here idle all day?” he asked.“Because no one has hired us.” Whose call are they waiting to hear? Jesus said to each of the disciples in some way, ‘Come and follow me.’ Is this him saying it to those workers not yet hired, and people get called into Jesus’ promise now, even ‘late in the day.’

Part of our work and call is to recognize we are not alone in our need for him in our lives, and that no one undeserving of the invitation to Jesus’ vineyard, to his table. Yesterday we had the funeral of Helen Mock Strang. Just before the service her son Mark passed me a small Book of Common Prayer asking if we could put it with her ashes. Her daughter Amy enthusiastically agreed. I assumed it had been Helen’s, but he said no, this was his. When Mark got up to speak during the service his voice startlingly boomed out that the greatest gift his mother ever gave him was faith! She gave him this prayerbook when he was a boy, and he used it every Sunday either in these very pews or in the pocket of his acolyte robes. He’s been gratefully dwelling in that vineyard ever since. His last line was something to the effect of it being a good thing she had given him this gift of Christ, or he’d be even more of a messed up wreck that he is now. We all laughed, and as we did I knew he spoke for me too. 

Earlier I wondered if money is the way we assign value to things in our lives. How does God assign value? Jesus considered us to be worth the sacrifice of his very life that we might have eternal life. Is our salvation the variously valued denarii? Using these in place of the parable’s symbols should someone who came late to faith in God receive only a little salvation? Surely we cradle Episcopalians would be granted eternal life automatically, right? Do those who volunteer and tithe for decades get to race through the gates of heaven with no waiting, as if they held a TSA PreCheck pass? Is the one baptized as an infant worth more or less than the 90 year old man I baptized just days before his death? The same priceless gift is given them both, and perhaps that’s the point of Rebbi Zeïra’s parable too — that it isn’t length of time you follow God, but rather that as long or short as it takes, finding our way to the Holy One is the greatest gift one receives. Consider Peter who denied Jesus repeatedly on that last dark day; he was forgiven and loved back into Jesus’ embrace. Thomas, who voiced strong doubts of the resurrection, soon heard Jesus’ say to come touch his wounds and believe. 

Jesus was wise to use money in this parable given how common it as a measure of value. Would listeners chafe at the unfairness if he’d have said it was about love or eternal life in him? I wonder. Maybe at that point Jesus knew they understood they wrestled with money more than faith. When the wages are defined by our relationship to each other it begins to change. Those weary from a whole day in the sun could have seen the new arrivals as hungry children of God too. Imagine you’ve been working all day, whom could we see and think they do not deserve to eat, to live, to be loved by God? Picture your own parent, child or one of our young bread bearers, how many hours of toil before they deserve it? One day a visitor joined us and when he saw John Rittenhouse he called out to him because he knew him from the food bank. No embarrassment, just certainty of mutual respect and joy in seeing a face of love he knew. It happened one day as a young woman saw Lori and then Pat, recognizing them from Issaquah Meals—again glad to see those friendly caring faces. 

Whose face would you want to see when you are seeking? Perhaps you’re in need of something you can’t even name yet. People continually find comfort, care, and joy in the face of Christ right here in this congregation—in person and online. Jesus promises that God’s grace and spiritual nourishment is forever abundant enough to welcome us all in, no matter how late to the vineyard we might be. Amen.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Sep. 24, 2025.