Here’s a text based on Matthew 20:1-16, called “God Keeps Inviting”
(Before you read this article, grab a Bible and read Matthew 20:1-16.)
I get irritated when I have to do something over and over again. The
insurmountable pile of laundry, the ever-multiplying stack of dishes,
the resurgence of dust, that constant need to do yard-work. It never
stops! I’d like for there to be some way to do something once and
have my responsibilities cease. And sometimes I feel that way in
relationships too. I have to constantly reconnect with loved ones –
by phone, by mail, by text, by arriving in person – the beautiful
burden of having friends and family is that you are constantly having
to reconnect with them, to go out and find them and renew your life
with them. I could give that up, but that would also mean giving up
everything meaningful in my life.
In Matthew 20:1-16, what we call the “Parable of the Workers in the
Vineyard”, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven that you
may have heard before. And much has been said about the wages the
workers received, the idea of fairness and God’s grace, the idea of
grumbling when God is gracious to those who come after us. But right
now, all I can see is the landowner who keeps going out looking for
laborers. Over and over again, hour after hour he goes out, hiring
the willing and the unwilling, seeking them out and giving them
purpose. Even to the last hour of the day, he is seeking and
connecting with his workers. This is the kingdom of heaven: God never
stops inviting us in.
Now some of us have just been waiting for the invitation. And God
sees us - God invites in those who seek Him.
I met my friend Joel during college and we were in several plays
together. He is a wonderful man – kind, generous, smart – and he is
also a rabidly devoted Star Wars fan. Like, owns collector’s edition
toys (still in the box), dresses in Star Wars costumes for charity,
makes Fan Films that I may or may not be in, devoted. When Episode 1
came out in 1999, he and his friends CAMPED out in lines outside the
movie theatre for two days to make sure they got into the first
showing. Before Episode 2 came out, they waited in line for 2 WEEKS
and for episode 3 they waited for 1 week. They were more than just
excited about being a part of this historic moment – they were
COMMITTED. I’m not sure how they felt AFTER the movies were over, though.
The scene we have in scripture is both familiar and a bit foreign to
us. The landowner goes out into the public square to hire day
laborers – a scene that many of us have seen or taken part in at Home
Depot or Lowe’s parking lots. And these first hired are eager – it’s
pretty early in the morning and the laborers are looking for work so
they can provide for their families. It’s not easy or clean work, but
that wasn’t really important. And the landowner doesn’t have to look
very hard to find these guys – they are ready and willing to be a part
of the work of the vineyard, even if they’re only going to be paid a
denarius for the day’s work. That was good money, but it wasn’t
great. They were like my friend Joel, already anticipating being a
part of the work of the day.
And some of us have faith stories like that – we’ve been waiting at
the door or even inside the building just anticipating God’s call. We
know that there is work to be done, some of it messy, most of it
achingly difficult, all of it kingdom-purposed, but that difficulty is
not important. And many of us do it without pay, or with very little,
just ready to start when God calls. And God does call. The vineyard
of the kingdom of God does need tending to, and I’m sure that God is
overjoyed to welcome us in as workers. Even if sometimes we are eager
for the wrong reasons, with the wrong intentions or the wrong
preconceived notions of what that work will entail. But in our
readiness to jump in, we also have to remember that we’re not going to
be the only workers – in fact, we might resent God and his choices in
terms of some of the people we end up working alongside with.
Though many of us have been eager to be a part of what God is doing,
we’re not the norm. Many times God is seeking out the skeptical. You
see, God invites in those who are unsure of Him.
Though I very much enjoy the process of voting, I’ve grown to loath
election season. All I hear is overblown rhetoric, finger pointing
and cynical political prophecy and it makes me want to shriek.
Especially irritating – the discussion of the almost mythical
“independent voter”, the elusively unaffiliated American citizen who
refuses to be pinned down politically. Politicians are always trying
to attract these “independents”, just sure that their support will
assure election victory. And understandably, these voters (if they’re
even real) are non-committal to an extreme – they are unsure about the
issues, they are unsure about the candidates, they are unsure that
choosing a side will even make a difference. Why choose? Why even
In our parable, the hours of the workday pass, but the landowner is
not done with his hiring. He continues to head out into the town
square looking for workers, hour after hour, hiring more. These are
the workers who are not as eager to get involved, to get their hands
dirty. They are likely sitting around, talking, knowing they should
get busy but unable to will themselves to do so. And the landowner
unabashedly walks up to them, hour after hour, and calls them to work.
Maybe the harvest is especially big – we don’t know. Maybe the
season is close to over – we don’t know. Maybe these workers need the
money very badly – we don’t know. All we know is that the landowner
continues to give places to all the people he can find, even the ones
who are not as eager to work as the first were.
This apprehension of involvement, this learned apathy towards being a
part of something, this also manifests itself in our faith practices.
Far from being excited about being a part of God’s kingdom work, some
of us have faith stories that look a lot more complicated. Maybe you
were burned by church as a child or teen. Maybe you have always been
curious but turned off by dogmatic pronouncements. Whatever the case
though, it was hard to get excited about anything that had to do with
church. But like those slow to get to work in our parable, God
searched you out. And God is still searching, going out into the
marketplaces, the homes, the lives of the unsure and giving them a
place in his vineyard, a purpose in his kingdom. And we have a
responsibility to welcome them in – to gently apologize for how they
have been mistreated, to strongly encourage the deepening of their own
faiths, to unabashedly make room for them in our hearts and church.
And while we usually have few protests about welcoming the unsure
within our midst, it is much more difficult to accept those who have
made it their practice to avoid God entirely.
God is brave enough, though, to not only seek out the willing and the
unsure, but to approach the completely disinterested. God invites in
those who do not seek Him.
Though I’ve worked in retail jobs before, I never had to do “cold
sales” or “cold calling.” You may not have heard about this type of
sales before, but I guarantee that you’ve seen it before. Like when
little kids (or adults) come door-to-door selling goods. Or when you
walk through the mall and a man or woman jumps in front of you and
tries to get you to sample their lotion. Or when you get a phone call
from a company you’ve never heard of asking you to buy their product.
That’s cold sales – and cold selling is DIFFICULT. People are
skeptical of your intent, often irritated by the intrusion, and
unlikely to participate.
The landowner in our parable is not afraid of the cold sale. He
approaches workers at the very last hour of the day, and even though
they give him excuses as to why they haven’t begun to work, he still
invites them into the vineyard. And let’s be honest – these are
excuses. If they had really needed the work, they would have
connected with our landowner much earlier in the day. How could they
have missed him at 6, 9, 12, and 3 o’clock? But their own dubious
reasons for staying idle do not dismay our landowner – instead he very
simply tells them – “You also go into the vineyard.” Isn’t that just
like our God – continually calling his people to work despite their
best (or worst) excuses?
This is our God – the Christ who welcomes in the eager, the
apprehensive and the outright dismissive. The Christ who seeks out
workers in every state of life, who cares not for excuses or skeptical
aloofness. This is our God – who approaches us no matter our state in
life, looks us straight in the eye and says “Go into the vineyard.”
Whether you have been waiting to serve God all your life or skeptical
of God and his claims all your life, God is still calling us in,
bringing us into the work of his kingdom on this earth and beyond it.
I don’t know about you, but I am comforted and challenged by the fact
that God looks around at the motley crew of his church and
determinedly heads back out into the world to fill in the gaps that
only he knows are gaping. I am learning to eagerly anticipate the new
and unexpected workers that he is inviting in to work alongside us all
in the business of Jesus Christ. I am ready to be amazed at the
miracle of God’s spirit moving in the people who have only ever
rejected the church and God’s kingdom. Are you?
In this parable, Jesus teaches us many things about grace, about our
own natures and about God’s character in action. And this is our God
– a God continually opening his own doors to welcome in the familiar
and the stranger, a God continually calling on the likely and most
unlikely to be his workers. A God who expects us to faithfully get on
board with his unorthodox hiring practices. This is our God, and I am
thankful because - God never stops inviting us in.
Rev. Elizabeth Grasham-Reeves