Proper 20, Year A, Church of the Holy Cross, Murfreesboro

You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matt. 20:12).

I had an email exchange with a colleague the other day that caused me to think; that made Jesus’ words in our Gospel today leap out from the page. I was in touch about a project we were both involved in; and after responding to that, my colleague told me about some of the other things that were going on in her life: family, friends, and other pastoral responsibilities. The point was not how busy she was, or oppressed; but the learning I took away with me was that my colleague was indeed bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat of pastoral responsibility.

There are some places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about the life of his disciples in a way that’s similar to our reading. In Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus and his friends journey together to Jerusalem, he foretells his death and resurrection three times. After the first time he tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Sounds like pretty challenging work, doesn’t it?

Then again, there’s this, also from earlier in St. Matthew, perhaps even more to the point, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30). Here Jesus speaks of “yoke” and “burden,” words that conjure up the picture we have in our Gospel today. But Jesus also introduces another idea: that the yoke will not weary, but lead to rest; that the burden, rather than being “burdensome,” will by contrast be light.

So, what about that Gospel? Jesus tells a story of the kingdom of heaven, as in “the kingdom of heaven is like…”.  Jesus tells many of these stories, that point toward the reign of God’s messiah, the anointed king. This story is about the fall harvest of the grapes, and about the big rush to get the harvest in. Workers are hired, but so many are needed that there is a scramble for additional help. The landowner returns again and again, looking for workers for the vineyard. Even at the end he finds folk standing around idle, and he presses them into service, no matter what the terms. At the end, everyone, including the latecomers, is paid the same rate as those who spent the whole day laboring.

Those who have been working all day object to this. Why should these “johnny come lately” folk be rewarded at the same rate as the long-suffering laborers? So, 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. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous” (Matt. 20:14-15).

If the story is about the kingdom, then it’s a story about the nature of God, and our relationship with him. It’s a story of urgency, in face of the great harvest. The long-suffering laborers are trying to reduce the relationship to a transaction, a zero-sum game that’s about “the usual daily wage;” while Jesus is recalling the true nature of life and ministry as a gift, something given freely by God. As Jesus says in the story, the landowner is generous; it ill behooves the workers to stand around carping on the sidelines about how unfair the landowner is. The owner of the vineyard can do what he likes with what is his. No one will really be diminished by God’s generosity, except to the extent that we seek to compare ourselves to others.

God does not award wages for services rendered, but gives gifts, and that is good news for us. We should pray not to get what we deserve, because if we get what we deserve, we might be unpleasantly surprised at the result. But God doesn’t play tricks on us. He’s intent upon lavishing good things upon us, but these things must come as a gift. We should aim for the broad margin, where God is, and where we need to be.

Finally, back to “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matt. 20:12). The curious thing about the message from my friend is that there was no notion that any of the things she wrote me about were burdensome, a yoke to be borne or heat to be endured. Or if they were a yoke, she made it out to be an easy one. All of us, in this time of pandemic, have been bearing the burden and feeling the heat, not least of all in our vocations as Christians. Yet, at the same time, God continues to bring in a harvest, and now is the time for us to press into the task. We have been borne up by the grace of God, and God’s astonishing gifts that he continues to give, as we respond to the call.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee