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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 20:1-16

No Comparison


A company chartered a ship for its top sales people. When they arrived at the dock, they swarmed aboard and headed for their cabins. A minute later one salesman was on deck demanding to see the Captain. One of the officers asked if he could help. "My friend has a much better cabin!" the salesman said. "I did as good a job as he did and I want a cabin just like his."

"Sir," the officer replied, "The cabins are identical."

"Yeah," said the man, "but his cabin looks out on the ocean and my cabin looks out on this old dock."[1]

The man had become so absorbed with playing the comparison game that he became blind to the obvious-the ship would soon be on the ocean and all the views would be the same.

Have you ever noticed that we are perfectly content with what we have-until we compare what we have with what someone else has?


Jesus saw the same attitude in the religious leaders of his day, so he told them a parable in hopes of awakening them to the marvelous love and grace of God. The story offers several insights to us. However, the first task of understanding the parable requires us to consider what the parable is not. Matthew includes this story because it gives us insight into the kingdom of God not labor relations. It is not a model for hiring day laborers. Anyone who pays their workers who are hired at 4:00 PM the same day wage as the person hired at 6:00 AM would soon have a difficult time finding workers before late afternoon. Any teacher who gives an "A" to a student who registers for a course on last day of class would face a justifiable revolt from the students who attended class the entire term and completed all the assignments. The Bible may teach us many things but this particular passage was not intended for use in a school of business management.[2] As with most parables, Jesus is telling a story that sounds practically impractical to fracture our preconceived notions about God. By giving the story an almost absurd ending, Jesus hopes to startle us into a new understanding about ourselves, others and God. So, let us consider the parable and apply its teaching to our lives.

The Workers Are More Important Than The Work

Thomas Long in his commentary on Matthew opened my eyes to the first insight that the parable offers-workers are more important than the work. Notice the landowner's concern is always on the workers never on the crop or the profit.[3] Commentators tell us that the harvest of grapes usually occurs during the month of September. In the Wenatchee Valley, known as the Apple Capital of the World, the orchards only had a small window of opportunity for picking the fruit before it would lose its taste and color or become damaged by the weather. During this the harvest season, the grower’s only concern was to bring in the fruit. We would expect that the landowner in our parable to have a similar concern but that is never mentioned. The only reason given for hiring the workers later in the day is their availability.

This is a difficult message for us to live out. We measure our worth based on our accomplishments. This is true even in ministry. I was on a telephone interview with a church and they asked me what I had accomplished when I served in another church. I only mentioned a few things. It had been several years and I had trouble recalling everything. I also tend to downplay my accomplishments because I do not like to sound as if I am bragging. There was a pause then one of the members asked, "Is that all you did?" I should have hung up the phone. For me the interview was over. If they were going to measure my suitability for the position by how much I accomplished in another church, I knew I did not want that position. One of the main thrusts of my ministry is to help people accept that their worth is not based on what they have done but who they are.

I consider visiting the dying to be a special privilege of the pastoral office. People will allow me to enter their homes when they are declining requests from friends.  One of the real struggles of a dying person is accepting her worth as a person after she can no longer contribute to the basic duties and responsibilities of the home. One person seemed to summarize aptly the frustration of all the dying patients I have ever visited when she said, "John I am just no damn good to anyone any more."

To me, that is a sad commentary on how we live; to reach the final stage of our life and to measure our worth and value only by our contributions. President Ronald Reagan and Rosalie Gibson performed different roles in their life. Both of them made valuable contributions to our country. Now both live out of the public eye as they deal with the crippling effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Both deserve visits from their friends and family and their pastor not because of what they have done but who they are-a child of God.

The parable reminds us that we are more important that our works.


The fact that the landowner is back in the marketplace between 4:00-5:00 PM indicates that it has an unexpectedly large harvest. So, he is surprised to find workers sitting idly in the marketplace. If his vineyard has produced an abundant crop, so have others. There should be no excuse for not working. The landowner's question is partially a reproach. He cannot understand why these men are still not working. However, he is not about to dwell on that. His primary concern is to put the men to work. This is the second insight of the parable-everyone needs to be working in God’s vineyard.

A church growth consultant was speaking to a group of pastors. He asked them to list the ten most significant things that their church did during the last year and then mark the ones in which they were heavily involved. He then told them that if they were heavily involved in more than a majority of them they were failing as a pastor. He went on to explain that effective pastoral leadership gives birth to the ministry of the laity.[4] The pastoral role is not intended to replace the ministry of the laity, even our shut-ins and nursing home residents. In some churches, those who are unable to attend ministry team meetings take on a ministry of intercessory prayer and others will write cards to those who need a word of encouragement.

Dr Bill Bright the founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ often compared the organization to a chain. He would tell the staff that Campus Crusade was only as strong as its weakest link. The same is true in the ministry of the church. We will only be as strong as our weakest member. We will only be as effective as each member becomes involved in the harvest. No one has the luxury of sitting idly in the market place using the excuse that there is no work.

Everyone needs to be working

Comparisons Distract From Grace

When evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first." The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came first and each received a denarius-one day's wage. When those hired earliest in the day came, they thought that they would receive more; but each worker only received one denarius. They immediately began to grumble against the landowner, saying, "These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day." But he answered one of them, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Are you envious because I am generous?" The workers became dissatisfied with their wages when they played the comparison game.

A sparrow complained to God, "You gave beautiful colors to the peacock and a lovely song to the nightingale, but I am plain and unnoticed. Why was I made to suffer?" "You were not made to suffer," stated God. "You suffer because you make the foolish mistake of comparing yourself with others, be yourself, for in that there is no comparison and no pain."[5]

That's easy to say, isn't it, but hard to implement. Comedian Dennis Miller puts it this way: "Remember how good you felt when your neighbor's house got struck by lightening because he got the new satellite dish?"[6]

Jesus understood that the Pharisees were playing a comparison game with their religion. They had reduced spirituality to a merit system. The more good deeds a person performed the greater their reward. The length of tenure also brought the expectation of greater recognition. Jesus wanted to shatter this misconception of God and open them up to a new way of understanding his grace and work in their life. He wanted to move them beyond a religion motivated by rewards and punishment to a faith that could enjoy the wonder and beauty of grace and mercy.

In the fourth century, a monk lived in the Egyptian desert that had both a brilliant mind and a love of learning. He read all the classical works of the desert fathers and organized them in his own book, which he entitled The Eight Deadly Thoughts. The work reached the church in Rome and was revised by the Pope, Gregory the Great published under the title The Seven Deadly Sins. The Eight Deadly Thoughts stress that you and I do not wrestle with sins so much as thoughts. These thoughts stir up passions and cause emotional turmoil. We are not evil people just because we find ourselves thinking these "deadly thoughts." These eight deadly thoughts can be found in the temptation of our Lord and every believer can expect to be assailed by them at some point in time. Unless we gain mastery over these thoughts, they will lead us into sin. Even when we do not commit an overt sin, these eight deadly thoughts hinder us from following Christ. They are easily aroused and distract us in our struggle preventing us from being attentive to others and to God.

That Egyptian monk warns us that the comparison game will lead to the thought of sadness. Whenever we compare our achievements with those of others, we will be deeply disappointed with our lives. This is a form of self-pity. We think about what we might have become if we had not suffered the restrictions of becoming a Christian. "So rather than finding joy in following Christ's ways, we think of all the pleasures we could have enjoyed were it not for our obedience." It is the same sense of despondency when we think, "What could I have become if I had married a different person?" "What could I be doing if I had pursued a different career?" Those thoughts will only lead to a sense of entrapment that produces anger. We lash out at others who we think are responsible for the lackluster life that we must endure. "Sadness is a deadly thought, fraught with unrealistic fantasies of how much greater we might have become."[7]

 Discovering Freedom

The only freedom from this state of sadness is to stop playing the game. We do not need to compare what others have to what we do not have. God loves us for who we are not for what we have accomplished. Once we stop putting our accomplishments and possessions alongside others, we are then free to be grateful for how God has been generous to us. We are free to rejoice and give thanks for what we have, not grumble, and complain for what we do not have. We can also be free to give and to serve. We no long have a reason to horde or withhold or spend time on making more money. We can spend time serving others out of our great abundance. Then at the end of our lives as we lay our heads on our pillow for the final time we can rejoice and give thanks for what God has given.

[1] Dynamic Preaching, August/September 1999, Copyright 1999 by Seven Worlds

[2] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 224.

[3] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 224, 225.

[4] William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, "Your Ordination," (Vol. 26, No. 1), p. 7.

[5] Dynamic Preaching, August/September 1999, Copyright 1999 by Seven Worlds citing Vernon Howard, Inspire Yourself (Grants Pass, OR: Four Star Books, Inc., 1975).

[6] Dynamic Preaching August/September 1999, Copyright 1999 by Seven Worlds citing Ranting Again, Doubleday, New York, 1998.

[7] Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology, (Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 1997)

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