One Word Essay

Matthew 20:1-15   
April 18, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott



Before I begin my sermon, we are going to have a pop quiz!  Pop quiz — those dreaded words.  I can hear the moans already, but pop quizzes keep you mentally agile so get out some paper and a pencil.  I will not be collecting your quiz — they will be self-graded — so you can use any scrap of paper at hand and those in the sanctuary can write on your bulletin if you’d like.

Ready?  OK, here is your quiz.  It’s an essay question.

I would like you to write an essay summarizing the character of the gospel being illustrated by Jesus in this parable from Matthew 20:1-15, and relate this parable to the whole of Jesus’ teaching and ministry….and please limit your essay to one word.

That’s right — you can only use one word to describe the character of the gospel that this parable illustrates and whatever word you choose has to also accurately summarize all of Jesus’ teaching and ministry.  Go ahead.  Write it down.

I’m not going to ask you to reveal the word you wrote down because, as I promised, this is a self-graded quiz, but let’s consider the words that people might have written down, and let’s start with the parable.  As you consider the message of the parable, you might have chosen words like “inclusive,” or “persistent,” or you might have gone with the word Jesus himself says is the point of this parable: “generosity.”  Those are all good words that fit this parable but if you chose any of them as the answer to your essay, I have to mark it incorrect because remember I asked you for a word that not only summarizes the parable but also applies to the rest of Jesus’s teaching.  I don’t think, for example, that Jesus’ death on a cross and his resurrection is best summed up with the word “generous.”  We need a stronger word than that.  

Maybe many of you wrote down the word “love.”  Love is a broader word than generous, because it can include generosity, kindness, and persistence; all those other words we used for the parable.  Certainly, love seems central to much of Jesus’ teaching: Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, love God with all we have, love our enemy, love the sinner, and love one another.  At first glance then, the word ‘love” seems to be the best response for our one word essay question.  The problem is that the word “love,” while it answers the second half of the question, isn’t really the best description of what is going on in the parable.  Did the vineyard owner show the workers ‘love’ when he gave them a full day’s wage?  When the other workers grumbled about how unfair it all was, did they whine, “You love them more than us?”  The workers in the parable didn’t see the employer’s actions as an act of love or a withholding of love but they saw it as an act of justice or injustice.  They questioned the fairness of the wage and whether the employee was treating everyone equally.

The problem with the word love, especially as we use it in English, is that it has too much emotion attached to it.  Many teachings of Jesus including this parable involve more dispassionate behavior and decision-making and so, if you chose the word ‘love’ I’m going to have to mark it incorrect as well.  Close but no cigar.

There is really only one word that gets at the heart of the gospel; one word that can encompass all of Jesus’ teaching, his acts of healing, his willingness to reach out to the outcast and unclean; his death on a cross and his resurrection to new life.  There is really only one word that tells us everything that Jesus came to teach us and that demonstrates the character of God that Christ gave his life to show us, and that is the word “grace.”  If you wrote down “grace,” give yourself an A because either you have a good grasp of the gospel message or you paid attention to all of the hints I scattered through the bulletin today in the quotes, readings, and hymns!

Now, you can be excused if you didn’t write down the word grace because Jesus himself never used the word “grace” in any of his teachings.  It is only after his resurrection that the word entered into the vocabulary of the church.  In the letters of Paul and the writings of the early church in the New Testament, the word grace appears over a hundred times because the word grace captured not only the teaching of Jesus, but also the wonder of his triumph on the cross and the miracle of his continuing presence among us.  Even though Jesus doesn’t use the word, the parable of the workers is a parable of grace, and the whole of Jesus’ ministry, teaching, death and resurrection was the embodiment for the early church of the meaning of grace.

So what exactly is grace?  It’s easier to show it than describe it. 

Do you remember the name Eric Moussambanni?  If you do, it may be that you follow professional swimming because his name has become synonymous with slow athletes.  Sportcasters will frequently say, “It looks like so and so is the next Eric Moussambanni.”  Moussambanni is a swimming coach in Equatorial New Guinea and he began his career at the 2000 Olympics when he represented his country on the swim team.  Actually, he was the entire men’s Equatorial New Guinea swim team.  He had qualified for the Olympics through a special dispensation given to developing countries, and had made the preliminary trials only because the other two men who were supposed to share his heat had been disqualified.  That’s how, in the summer of 2000, Eric Moussambanni found himself standing alone in front of the crowds waiting for the signal to begin his Olympic swim.  What the people in the crowd didn’t know was that Moussambanni had never in his life even managed to swim 100 meters — the length of the Olympic pool — without stopping.   

The gun went off and Moussambanni plunged in, his strokes ungainly, his feet fluttering weakly.  It didn’t take long for the crowd to realize that he was out of his league.  Used to watching the fleet strong bodies of Olympic competitors, people must have wondered at the splashing figure doggedly stroking his way across the pool.  Eric admitted later that he was afraid — afraid of humiliating himself, and, half-way across, even more seriously afraid of drowning — but as he lifted his head to grab for air between each weary stroke, he heard something that he had never expected to hear: cheering.  The crowd had begun to applaud and shout their encouragement with such vigor that he wondered for a moment if he might be swimming into medal contention.  With the support of the crowd, Eric swam farther than he had ever swum in his life and he climbed out of that pool, tired and spent, barely able to stand but for the applause of the crowd ringing in his ears proclaiming him a hero.  

This is what grace looks like:  Moussambanni received the same applause bestowed upon winners even though he came in dead last in the Olympic swim that summer.  He, who was so magnificently awkward that he deserved ridicule received acceptance instead; he, who was a nobody became somebody that day; he who felt the turbulent waters closing over his head, fearful of drowning, was lifted by the cheering of a crowd that believed in him, broke through his loneliness and fear, lifted him up, and brought him safely home.  Because of that moment, Moussambanni had the confidence to continue swimming and in 2006, he posted a time that would have won a gold medal if it had been forty years earlier and today he is the coach of Equatorial New Guinea National swim team.  That is the power of grace. (1)

The parable of the laborers in the field is a parable about grace.  

“When it came time to pay,” Jesus said, “the ones who had worked only an hour received the same pay as the ones who had worked all day.”  It’s the same thing that happened to Moussambani.  The gold medal winner that year had trained for years dragging himself to a pool in the early hours of the day, sacrificing time and pleasures to attend meets and crawl his way to glory.  Moussambani, on the other hand, had given up only a few months of his life to train, wasn’t required to meet the minimum qualifying time, and barely made it across the pool without drowning, yet he, too, received the acclaim of the world.  

We love the story of Moussambani and others like him — the heartwarming stories of grace bestowed on the underdogs who capture our imaginations — and yet I have to tell you, that throughout my years of ministry, I have found that the parable of the laborers in the field disturbs people more than it pleases them.  How many times have I heard people in a bible study say, “I don’t know.  It just doesn’t seem fair,” and it’s not.  Grace is not fair.  The acclaim given to Moussambani wasn’t fair.  The wages bestowed on the workers late to the vineyard wasn’t fair.  When Jesus invited Zaccheus — the lying cheating tax collector — to lunch not even demanding that he repent first, it wasn’t fair.  When Jesus forgave his executioners from the cross, it wasn’t at all fair.  They had not shown remorse.  They hadn’t changed their evil ways.  They had done nothing to deserve such gracious love from a dying man.  It was absolutely unfair.  

And it is this unjust, undeserved aspect of grace which makes it the only word that can adequately summarize everything that Christianity is about.  The joyful good news of the gospel is that God is a God of grace who will love you and believe in you and encourage you and stay with you even when you don’t deserve it.  And the hard challenging news of the gospel is that God is a God of grace who will love your neighbor and believe in your neighbor and stay with your neighbor even when you think that your neighbor doesn’t deserve it. 

Grace comes from the heart of God because that is who God is.  Nothing can stop God from loving you and your neighbor; nothing can stop God from loving the person you most care about and the person you most hate.  It is grace that makes the gospel the most wonderful news you will ever receive in your life, and it is grace that makes Jesus the hardest man for you to follow.  

May we accept both the joy and the challenge of grace so that with Paul, we will be able to say, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.”

Footnotes:

1. I drew from many sites about Moussambani.  See https://www.olympic.org/news/eric-moussambani-sydney-2000-changed-my-life for how it changed his life.