In Sermons Don’t Rob The Parable Of Its Power

I often talk about the radical nature of the parables when speaking to preachers. Many times preachers hear me say that and wonder what is so radical? They see it simply as a story that illustrates various aspects of truth. They often use stories to support their points and see them as powerful pictures to help them move their sermons forward. All of that is true, but when you use parables, please don’t domesticate them and thus rob them of their power.

The Workers In The Vineyard

What am I saying? Let us take a common parable the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. The “master of the house” went out and found workers and made a deal, “you work for me today, and I will give you a denarius.” (Matthew 20:2) A denarius is a roman coin that represented a days wage. All is well at this point. The workers get what is expected of them. A “fair” deal.

Then the master goes out and gets other workers. Later in the day, they are promised “whatever is right.” Then later in the day, at the 6th, 9th, and even 11th hour, the master goes and grabs others to work in the vineyard.

But then the story goes wrong. The master of the house gives each of the workers a denarius. All of them receive a days wage. But some of them only worked for an hour. The men who had worked all day were upset. They had poured sweat for the master in the vineyard. There is no reason to believe that they hadn’t worked “like a dog.” There is no evidence that they took a long lunch. No they “worked.” And yet the master decides to give them the same wage as the ones who came in at the last minute.

Was the All Day Worker Justified?

If you have not struggled with the idea of the all day worker being justified in getting mad, then you are not ready to preach this passage. This is against all that we know. I can hear some columnists saying that the “master” is promoting sloth. How are you going to get anyone to work if you follow such a program? Who is going to come out tomorrow and work all day if we follow that method of payment?

I can hear others claiming that the “master” is attacking the very foundation of our society. He is attacking our economic system. He is attacking fairness. He is attacking all that is right and good. In fact if this story appeared anywhere else than in the Bible we would jump on board the side of the day long worker ready to attack the “master of the house.”

Don’t get me wrong…the all day workers were wrong…but not because they were evil…but because they were judging according to our normal understanding of fairness, according to our economic system, according to our way of life, the all day workers were right, the master is not playing fair and is attacking our very way of life by setting up this way of being and living.

That is the Point

And that is the point of the parable. It was designed to shock us into a realization that the present order is not God’s order. It was an attempt to remind us that the economic system and even our concept of fairness is not the “Kingdom of God.” No it is the kingdom of men. It is an attempt to shock us out of the ridiculous notions that we have. The notions that God is a republican elephant or a democratic donkey. It is an attack on the very mindset that is at the root of all of our idolatry that turn God into our clan, group, political party, country, or even denomination. No it can’t make sense unless you change your mindset….

Remember the reason for telling this parable was to let us know what “the kingdom of heaven is like…” And then the master reminds the worker, “I gave you what I promised….and furthermore…the first shall be last in the kingdom.”

Robbing It Of Its Surprise, Robs It Of Its Power To Transform

What we do, so often is rob the parable of its “surprise.” We preach it as if the all day workers had not point. We preach it as if they were simply arrogant for wanting more. Some of us even go so far as to question the motives of the all day workers. They were greedy…

And then we further act as though this story has no implications for anywhere but “church.” God is gonna take to heaven folks who just got in at the end….so you ain’t got no right to be mad at them coming in at the end…you ain’t got no right to be selfish about the church…you ain’t got no right to think you own the church pew you sat on because you been coming to this church all these years….

That’s how we preach it…and there are elements of truth in that reading…but when we preach it like that…we rob it of its ability to transform us…and transform our way of living not just in church, but all the rest of the days of the week. When we turn the all day workers into villains who made an unreasonable request…we lose the reality that they were simply working according to the “kingdom of humanity” and have the same mindset that we have. We know if someone told us their boss did that, we might suggest that they stop working for that boss…or show up late…That’s the point!!! The story is an attack on our very idea of what is fair and what is not…in the Kingdom of Heaven. It won’t make sense to you unless you change your mindset….

No the workers who worked all day weren’t wicked and arrogant. They didn’t need to change from being wicked and arrogant to being righteous…no they needed to have a paradigm shift from human thinking to God thinking. That is the point!!! And we need that same change. A change in mindset from the kingdom of humanity to the kingdom of God. And I pray that we will allow that powerful shift to enter our sermons now and ever.

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Sherman Haywood Cox II

Sherman Haywood Cox II is the director of Soul Preaching. He holds the M.Div with an emphasis in Homiletics and a M.S. in Computer Science.

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