I preached this sermon in Jan. 2013 at Kowloon International Baptist Church. I’ve done a different presentation in Cantonese here (it’s so good to be bilingual and bicultural). This passage challenges out notion of God. Its narrative makes strange sense. Even though many might try to say that the landowner’s action was justified in the ancient Palestinian context, the hirelings in the story thought otherwise. This story then is open to the question of whether the landowner was fair or not.
The danger of reading this passage in a straightforward manner comes from the fact that the payment was unfair. The resulting conclusion would be to see the kingdom as being unfair.
My close reading brings me to Matt. 20.1 where the word “for” directs our attention to the story of the rich man and Peter’s boast of having given up all for Jesus’ call. In light of the discussion about fairness, Jesus already told Peter that reward would far outweigh the cost (19.28-30). The question of fairness only comes after Jesus talked about reward.
In light of such a situation, Jesus wanted Peter to know that Peter would receive his due reward, but that the call was originally more in the favor of all those who were called. Grace was never fair because the call could not be earned. Without the call, every hireling would still stand on the street corner waiting for work.
Overall, I think most make too much of the theological meaning of 19.30 and 20.16. I think if we understand and resolve the tension of Jesus’ sayings, the meaning of those two verses as plain as day. They merely mean that Jesus came and turned the world upside down, much like his parable. His parable then illustrates his mission.
There’re risks involved with this sermon besides the obvious popular misreading of Matthew 20. My presentation took big risks simply because my serious questioning of God’s character in most of the sermon. At the same time, I think most Christians avoid the awkward moment when we begin to ask hard questions the text raises. Although the risk is great, I feel obligated to challenge people to track with the text to experience the tension. Most Christians want an easy life by resolving any tension the text may bring. In its format, this sermon’s proportion is also not even in that I devoted most of the time questioning God. I did this because my audience is already familiar with me, having both attended and preached in this church for more than two years.
The top heavy inquiry about God’s character is true to the text though because the entire text without the Peter context amounts of God being a cosmic bully. I think Jesus wanted the audience to think about fairness, the call and free grace. The thinking process is full of tension and mystery. I tried to re-create both.
When I teach preaching, I always tell my students to leave the tension without resolving it until the end. My reading of the “for” in 20.1 gives me adequate firepower to answer the question. I sincerely hope that my risk does not outweigh the reward, no more than Peter’s risk outweighs his reward.