Circuit Pastors’ Conference
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
“Sour Grapes in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-16)
When someone expresses negativity about a situation after the fact, only after they’ve been disappointed about the outcome–we call that kind of a reaction “sour grapes.” A candidate loses an election, and then afterward he says some nasty stuff about those dumb voters who chose the other guy. That’s “sour grapes.” A man loses out on a job, and then he speaks behind the back of the employer he was just flattering to his face. Again, sour grapes. It’s not a very becoming or noble characteristic, this sour-grapes attitude after a disappointment. But it is a very common reaction among us self-centered sinners. We all do it, from time to time, in one form or another. Sometimes we even vent our negativity on God, blaming him for letting this disappointing situation happen to us: “I’m not getting what is due me, and it is God’s fault. He’s not being a very good God, or else I would have things better.” When you and I have this attitude, when we entertain these thoughts, when we express such words, at those times you and I are engaging in sour grapes.
In our text today, Jesus addresses this grumbling, sour-grapes attitude. And coincidentally enough, he does it in a parable about people who work in a place where grapes are grown, in the story we know as the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. And so our theme this morning: “Sour Grapes in the Vineyard.”
You just heard the reading, so I’ll only briefly recap it: A man hires some laborers to go work in his vineyard. They agree on a wage. More workers come along a little later. “Whatever is right I will give you,” the master tells them. Same thing a couple hours later. Then even as the end of the workday is approaching, the master sends out still more workers. The whistle blows, the workers assemble, they get their paychecks. The first group of workers get the pay they had agreed upon. But when they find out the master has paid the later workers the same amount he’s paid them, even down to the last bunch that was hired, these first workers get upset. They begin to grumble: “How come we don’t get more? This isn’t fair! We worked way longer and way harder than those other guys. You owe us more, master!” Sour grapes in the vineyard.
Now in Jesus’ story, the master, of course, is God. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. And the laborers are those who work in God’s kingdom. Jesus is telling this story to his disciples, who, as the apostles, would indeed be sent out to work in the kingdom. So this story especially has application in our day for called workers in the church, pastors in particular. But I think by extension it also has application to any of us, whether clergy or lay, who take up tasks in the service of the church. The lay elder in the congregation. The ladies’ guild that serves the luncheons. The altar guild, the acolytes, the church treasurer, the council members–anyone who puts in their time and effort for the good of the church.
You see, this sour-grapes attitude is a real temptation especially for the most dedicated members of the church. We think because we’ve been slaving away diligently for years, in the service and for the good of the church–and what could be more noble than that?–we think we deserve all the appreciation and the applause we can get. And when we don’t get it, we feel slighted, unappreciated. And to make matters worse, if someone comes along who hasn’t worked as long or as importantly as I have, and that person now gets as much as or even more recognition than I’m getting–well, now I’m getting a little angry about this! My “grump-ometer” begins to grumble. I’m steamed, I stew. I resent that other person. I get mad at the people who are applauding him instead of me. And of course I inevitably grumble and get mad at God for letting this happen. Sour grapes in the vineyard of God.
This is a real “church disease,” isn’t it? We may be outwardly respectable people in most all features of our life, very moral, hard-working, devout, dedicated. In fact, these are the people who are most susceptible to getting “Sour Grapes Syndrome.” It’s people like you and me. Me especially, I think. I can really identify with those grumbling workers. So often I feel underappreciated, under-rewarded. And I’m more than a bit impatient with God for not giving me what I deserve–I, the great and indispensible gift to Christ’s church.
But when I think like this, my priorities are really getting out of whack. No, let’s call it something stronger: Sour Grapes Syndrome is sin. For I have just put myself in the center of the church’s work. And the truth is, it ain’t about me. I just work here. The church, the vineyard, is all about Jesus.
Has there ever been anyone more underappreciated than Jesus? Has anyone ever been treated more unfairly? No, not by a long shot. Here was the Lord of life, God’s own Son, coming into the vineyard and outworking anyone who’s ever set foot there. Only a few years in his public ministry, but, oh, the results! So many sick people healed from their diseases. So many demonized delivered from oppression. Multitudes fed and taught. Intense training for his disciples. The preaching of repentance and forgiveness, both to the crowds and to troubled sinners one-on-one. What a worker for God’s kingdom! What a reward he earned, outshining us all! And yet, what did Christ receive? Rejection, humiliation, abandonment. Persecution even; unjust suffering. A death sentence, cruel death on a cross, hung out to die. What kind of a reward is that for the best church worker that ever was?
But this is precisely how Christ won the great reward that each one of us will receive in the end. And that reward will be based, not on our works, but on his. It won’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian or how many years of dedicated service you’re put in along the way. Our master’s generosity toward us in giving us eternal salvation–this is way better than we grumbly workers deserve. Any reward that we receive at all comes to us only by way of the grace of God. Forgiveness of sins, eternal life–these are ours solely because of Christ’s death and resurrection, not because of our labors, which, even as Christians, are marred by sin and pride. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As I say, it won’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian or how much dedicated service you’re put in. Oh, now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good thing, a tremendous blessing, to be a Christian your whole life long and to stay with it all the way. Consider yourself fortunate if that describes you. And I’m all in favor of all of us Christians putting in many years of dedicated service in the cause of the gospel. This is great. We need more of it, both from pastors and laypeople alike. But that is not the basis of your salvation. And it doesn’t mean that you won’t be underappreciated along the way. On the contrary, count on it. This is part of bearing your cross, this being underappreciated.
But even if others do not thank you as much as they should, even if the church does not reward you sufficiently–and in the church we ought to do a lot more thanking and rewarding than we do–but even if people don’t appreciate your efforts, know that your heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, he does notice. In fact, he’s planned out your good works ahead of you, and he gives you the strength to do them, even when you’re not getting a whole lot of positive reinforcement.
And so, my fellow workers in the vineyard: Although we are poor, prideful, self-centered sinners . . . even though we are, and will remain, unworthy servants . . . even though you and I get that Sour Grapes Syndrome from time to time, grumpy grumblers that we are . . . even so, in spite of our sins, by God’s great grace and the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior, one day our master will welcome us home, and to our astonishment he will greet us with these welcoming words, so much better than we deserve, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”