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I Beg Your Pardon

Matthew 20:1-16

The Rev. Jon Roberts

20 September


Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ 9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I Beg Your Pardon

Parable of Workers in the Vineyard by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, 1712-1774

I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
There's gotta be a little rain some time
When you take you gotta give so live and let live
Or let go oh-whoa-whoa-whoa
I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden.[1]

In 1967 the American singer and songwriter, Joe South, wrote the song “I beg your pardon.” In the same year it was recorded by Billy Joe Royal, who sung the 1965 popular hit, “Down by the boondocks.” Billy Joe’s voice somehow did not produce the same effect with “I beg your pardon” and so two years later they invited Dobie Gray, an aspiring African-American pop singer, but that release also did not live up to its promise. Dobie, later in 1973 would release the popular song, “Drift away” that sold over a million copies. Everyone knew the lyrics of “I beg your pardon” had great potential, but it didn’t seem to resonate until 1970, when Columbia records took a chance and asked a female to sing it. They called Lynn Anderson to the spotlight. Lynn was a rising star, out of California on the Lawrence Welk show and this song was her big break to stardom. The producer of Columbia felt the lyrics were best from a male perspective, because it comes from the man’s heart, promising to give something greater than diamond rings, even the moon, to his gal if she would just accept his simple vow to love her. Perhaps, in the relationship felt within the song, the female was jaded by the fact she did not get what she expected out of him. To this, he responded, “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.”

We find another love story in lyrics of the Book of Exodus, where we hear the people of Israel who regret they left their previous abusive relationship with Pharoah and Egypt.[2] “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, but you [Moses] brought us out into this wilderness to die of hunger.” God tells Moses, “I have heard their complaining” and gives them bread from heaven. Not exactly what they had in mind and you could almost paraphrase Moses saying to them, “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.” Often we see God does not promise us a life that is fair, but He does promise us, “along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime. And when you take, you gotta give, so live and let live. Or let go, O whoa, whoa, whoa.”

This was the message Jesus gave his disciples and to all those complainers that life was not fair. As always, our Lord could always teach best with a parable, and today he tells us the story of the landowner who hires laborers to work in his field.[3] You may recall, last week the parable was about the King and his slaves, one who he forgave his debt, then later that slave demanded what was owed him by another slave. These types of relationships are important for Jesus, as it helps us to relate to our heavenly Father. In this parable the landowner has an enormous challenge. He must gather all the grain from his field before sundown. Apparently, there is a sense that his good fortune could be lost if he did not hire workers quickly. He hires some in the morning, some in the afternoon and some later toward the evening. He pays the last, first and pays them the same as the one who worked all day. “I beg your pardon!” The complaint was made by the one who felt unfairly treated. “Why would you pay them more when they worked less?” The landowner gives a matter-of-fact reply. “The land and the money belongs to me, so how come I can’t do what I want with it?”[sic] That is a pretty good response and a true saying. Why should it matter? The answer is, because it is not fair. But God did not promise a rose garden.

The parable obviously will prompt many other questions for the unfairly treated ones to argue, but the landlord has spoken. The harvest is in and the wages are paid. One would think that there would be planning and build up to reaping a harvest, correct? Laborers would have already been assigned and put on the schedule. Negotiated wages would have been agreed upon. What emergency harvest could exist? Here is another thought. Perhaps the original workers who agreed to work in the beginning did not know the goal was to bring in the entire harvest by sundown? They may have been pacing themselves as they always do. Maybe they had some type of a labor union where they had to have so many personal breaks, to escape the heat and the sun? Maybe they were not doing a good job, yielding sloppy work, leaving too much behind and going too fast. In this situation the landowner was being kind to them by hiring others to complete the work. We do not know exactly, but what we do know is that those who gave felt they should have more of the take. To which the landowner says, “I beg your pardon.”

Where do you find in our world today this behavior? It seems obvious that it applies to our own places of work, does it not? You can hear the employee who has been with the company or institution for 25 years, working and waiting for the big promotion, only to be given to some outsider. You can hear the retiree who says, “I worked all my life to receive social benefits, but others who contributed nothing are entitled the same? Who do they think they are?

Wages, earnings, work is what we are looking at, but it’s not what Jesus is referring. In the parable, God the Father is the landowner and the people of Israel are the first called to work the field, but the harvest is huge and the time is set for when God wants it reaped and gleaned. The Gentiles are called the middle of the day. Those of us who have seen the efforts and sacrifices by so many before us, we are called to bring in fresh blood. We are to pick up where they left off, but one hour, we too will need to take a break. That is when a new generation will rise up and carry the necessary instruments to reap God’s harvest. They will be closest to the second coming of Christ. Salvation is offered to them, just as it was to the people of Israel who arrived on the scene first.

One other way to observe the parable is to look within ourselves. Perhaps there is an internal complaint where you see your life as a whole and know the time is now at hand when it will soon end. You regret that you followed your own ways from the beginning and set your own path. Now in the final hour you question, “Why God would you deal me such grace, seeing that I did not turn to you until late?” This is at the heart of our faith in God. We do not treat salvation as something to be afforded by our hard work, not to confuse with discipline. We do not accept “works righteousness” as some do.[4] “God will pay us our fair wage into heaven because of how good we worked”; this is nonsense. God pays us according to our faith, and faith is the currency of God. When people turn their lives over to Christ Jesus, we need to be clear to them in what they can expect. When life does not go according to their expectations, perhaps we should say,
I beg your pardon
God never promised you a rose garden.

[1] Joe South, “I never promised you a rose garden”, 1967, Columbia Records, 1970, sung by Lynn Anderson.
[2] Exodus 16:2-15
[3] Matthew 20: 1-16
[4] Pelagianism

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