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The Rev. Frank Logue
King of Peace Episcopal Church
Kingsland, Georgia
September 18, 2005

Stingy Generosity
Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is one of those that, if you’ll admit it to yourself, sounds patently unfair. Why should the workers who only worked a single hour, be paid the same wage as those who toiled through the heat of the day? The master of the harvest who seems so generous with those hired late turns suddenly stingy when the most faithful of his workers step forward to be paid. Surely Jesus was not ascribing this unfair mix of generosity and stinginess to God? 

I think he was. I think Jesus teaches us not just about God’s overflowing generosity, which is true. Jesus further teaches us about God’s stingy generosity, which is most true. 

Stingy generosity. It sounds like a meaningless combination of words, yet it would describe most fairy tales. After all, the Genie you release from the bottle will give you anything you ask for, but only in three wishes. Then any good genie story revolves around the problem posed by the limit of the three wishes. 

G.K. Chesterton wrote[1] of these ethics of the fairy tale saying, 

According to elfin ethics all virtue is in an “if.” The note of the fairy utterance always is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow;’” or “You may live happily with the king’s daughter if you do not show her an onion.” The vision always hangs upon the veto. All the dizzy and colossal things depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden….

            A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is lost.


Chesterton hits upon the Judeo-Christian heart of the fairy tale pattern with that last one for it comes from Genesis 2, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). 

Those two verses are the essence of God’s stingy generosity, “You meet of anything you want, oh yeah, except the fruit of that one tree.” As the story goes, it is the only tree from which Adam and Eve ever ate when they were in the garden. We don’t read of their years in Eden leading up to the fateful day they decided to taste test forbidden fruit. The story doesn’t give a time stamp on what happened when, but it seems a lot like later that same day. Once God said, “You may eat of any tree, but that one,” there was only one kind of fruit that held their interest. 

They were to give thanks for all the other trees in the garden by not eating from that one tree. Just as we give thanks for the gift of wine by not drinking too much of it. And just as monogamy is a way of giving thanks for the gift of the opposite sex, and taking the rest God told you must have is the way to give thanks for the energy you are given to face the day. All of God’s gifts come with limits.  

What if God didn’t set limits? What if God gave us everything we want when we want it, how we want it? I can’t imagine how much trouble that would cause. But even if all our wishes were good, we would still be unhappy. For when the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want,” he is saying we won’t want for anything we need, not that God will satisfy our every whim.  

This is not surprising, any of you who are parents know that part of love is to set limits. You don’t show your child you love him or her, by letting them eat all their Halloween candy as soon as they get home. No love comes with a curfew and a bed time. Love sets limits. Then those limits are broken and the love continues. 

It was inevitable that Cinderella would have to struggle to get away from the ball by midnight. But it was just as inevitable that her Prince would seek until he found her, for this too is the story of the Garden of Eden, and it is part of our parable for today. 

We can get so busy noticing the unfairness of the Master of the Harvest that we miss his evangelical zeal. The landowner does not send out some underling to go find workers. No, he goes out himself the first time and then he ventures out four more times that day. The Master of the Harvest was out at dawn bringing workers into his vineyard, and he was out again at 9 and noon and three and five. For all the work of those toiling among the vines were doing, the landowner is also working up a sweat. 

This is God. God is not content with the current contents of the Kingdom of God, for there are a lot of people still on the outside. God is working in hearts and lives to bring people in to the kingdom. In a generous gift of God’s own self, God is present through the Holy Spirit to everyone all over the world and is working in many ways to bring them into the vineyard. 

This should not be surprising as it is exactly what Jesus did throughout his ministry. Jesus took a lot of heat from the religious people of his day for the notorious sinners with whom he was usually seen. Jesus would just remind them that that was his ministry, to seek and to save the lost. We often try to limit Jesus’ ministry to saving the lost, but that wasn’t how Jesus saw it. He said that he was there both to seek and to save and he let us know that God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are seekers too, and everyone they find and bring into the kingdom will get the same eternal reward as you. 

When I was on my recent sabbatical, the best laugh I got out of one of the few monks with whom I could talk came when the guestmaster called me aside to run something by me from a letter he was writing. In the course of our brief conversation, he told me that he believed that Adolf Hitler could be in heaven if he had just turned to God in his last hours. I agreed and added, “And won’t he be surprised to find you there?” The monk, a man who has dedicated his life to God, looked at me for a moment, then a smile broke out, he laughed hard and then agreed with me. 

The late arriving workers seem to represent those late in life conversions to the faith, like Adolf Hitler making a sincere death bed confession that lands him in the kingdom of God to receive the same full reward as Saint Francis or Mother Theresa. This is the stingy generosity at the heart of the parable for today. For the laborers who come later and later to the harvest get the same reward as those who were out at dawn. 

We cry unfair. Why did Adolf Hitler get away with it? Get away with what exactly? Do you wish you hadn’t converted to Christianity until you had committed genocide? Had you hope to waste a few years of your life in drug or alcohol addiction, causing harm to all around you, before you slipped into the kingdom? The sins that people who convert late in life supposedly “get away” with are the things that mar their lives, that give them so much pain. The reward of getting into the kingdom of God earlier as that you got to spend more time with the generous gift of God’s presence in your life. 

The long hot day that the workers spent in the vineyard was their extra reward. God’s stingy generosity was fulfilled in that the workers who arrived early were given no more than they needed to get them through the long day of work, but they were also given no less than they needed. Out in the streets, the people who are not working don’t know how they are going to eat that night, while in the vineyard, the workers know that the Master of the Harvest is taking care of their needs. 

This is exactly like what happens in the parable from Luke’s Gospel commonly called The Prodigal Son. The brother who remained at home with his father is jealous when his good-for-nothing, wild living brother comes home. He tells his father, 

“‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”  

The father replies, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:11-32) 

We don’t need to be envious because God is so generous. Yes, God is out seeking and saving the lost. And no God does not seem to give us that same overflowing feeling of peace that may rush upon someone newly converted, but we don’t need it either. To the person, who God finds face down in the gutter feeling like they are unlovable, God gives abundantly of a sense of love and self worth. Those of us in the vineyard already have that. We already know that God loves us and wants a relationship with us and that God will not give us everything we want, but rather takes care of our needs.  

There is nothing to envy, we are already in God’s good graces and are just trying to live more and more into that love. The way we live into God’s love that is to realize that God loves us so much as to set limits called sin. We show our love for God’s stingy generosity, not by complaining about what God will not allow us to do, but by living in those limits so lovingly set, knowing that we have nothing to envy. Like a fairy tale kingdom where,  

A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is lost.


God loved you enough to set limits. But God has not forbidden you one good thing. The limits which God sets are for your own good. Enjoy God’s stingy generosity and live. 


[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (first published in 1908), from the chapter The Ethics of Elfland. From the Ignatius Press version pp.60-61.

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