The scripture reading this morning, the parable of “The Laborers in the Vineyard” you heard very appropriately on Labor Day weekend. This morning I want to look at that same parable. The context is that Jesus has been telling his disciples the cost of being his followers. In response to Jesus, Peter quite reasonably asks: “Lo, we have left everything to follow you. What then will we have?
Peter’s question is reasonable. What’s the benefit? He had left his nets, left his family business, left his home and his wife and children … given up all that to follow Jesus. “What then shall we have?” What’s in it for me? That’s a reasonable question we’ve all asked one time or another.
Don, a young man in a parish I served, graduated from college with a double major in Business Administration and Accounting. He went to work for a small family business. Don had worked there for a couple of years, getting all kinds of praise for his efforts. Clearly he brought to this family business some needed skills. Then the company experienced a rocky time and had to let go one of the staff, a non-family member with even less time on the job than Don. My young friend doubled up on his workload, covering the responsibilities of two people so the company could survive, even though it meant neglecting his young family. When the company finances began to improve, they didn’t give him a raise or even a bonus. They hired another member of the family, a young man who had just graduated from college, and his beginning salary was more than Don was receiving! He asked me, in effect, “what then shall I have?” Well, he still had a job, I guess. But Peter’s question seemed reasonable to me.
In that same church, another time a couple, Tom and Elaine, are part of the sandwich generation. They both came from modest backgrounds, but they had worked their way through college where they met. Now they both had good jobs and were able to provide for their two daughters more than they ever had when they were growing up.
Then Elaine’s mother began to deteriorate. The Doctor explained that she had Alzheimer’s. By that time Elaine was already spending most evenings and part of every weekend caring for her mother. They paid to have a companion for the mother while they were at work. Then the calls began in the middle of the night. Elaine’s two brothers sent get well cards. By the time they came to talk to me, Tom and Elaine’s marriage was strained and they were worried about how this was affecting their kids. The presenting problem was how to cope. They were too nice to put it as crassly as Peter, but I heard their issue as, “What’s in it for us?”
There is a certain quid pro quo to life. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning something is given for something received. You give and, in return, you receive. That is the oil in the gears of our social life. That is the wind that blows the sails of commerce. That is the binding force of human relationships. You give and, in return, it is reasonable to expect you will receive.
“What’s in it for me?” is a reasonable question. Why, it is even a question sanctioned by our religion: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule recognizes that the gears of society are oiled by quid pro quo … that something is given with the reasonable expectation of receiving something in return.
So Peter asks Jesus his question, “Having given up so much, what then shall we receive?” Jesus replies with this parable about the laborers in the vineyard. The parable itself is one of those stories that humorously tells of an increasingly improbable situation of a landowner hiring at the 3rd, the 6th, and 9th hour … and finally hiring workers just one hour before the working day is over. The crowd, hearing Jesus tell this parable, may not at first be surprised for two reasons. First, it partly corresponds with life in a farming community. We were discussing this parable in a clergy group I once belonged to and one of the members grew up in a farming community in South Dakota. The trucks would come into town at daybreak to pick up workers. When the truck returned to town to leave off a load at the mill, it would pick up any additional workers waiting on the street on the way back out to the fields. That’s what really happens there.
Secondly, the story itself is familiar. It follows the theme of an ancient Jewish story that tells of a laborer who was such a hard worker that the king removed him from among the others after 2 hours. The king then walked with him at leisure, and paid him his full wage on the ground that “this man has done more in two hours than you have done all day.”
But that’s not the way Jesus told it! Jesus reworked that ancient story to make just the opposite point. The point of the ancient story was to tell of how a laborer who worked hard was rewarded. In Jesus story the last hired have not done more (but far less) than those who worked all day. What the last hired received is not due to the work he has done but is due entirely to the generosity of the landowner.
In the twist that Jesus gives the story lies the difference between two worlds: The world of merit and the world of grace, the world of works and the world of gifts, the world of conditional love and the world of unconditional love. Conditional love is love that is earned. It is given on the condition of being earned. Unconditional love cannot be earned for it has no conditions. It is a gift.
One of the most theologically significant movies in recent years was Dead Man Walking. Matthew Poncelet has been convicted, along with his friends, of rape and murder. His sentence is death. Sister Prejean is a Catholic Nun, a parish worker in an inner-city parish. She is asked to visit him and becomes his spiritual advisor. Not only does he play mind games with her in an attempt to avoid responsibility for his terrible crime, but others cannot understand why the Nun would waste her time on such an undeserving person. Some of the people in her parish, and even her own family, criticize her.
Hardest of all for her to take is the bitter rejection she receives from the family of his victims. When she visits the family of Hope, the young woman raped and killed along with her fiancée, they at first welcome her visit and show her pictures of their daughter. They are deeply grief-stricken, and seem grateful that Sister Prejean has come. However, their friendliness evaporates when they learn she still plans to counsel Poncelet. “Why, we assumed you had come over to our side,” Hope’s father states in bewilderment. He orders the nun from the house. You see, she is not understood because she is about unconditional love in a world ruled by conditional love.
We who live unreflectively in this world of conditional love, this world of quid pro quo, are offended by Jesus’ teaching. We often try to justify what Jesus parable to fit our concept of what Jesus ought to teach. Let me describe three ways this parable is interpreted to fit our concept of what Jesus ought to teach.
First are those who point out that Peter was given the privilege of fellowship with Jesus. Since “vineyard” is a Biblical symbol for the place of God’s presence, this parable says that to be in Peter’s shoes is to be in a place of happy service. That’s a reward in itself. This argument ignores the clear message of Jesus that the worker’s have “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Work in the vineyard of the parable was not “happy service.”
A second way to avoid the offence of this parable is by making up stories about the latecomers. They regret every hour they were unable to work. “The daily wage” the parable speaks of is the denarius, which Nansi pointed out on Labor Day weekend was barely enough for a family to get by. The laborer needs to work all day, every day, for his family to eat.
Off the point perhaps but I thought of this parable when I talked to the lady who was cleaning my hotel room last weekend when I was away at a wedding. I asked her about her family. She has one daughter. She works 44 hours a week she told me and got the minimum wage. I asked her how she managed on THAT and she said, by budgeting very carefully and praying there won’t be an emergency. That’s why we leave tips for the people who clean our hotel rooms. They get a denarius.
But back to the point about stories we make up to avoid the offence of the parable. It is also legitimate to make it a story of the latecomers as those who ran to the men’s room every time a landowner came into the hiring hall because it was the heat of the day. When it got cooler they hung around and got hired. They just wanted to work long enough to get money for a bottle of Red Eye. They were lazy and alcoholic and smirked when they got paid so well for doing so little. The fact is, Jesus did not tell us any more about the latecomers because their attitude is beside the point. The parable is about the landowner, about God.
A third way of trying to make the parable say what we want it to say I heard in a Bible Study. One very nice lady explained to us that God knows all of life and we see only a little part. We all agreed to that … so she went on to say that this parable is about the hidden pain and trouble in the life of some people that is known only to God. So what seems unfair to us who only see a little is in fact fair from God’s perspective. I replied to that lady that I happened to know those latecomers pretty well. I used to deal with them every summer when I hired a ground crew for the church I served. They avoided hard work in the heat of the day the whole of their adult lives. They are “operators” who have been pulling the same deal for years. I didn’t mean to offend that lady, but this explanation (like all those attempts to make the parable fit our religion) twist the story as Jesus told it. Instead of making the parable less offensive, lets let Jesus’ parable speak the offense Jesus intended.
So, nevertheless, the last hired, regardless of how lazy they may be, still touch the heart of the landowner and so the landowner gives them enough money to put bread on the table for their little babies. In his pity for their poverty, the landlord gives them a full day’s wage. This is not unfair behavior to be condemned but generosity to be admired.
There’s a twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he tells how each group is hired to do less work … and, yes, I caught the beginning of a smile when Jesus told of the landowner ordering that all be paid the same wage. Well, like the crowd who first heard the parable, my first reaction was that I didn’t think it’s so funny. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t fair. Jesus is so softhearted he doesn’t understand the real world. That was my feeling when I first heard the parable.
Can you see how my feeling of being offended then becomes the focus? … not the last hired laborers … but my being offended come into focus. Like the final scene of the movie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where the searchlights on the east side of the Berlin Wall put the escaping hero and heroine in the pitiless glare of light so the machine guns can do their grim reaping. It is my being offended that is spotlighted … and I’m cut down by the rat-a-tat-tat of the Word of God, as God asks me: Do you begrudge me my generosity? Do you begrudge me my generosity, God asks. This, Jesus is telling us, is how God deals with us. This is what God is like. This is the grace and mercy of God … amazing grace. When I receive that grace it is wonderful. When I receive God’s grace I sing praises to God.
But this parable is about when someone else receives God’s grace. This parable is about when someone who has not borne the heat of the day receives God’s grace. This parable is about when some unworthy slimeball receives God’s grace and, yes, I complain … I complain because I believe in quid pro quo.
And God asks: “Do you begrudge me my generosity?” Sure Jesus surrounds himself with his beloved disciples … but Jesus also consorts with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was criticized for this and is compelled to justify his conduct … so he asks, “Do you begrudge me my generosity?”
The Bible is unambiguous in its repeated message … God’s bias is for the poor, the outsiders and the outcasts, those who are a burden on society. It is not that they are entitled to God’s special care. They have not earned it. They do not deserve it. They do not merit it. They are not better than us … not more moral, not more noble, not more worthy … they are just more in need of God’s grace. And in the parable, Jesus tells us, God sure enough reaches out and offers grace to them. That’s the unconditional love of God.
As to my being offended by the unfairness of it all? Why that gets spotlighted for the pettiness it is. It sounds like a teen-ager, “grumbling” (as the parable describes it), grumbling about “it’s unfair.”
Although the text of the parable is about economics and employment practices … the context is about God’s goodness … about God’s goodness in the face of our expectation that we earn God’s love … our expectations because we are living in a world of quid pro quo. Living in that world of quid pro quo, Peter reasonably asks, “What’s the return I get for following you? What’s in it for me?”
In the parable Jesus says that God is not going to play the game by my rules of “what do I get out of it?”… for God is God. And despite any feeling of being offended, God embraces us and all those unworthy guys and forgives us all and by God’s grace we all are blessed without any conditions. AMEN.
Dennis the Menace always seems to get the best of his neighbor, Mr. Wilson. Mrs. Wilson, however, has a whole different attitude toward Dennis. She is infinately patient with Dennis as she puts up with his little tricks. She tells Mr. Wilson, “He’s just a boy, George!” She shows unconditional kindness to Dennis. To illustrate what I mean, in one particular cartoon, Dennis and his pal, Joey, are walking away from Mrs. Wilson’s back door eating cookies. As Mrs. Wilson waves good-bye to them, Dennis explains to Joey: “Mrs. Wilson gives you a cookie because she is nice, not because you are nice.”
Scripture for Oct. 8, 2017 MATTHEW 20:1-16
Jesus taught in a parable, saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same thing. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.