Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday Sept.21, 2008 Proper 20A
Text Matthew 20: 1-18 Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
If you find today’s parable of Jesus a bit hard to swallow you are in good company. Somehow the idea of a business-person who pays everyone the same no matter how hard or long they worked is difficult to comprehend. It goes in the category with other parables that have at there center such radical love or forgiveness or generosity that they offend our hard-working-muscle-your-way-to-the-front-of-the-line-arrive-early-stay-late-competitive-work-ethic. Why does Jesus insist upon turning things on their head? Why do his stories constantly mix up the order of things, messing with our sense of fairness, and just plain offending us into active thought about how the world is supposed to be? Well I guess that is what the parables are all about, they intend to puzzle and perplex you enough, even irritate or enrage you just enough to make you think, to make you pay attention, to shatter your hardness of heart.
When my wife Maren and I lived in Austin, Texas there was a area of the city not far from the Congress Street bridge where workers gathered early in the morning waiting for work. They were predominately immigrants from south of the US border but all kinds of workers could be found there. They waited it seemed in lines that had a kind of understood order for a contractor, or carpenter or in some cases home-owner to pull up looking for workers. The area was packed in the early morning hours and thinned out as the day progressed until by late afternoon only a few laborers were left waiting for job or those whose job had turned out to be short had returned in the hope of a second opportunity. I passed by this area of the city often and witnessed the scene but I had never really connected this phenomenon to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
But one day sitting in a class on biblical exegesis, that’s exegesis, not extra Jesus, we were learning ways of interpreting texts and our instructor Pablo Jimenez challenged us to think about this parable from the perspective of those workers down near the Congress Street bridge waiting for a day labor. I realized that indeed this parable or the situation that Jesus is describing as an image of the kingdom of God happens every day in major cities and town squares all over the world. Hard as it is to believe for those of us fortunate enough to have consistent jobs to go to, there are many for whom daily work is a question mark, a waiting game, a hope and a desperate need each day.
All of a sudden this parable began to come to life, it had real import. What would it mean to begin to think about this parable from the perspective of the waiting workers? One can imagine the hungry eyes of the workers watching as cars and trucks pass-by. One can feel the excitement and apprehension of a laborer as a contractor’s truck comes to a stop in front of you, is this work you can do? Will it last all day? Can you understand each other? Will this person be fair? Will it be safe work? What will it pay? Will it last for more than a day, could it work into something lasting? I began to understand the anxiety at the heart of this parable. It was an anxiety that many in Jesus’ audience understood. Many had themselves waited for work or had family members who daily went to the square looking for daily wages.
Attempting to understand this parable through the hungry oft-times desperate eyes of the laborers, opens up this text in a new way. One begins to feel the need inherent in the situation. People don’t wait for work in the public square for fun or just to get some spending money. Daily work is work for what one needs that day. It is daily work for daily pay, so that there is daily bread and daily shelter. No one in this situation is looking to get rich, no one is about to hit the jackpot. Everyone there is hoping to meet basic needs.
Encountering this parable from below one begins to understand it in a very practical way. This is a parable about justice. It is already clear that this parable is not about fairness. We know what fairness means. Equal pay for equal work, that’s fair. Rewarding people who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least is not fair. You are supposed to get what you deserve. The smartest, the hardest working, the best-looking, and those who have one the genetic lottery get the most, the best, the biggest. They are at the front of the line and they are there because they deserve it right? Well, according to Jesus that is not the way it is supposed to be in the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom of heaven things get scrambled, discombobulated. The divine payroll service starts at the back of the line and doesn’t seem to think it is ok to pay people less than they need to live for the day, so everyone gets a day’s wages. Divine justice has a healthy dose of divine compassion mixed in. To those who are used to getting the gooey end of the stick divine justice appears wildly generous in this story, but to those of us who like to keep score, and believe that fair is fair the land-owner seems capricious and indiscriminate in his generosity.
It is not hard to understand the outrage of those who have worked all day in the scorching sun and been paid the same as those who were slumming about in the public square until late in the afternoon and only invited to work one hour. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us,” say the first one’s hired through their exhaustion and sweat and wounded sense of fairness.
The owner of the vineyard reminds them that he has kept his end of the deal. He has paid them a fair wage for a days work. What is it to them if he decides to be generous to the others? The vineyard belongs to him, the resources are his to distribute as he desires. Isn’t he free to be generous? Do they honestly begrudge him his generosity?
Evidently the landowner’s generosity is an offense to them. We all know that life is not always fair. But why do they find it so distasteful that the landowner is more than fair with some? In thinking about this parable, one wonders why these laborers who know the anxiousness and hopefulness that goes along with waiting for a job for the day, who know how desperately everyone needs these daily wages would begrudge their fellow-laborers getting a full days pay when that is exactly what they all need. Would they have rather waited around the square in desperation most of the day instead of working happily? Would they in fact have stayed there the whole day or would they have given up and gone home?
The fertile ground of this parable is the place where our worldview, the way we think the world is, and the worldview of the kingdom of God collide. Jesus is in essence saying, you think that things are the way they are supposed to be, but I’m telling you that if you saw them the way God wants you to see them, if your heart was storied by God’s desires, storied by this parable, you would not be offended in the least, you would be laughing for joy that everyone got paid for the day. You’d be toasting the landowner’s generosity at the pub that night with your fellow-workers who needed those wages just as desperately as you did. One wonders what it would be like at the square the following day when the land-owner comes again to collect workers. Who will want to sign-up for the full day and who will choose to take their chances and wait around?
Each week, as we gather, we say the Lord’s Prayer at a very tender and numinous moment in the Eucharist. With great reverence and intensity we say “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are saying that we want earth to be like the kingdom of heaven and Jesus’ parable is trying to tell us the kingdom of heaven is like. When we pray that prayer we are saying that we want this parable to come true. Do we really want it to be true that everyone who is looking for a full day of work gets paid for a full day of work? Do we really want those who are at the back of the line, or who arrive late to be treated like they’ve been there all along? Do we really want this kind of radical generosity, this radical hospitality to be characteristic of our community here at St. Michael’s?
In many ways this parable asks more questions than it answers and that is another mark of parables. One of the questions that intrigues me is where each of us might locate ourselves in line. Most of us probably tend to hear this parable from the front of the line. As one commentator said, “We are the ones who have gotten the short end of the stick: we are the ones who have been cheated. We are the ones who have gotten up early and worked hard and stayed late and all for what? So that some backward householder can come along and start at the wrong end of the line, treating us just like the ne’er-do-wells who do not even get dressed until noon!”
This might be how we hear the parable, but what if we are mistaken about our placement in the cosmic line of laborer’s? Have you ever considered the possibility that perhaps you are not at the front of the line? That there may be many faithful people who are in front of you with more gold stars on their church attendance charts and more gem stones in their heavenly crowns? Perhaps there are all sorts of people ahead of us in line, people who are far more deserving of God’s love than we are, people who have done more good and been far better examples than we could have hoped to be.
So they are in the front of the line and you and I are a ways back, in fact the line is snaking around the block or blocks and come to think of it, we’re not sure we can see the front at all. It is not so hard to understand is it? There are so many reasons we might find ourselves at the back of the line. No one told us there was a line in the first place, in fact we found this whole spirituality and religion thing late in life. And besides even if we’d known there was a line earlier we probably wouldn’t have done much about it anyway, procrastination is a fine art in our world. But there are highly motivated people at the back of the line with us too. Sometimes even when you want to be first in line, things get in the way. People get sick, businesses fail, relationships implode, we do something incredibly stupid, or our years growing up were a disaster. There are lots of reasons people end up at the end of the line and we hope to heaven that God can sort it all out because we know we can’t.
In the end this troublesome little parable gives us a gem of insight. God is not fair. God doesn’t seem to care about all our score keeping and our wounded sense of order. God loves us. God loves and loves and loves without a lot of supporting evidence, sometimes in spite of the evidence. God seems to enjoy messing with the rules, reversing the order, and challenging our notions of who deserves what. As the scriptures says, God’s ways are not our ways and that if we want to get into the divine state of mind we might need to actually revisit our notions of what is fair or what is just or what is truly at the center of God’s compassionate ways.
So, God is not fair. Wow does scripture really say that? Yep! And depending where you are in line that can be some powerfully good news! You might just get paid more than you are worth. You might find that the end of the line is now the beginning, not because of who you are but who God is.
God is not fair; God is generous to a fault. And we are all called to be like God in this way, because that is the way of the kingdom. If you have lost sight of the radical generosity of God it is most likely because you have forgotten where you are in line. You have forgotten what is feels like to be loitering around the public square waiting for a day of work at 3 in the afternoon when you desperately need it. The first shall be last and the last shall be first is not some kind of divine threat, it is God’s playful sense of humor soaked in a generosity that should have us all laughing and trying to outdo one another in generosity ourselves. Let grace abound more and more the scriptures say. Quit keeping score, because evidently God has lost track long ago.
Note: The notion a reading this text from the below is rooted in the work of theologians like William Herzog and there attention to socio-economic realities seen in the subversive speech of the parables of Jesus. The concept of where one is in line is borrowed and adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon Beginning at the End.