September 21, 2014
William G. Carter
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard...
I’m glad to be far enough away that you can’t throw any sour grapes at me. This parable from Jesus always provokes a strong reaction. He tells of a vineyard owner who pays everybody the same. He gives no preferential treatment. He has no regard for seniority or length of tenure. It doesn’t matter if you show up for work at dawn or put in only hour before closing time: everybody gets the same. That man is so fair that it looks unfair.
We can understand the grumbling, can’t we?
Imagine the new kid that they hire for your office. Brand new off the street. You catch a peek at the paycheck and that kid is making as much as you. Doesn’t it matter that you have been there forever? No, apparently it doesn’t.
Or there’s that eighth grader in Westchester County. One of my buddies was his pastor and his confirmation teacher. The eighth grader’s mother said she was going to bring him to class each week. He never got there. Always had an excuse – soccer, hockey, baseball, never made it to class. Then it’s Confirmation Sunday. The kid shows up with his hair slicked back and a clip-on necktie. My friend said to the mother, who was also the Christian Education committee chair, “What’s he doing here?” She said, “He has come to be confirmed.”
The pastor sputtered, “But he hasn’t even been here to learn a single Bible verse.” The kid looks up and says, “I know a Bible verse. Jesus said, ‘The last shall be first.’” Just imagine the grumbling.
The parable suggests Jesus is remarkably indifferent to the time and effort that the hard-working faithful put in. As carpenters go, he doesn’t seem to care about billable hours and normal labor relations. No, he says the long-timers and the short-termers get paid the same. It’s a stinker of a story.
You can’t go out for football, miss all the practices, and expect to play the game. You can’t put on the danskins, miss every ballet rehearsal, and plan to go out on stage. The world doesn’t work that way. You have to put in your time!
The newcomer gets elected to the church board. The old-timers were gasping for breath, looking for fresh flesh. They find this person, get her on the board. She goes to the first meeting full of ideas. And they look at her, and they sigh, and then one of them says it, “You know, you have to understand that’s not going to work around here.” There is pause and another one says, “I move we adjourn to the parking lot and talk about this newcomer who hasn’t yet put in her time.”
What is Jesus insinuating? That everybody is the same? That isn’t true. Some of you are right-handed, and I am proper-handed…and in my right mind. Some of us are chronologically amplified, and others are inexperienced. Some of us have a wall full of awards and others are hardly recognized. Is he telling a story to prove that everybody bears the same value, that regardless of longevity, everyone bears equal value?
I don’t know. That may be it, but I don’t know if that’s it. I do know that when he speaks his favorite floating proverb – “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” – it sounds different here.
Over in the Gospel of Luke, he talks in terms of great reversal: the mighty will be lowered, the lowly lifted up; those who exalt themselves will be lowered, the humble will be exalted. Those who think they are righteous will be cast away, and the unexpected others will be welcomed at God’s Table. The first shall be last, the last shall be first.
But here, in the vineyard of Matthew 20, there is no reversal but rather an equal sign. The first equals the last who equals the first. That’s the problem, isn’t it? And we don’t like being reminded that nobody is better than anybody else.
When my friend McSwegin was diagnosed with the illness that would kill him, I walked into his hospital room five minutes after they told him what he had. I went to cheer him up and to offer an uplifting prayer. That day nothing could cheer either of us and we did not know how to pray. Then he cut through it and said, “Everybody gets a turn and this is mine.”
Sometime later, as we walked together around his neighborhood together, he explained himself. He said, "Who am I to think I am exempt from the rest of the human race? Who am I to think that I am better than anybody else?"
Sometimes we have these dramatic moments – a life-threatening illness, a lost job, a difficult kid – and we ask, “Why me?” McSwegin taught me to say, “Why not?” Nobody is exempt from pain or joy. It comes with being a creature, made by the same Creator like anybody else. Regardless of when we tune in or tune out of this truth, all of us are the same.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about in this parable.
Could it be that he speaks of another kind of equality? A lot of us were alive in the 1960’s when there was great talk of the equality of opportunity. Everybody needs the same opportunity. This contagious idea built the public schools and fired up a concern for civil rights. No one should be left behind because of who they are, what they look like, or where they were born. We can extract these ideas from the Bible, if we look hard enough, but Jesus seems to be speaking about the equality of reward. Some receive less than they have earned, others receive more than they deserve. Nobody gets ahead of others. Nobody falls behind. One denarius for each worker.
I recall some of the best utopian visions by our best imagineers. Remember Star Trek, in the future? Did you ever see anybody get a paycheck? Ever see somebody pay for a meal? In the 23rd century there are differing levels of responsibility on the Starship Enterprise, but as far as we could see, nobody ever gets paid. Or rather, it’s not about the money.
It’s a way to regard the future, I suppose. In heaven, there will be no paychecks. In heaven, there will be no labor disputes. In heaven, everybody will be regarded the same . . . presuming, of course, that they get there. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of heaven on earth, which is what Jesus told us to pray for – heaven on earth.
Have you been watching the new Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts? What an extraordinary slice of American history! Franklin Roosevelt was so well-spoken, so good looking, so successful. And then, in August 1921, he contracts polio. His legs stop working. He never accepted his paralysis as final. This seems to have changed him. He purchased a resort in Georgia, called it “Warm Springs,” and invited anybody with polio to come to pursue a cure. It didn’t matter who they were. It didn’t matter if they could afford it. He said, “Come.”
And then, after the economy fell apart, the Great Depression hit, and he was elected president, FDR created all kinds of New Deal government programs to jump start the job market and make sure everybody was fed. That patrician man of enormous privilege got a mere mortal’s disease like anybody else, and it enlarged his concern for those much less fortunate. Equality of reward: there is something for everybody.
But I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about.
No, the troubling thing about this Bible story is not merely the equality. It’s the owner of the vineyard. What kind of farm owner doesn’t hire enough workers at the beginning of the day? This guy goes down to the town square, finds some grape pickers, and says, “Work for me!” The pay is already set. They don’t have to negotiate. The workers know what they have to do; they are clear about what they will be paid, so off they go!
But a little bit later he goes back down to the market and finds some more workers. “Go out to my vineyard,” he says, “and I’ll treat you right.” If that was it, there would no squabble at all. A denarius was a single coin; you can’t cut it in half, you can’t make change. Keep the change.
But then he goes back down at noon, at three, and at five o’clock. He is so persistent. He will hire the workers that nobody else chooses. He wants to fill his blessed vineyard with workers. He must have a lot of grapes!
That’s the scandalous generosity here: that vineyard owner is going to bring in whoever he can. He doesn’t care if they have eighty-five tattoos or unblemished skin. He doesn’t care if they got there late, started early, or took off a lot of time in between. He doesn’t care how many grapes they actually pick, or whether they pick any at all. Notice there is no mention of their productivity? All it says is he wants them in his vineyard!
The problem comes when those who were present first hold up the measuring stick to the others. They believe they are worthy of greater reward because they have been there longer. That’s the point at which the Vineyard Owner starts to snarl right back. He says to one of the grumblers, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.”
He says “friend,” but he doesn’t mean “friend.” No, in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s a term of sarcasm. It’s like calling him “Buster.” Three times, Jesus uses the word “friend.” As we will hear in a couple more weeks, in a few more chapters, Jesus says a man sneaked into a wedding banquet and the guy in charge says, “Friend, how did you get in here?” (22:12). And when Judas Iscariot shows up to condemn him with a kiss, Jesus says, “Friend, do what you’re here to do.” (26:50)
So in our parable: “Buster, I am doing you no wrong. Am I not free to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Am I not free to do what I choose with those who belong to me? Of course, he’s free. He’s the Owner. It is his vineyard. And he will do whatever he can to fill his vineyard with the people he chooses.
So I guess it comes down to where we think we are standing: at the front of the line or the back of the line. All of us are in that line because we are wanted. The owner of the Beloved Vineyard wants you… and you… and you… and even you... and especially you. If we are in the line it is because we are chosen by a kindness that we cannot totally understand. The word for that kindness is grace. Grace can be amazing and it can be disturbing. It is amazing when you discover it’s for you. It is disturbing when you discover it’s for somebody else.
In the dominion of God, everybody gets the same. How do you feel about that? Have you ever been angry with the generosity of God?
For some people, the most disturbing thing of all is that God is going to get his way. For others, the kindest truth of all is that God is going to get his way.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.