Father Nicholas Lang
The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
It’s just not fair! We’ve all uttered these words—if not out loud at least to ourselves. Doesn’t the story Jesus told about the vineyard drive that point home? How would you feel if you’d worked all day in the blazing sun for minimum wage and at day’s end, with every muscle in your body aching, you got paid exactly the same amount as the workers who showed up an hour before quitting time? And, adding insult to injury, they get paid first and you have to wait online!
The Scriptures are very old. Jesus told this story two thousand years ago. But somehow I don’t think Jesus wants us to drag out the same old sermon year after year about some of these rather provocative passages. I also believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and busy in our midst and gives us the possibility for fresh and new insights into the Word of God. And, while the Scriptures are old, isn’t it interesting how human nature remains the same and how these parables address issues of the twenty-first century as well as they do issues in the first century.
So, yes, this is clearly a story about God’s extravagance and how that is not always palatable. The parable turns our idea of fair and square upside down and over on its head, but I believe there’s more here than meets the eye. Bear with me, I’ll get us there shortly.
Let me digress a bit. It’s helpful to know that Jesus tells this story after the encounter he has with the rich man who wants to know how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to go sell everything he owns, give the money to the poor, then come follow him. He goes away very sad because he has many possessions.
Whereupon, the disciples seize the opportunity to remind Jesus that they had left everything to follow him. What do they get in return? They will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel, he assures them. So far, so good. But then he adds, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” He, no doubt, saw the surprised look on their faces when they learned that so many others will share in the rewards. So he tells this parable of the vineyard to make his point. God’s Kingdom is not a private club. In the words of author, Mark Twain, “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
This parable, like the story of the king and wicked servant we heard last week is, first about grace. We are forgiven and redeemed and welcomed into the Kingdom of God not by any power of our own or any entitlement we think we may have, but rather by God’s extravagant graciousness—an outrageous, and, perhaps to some, seemingly unfair generosity that, like good Scotch, is often an acquired taste. Theologian Frederick Buechner puts it quite nicely: “Grace is something you can never get, only be given. There is no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream.”
Let’s step back into the vineyard. Let’s look more closely at the workers who came later—even at the end of the day. Can we change our lenses to see them in a new perspective? What if some of them had a disability and it took way longer for them to get dressed and out the door and over to the job site—overcoming obstacles in the way? Could some of them have lacked training or had really low self-esteem, and so were reluctant to ask for a job? I wonder if some never had a great education, maybe could not read or write, never saw the “Want Ad” in the paper, so they had to rely on “word of mouth” from a friend.
Could there have been some who, because of whatever was different, or not valued about them in the culture—gender, skin color, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status—had been marginalized by society, perhaps fired from another job because of discrimination, and were “gun shy” about trying again. They sheepishly come at the end and in the dusk to be as inconspicuous as possible.
The real message in the parable of the vineyard is God’s extravagant generosity expressed through radical hospitality. Just show up. We’ll give you a place at the table and we’ll feed you with the same portion and quality of this sacred meal God has given us as those who laid the foundation to the place. You’ll be receivers of God’s grace and healing just like all of us. Here—as in God’s very kingdom—there are no second-class citizens.
The church is not built on those who are first, but upon the love of a gracious God who reaches out, largely and widely and broadly through its members, to the least and the last—especially those who have ever been marginalized by religion. We are here to bring them to the center of our life and to guarantee them a place at the table.
Perhaps, once upon a time, you and I were that person, that person living on the fringe of church life, and were welcomed generously and the table was expanded to make room for us. After a while, maybe we had to move down to the end to make room for someone else. The upside down formula of Jesus says “the first will, be last and the last first,” And, in the end, we’re all really latecomers.
Is all of this fair? I guess it all depends on your angle of vision—your perspective of what the church is and what is our mission now in this time and place. Here in the vineyard, we are reminded on a weekly basis that Jesus calls on us to look at the world with totally different standards of judgment than those that operate in the world. That was true two thousand years ago. And still is. Thanks be to God!