Now here is a parable that has troubled congregations and people of faith for generations. Like the ones who first heard Jesus tell the story, audiences sit through the entire tale. They wait for the ending of the story. And finally when the narrative reaches its conclusion, the punch line is really hard to stomach. Meaning nobody walks away living happily ever after.
Why is the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard so difficult to swallow? For me, the story offends our sensibilities on three different levels…
First, this morning’s parable is offensive from an economic perspective. Especially for all of us who live in this free market, capitalist society. We’ve had it drummed into our heads for years the notion that you receive a fair dollar for a fair day’s work. Granted, ours is not a pure capitalist system. In the United States of America, there are millions of people who work really hard and barely earn enough income to make ends meet. Meanwhile, there are plenty of Americans who don’t seem to work overly hard and yet they get paid exorbitant amounts of money.
All things considered though, most of us in this country believe that hard work deserves to be rewarded. If the first workers in the vineyard, who begin laboring not long after sunrise, earn one denarius for the entire workday…or the equivalent of around forty dollars per day…then those who wind up in the vineyard at later junctures in the day should be paid less than forty dollars. Unless you decide to pay the last workers, the one hour at the end of the day workers, forty dollars for a day. In which case the first workers should receive twelve times that amount to account for the fact they worked from sunup to sundown. Forty dollars times twelve hours of work equals four hundred and eighty dollars.
The idea that the first workers in the vineyard and the last workers in the vineyard get paid the same amount? That just doesn’t make sense. In a bottom line equation where production is accounted for and people are compensated according to effort, it’s simply not economically sound.
Second, this morning’s parable is offensive from a moral perspective. It’s a quaint idea for the landowner to claim in the conclusion that the last will be first and the first will be last. And it probably feels great to get paid a full days wage if you’re standing at the front of the line.
But all it feels, if you are standing in the rear of the line, is unfair. Ridiculous. Frustrating. Inconceivable. The world doesn’t work that way. In fact, there is no better way to break the morale of a group of people than to make it seem as though some people are getting preferential treatment while others are getting the short end of the stick.
The fact that the landowner circles back to the laborers at the end of the line with his rationale only rubs salt in open wounds. Can’t I do whatever I want with my money? Didn’t I give you exactly what you bargained for? Why are you jealous of the ones at the front of the line? Is it any of your business how generous I am? Stop whining, take your wages and go…I don’t want to hear any more about it. For a group of tired, worn out workers who had a legitimate grievance with the landowner, the response they got for their trouble only made it worse.
Finally, this morning’s parable is offensive from a personal perspective. Which isn’t to say that any of us own vineyards. Nor is it likely that any of us go out to the marketplace multiple times in a day to find workers willing to labor in one of our fields.
What it does mean, however, is that Jesus’s parables are effective because they invite us into the world of the story. Some of the parables Jesus told were a little more subtle than this one. But Gospel parables work effectively because they encourage us to choose sides. They lure us into identifying with a particular character or group of characters. And they suck us in so wholeheartedly that we can’t help but feel genuine emotion in the end. Anger, relief, jealousy, trust, shock, surprise.
As we listen to this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, how many of us put ourselves in the shoes of the workers at the end of the line? The ones who’ve been out there toiling in the beating sun all day long. The same ones who get shortchanged and fail to hear any satisfying argument from the landowner justifying his behavior. Finally we think to ourselves, “you know what…if my employer ever treated me that way…”
No matter how you look at it, today’s parable is offensive. But before I go any further in this sermon, I want to pause for a second…
Just like the parable had an unexpected twist, this sermon is about to take an unexpected twist. In spite of everything I’ve said about the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard up to this point, I want you to set all that aside. Shifting gears, what I’m about to claim is that this morning’s story is not really a parable about the laborers. It’s actually a parable about the landowner.
If this morning’s parable is a story about the kingdom of God, which makes sense to me, then the parable is not really about how worthy the workers may or may not be. It’s not about how hard the laborers work. It’s not even a parable about justice and the manner in which some workers are treated fairly and others unfairly. I encourage you to let that stuff go for the rest of this sermon.
Instead, this morning’s parable is about a landowner who can’t stay away from the marketplace. Early in the morning. At nine o’clock after breakfast. At noon during the lunch hour. When three o’clock in the afternoon comes. And finally at five o’clock when the day is essentially over. Again and again and again, the landowner heads out to the marketplace, reaching out to workers who are unemployed and killing time and facing the prospect of returning to their home at the end of the day empty handed. The landowner interrupts his day over and over and over by tapping idle workers on the shoulder and offering them a word of grace and hope.
If we see this parable as an economic or moral or personal tale about what happened to the laborers, then a problem inevitably arises. We start drawing lines. We draw a line between the ones who got what they deserved and the ones who didn’t. Between the ones who worked hard and the ones who barely broke a sweat. Between the ones who benefitted from favoritism and walked away happily with a pocket full of money while others left unhappy and were told to stop complaining and get lost. The lines in this parable are drawn clearly and distinctly from the outset.
Yet here’s the thing I’ve learned over the course of my lifetime. Whenever I draw a line between myself and someone else, Jesus is more often on the other side of the line. Whenever you and I draw lines between ourselves and other people, Jesus Christ usually winds up on the other side of the line…
We live in a 2017 world and a 2017 country where human beings are busy drawing lines. Especially in the last couple of weeks when certain people have been allowed into this country while others have not. When certain religions are welcome among us and other religions are banned. When families are being torn apart and lives are being torn apart and dreams are being torn apart.
In these early 2017 days when lines have taken the form of waiting lines and dividing lines and enemy lines and lines in the sand, the one thing I believe in my heart is that Jesus Christ is on the other side of the lines we are busy drawing.
Meanwhile God? God is busy heading out to the marketplace. Because God is working hard to reconcile human beings to God and to one another.
God values human beings not based on whether we gain approval from those around us. God values human beings simply because God is a God of grace. A God who comes and gets us no matter who we are, no matter what time of day it might be, no matter how long we’ve been waiting. A God who is generous beyond measure. A God who taps us on the shoulder and invites us to be part of God’s kingdom. Amen.