A prominent Homiletics professor when asked about preaching on this scripture once wrote, “The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is a little like cod liver oil: You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, p. 100). It is one of those scriptures that tends to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted, depending on where you see yourself standing in line. It’s one of those stories which can make us feel just a little bit edgy, a little bit itchy, a little bit uncomfortable. It proposes a reversal of order, an upset of the apple cart, a topsy turviness that we didn’t see coming. It challenges the sacred assumptions of the way things should be, heck, it even calls into question our beloved Protestant work ethic.
So let’s unpack this scripture a little shall we? Let’s look a little at the message Jesus was trying to impart both for his followers that day, and for 21st century readers. The story is a quite simple one. There was once a vineyard owner. An esteemed man who invited workers to labor in his vineyard. The scripture isn’t clear on telling us whether or not this vineyard owner actually needed the help, or whether he was just providing the opportunity for work, offering the chance to make an honest day’s wage for someone in need, but regardless, there he was, first thing in the morning. Now, if you were looking to hire someone to work in your own personal vineyard back in the first century in Palestine, you’d be inclined to look for strong workers, capable workers who could harvest a hefty yield. And your best bet to find those workers would be to go first thing in the morning as the sun rose, to the marketplace. There you’d gather with other estate managers and you’d carefully examine the pooling crowds of laborers, looking for the strongest, the ablest, the one who comes from the heartiest stock, the one who has that ambitious glimmer in his or her eye.
And in our story, laborers were, indeed, hired that morning and a fair price was offered in keeping with the laws of the Torah, and all seemed content. Vineyard management team and contracted laborers alike. A deal was struck and hands were shook.
But a few hours later, after this first cream of the crop of workers was picked and already at work, the manager went back and saw that there were still others looking for work, still others unemployed, and so again the vineyard manager offered a fair price, and it was accepted, and more workers joined the workforce already toiling away in the vineyard…three hours later, but still in the morning.
This happened again three more times on that day. And workers were still crowding the marketplace, looking hungrily for work that would offer them the coveted denarius which would pay them enough to buy a meal that night. Standing idly around wondering if they would have something to provide for their families that day, something to take home to wherever it was they sought shelter at night with growling hungry bellies and dashed hopes. The pickings for strong workers with each trip to the marketplace would have gotten slim, those who were left would have been weaker, perhaps lame, perhaps elderly, perhaps infirm, those who were not wanted, or those who had been cast away by other estate owners. And yet with each trip to the marketplace, our vineyard owner invited more, and more were hired and more were offered a fair wage. One has to wonder what the other estate managers and vineyard owners in the region were saying as that last load of workers were contracted even at 5:00 in the evening and still heading out to the field to work only for an hour as the sun began to set. Was there snickering at the naievety of the vineyard owner? Was there joking about how much work would actually get done and how much money would be wasted? Surely this vineyard owner missed his Corporate Economics 101 class, or at least was sick the day they talked about profit yielding.
And at 6:00 p.m. whenever the metaphorical equivalent to the time clock was punched and the dinner bells were beginning to ring, the workers headed in from the vineyard to receive their just rewards, their compensation for their hard work under the hot sun. Sunburned and sweaty they gathered, the strong and the weak, the ones with sinewy muscular arms and strong tanned backs and the ones with the withered legs and scoliosis and sunburns. The ones who could find work any day of the week and the ones who were still puzzled at how they were invited to be hired at all. All of the workers gathered to receive their pay.
And here’s where the story gets a little wonky, here’s the part that makes us scratch our heads. The workers were lined up in reverse order of when they were hired, those hired latest were placed first in line. And these were given one whole denarius. These late-day add-ons were given a full day’s wage. It was incredible really, a full day’s wage for an hour’s work, in this economy!.
And so those in the back of the line must have begun to imagine what the weight of a pocketful of coins felt like, the jingle as they were gathered into two receptive hands. For if a denarius was offered for an hour’s worth of work, how much would twelve denari buy. And one can imagine the excited murmurings. But as each successive group of workers made it to the front of the line to receive their wages, those happy murmurings probably turned into snarling gripes, for there was just one standard payment that day for all. One denarius. Early or late to work. Strong or weak. There was one standard price, a fair and agreed upon price, but the same for all. One denarius.
And scripture says that one outspoken worker named this perceived inequity and said, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under the scorching sun.” The anger of these first-hired workers was not just over money, it was over status. They didn’t want those who were hired later to be equated with them. Those hired later, those who would have been weaker, were in a category all their own, considered the lowest of the low. They were the ones who had been cast-aside, the ones with the invisible “L’s” on their foreheads, labeled as losers and written off for whatever reason. How dare they be considered equivalent to the hale and hearty first-hired?
The vineyard owner was pragmatic. He said, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” The Greek version of that last little bit has a bit more bite to it. It is translated this way, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
And so ends the story. But, if you are anything like me, you may still be left with the question. Was vineyard justice done? Was it really fair?
Any of you who have more than one child, or who were raised with siblings may have faced this very dilemma. Shortly after Robert and I married, I moved into the home which Robert shared with Tess and Brynn who were then nine and six years old, I encountered my first difficult lesson in parenting. Sometimes fairness is not easily attained. Before parenting our three children, I had been largely oblivious to the ins and outs of sibling struggle. A common refrain I learned early on in our newly formed family’s life were those three deadly words, “It’s not fair.” I learned that it wasn’t fair when one sister got to keep the dog in her room overnight and the other sister was relegated to a cold dachshund-less bed. I learned that it wasn’t fair when one sister finished the last red popsicle in the freezer while the other sister was stuck with only the dreaded toxic orange ones. I learned that it wasn’t fair when one sister was sick and got to stay home sleeping fitfully on the couch while watching the Disney channel while the other sister had to go to school. There are a thousand things that are not fair in this world, I learned. And I learned it through the eyes of two children who I loved passionately and deeply and honestly. And I found myself uttering the words to them that I believe the landowner might utter to his workers, “No, no it isn’t fair, but it is still good. Trust in what I offer you.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, in her book The Seeds of Heaven, “God is not fair. For reasons we may never know, God seems to love us indiscriminately, and seems also to enjoy reversing the systems we set up to explain why God should love some of us more than others of us…God is not fair; but depending on where you are in line that can sound like powerful good news, because if God is not fair, then there is a chance we will get paid more than we are worth, than we will get more than we deserve. God is not fair; God is generous.”
I have a little secret to tell you this morning. The parable of the vineyard is not about fairness. It is about grace. The God of the vineyard is the God who surprises us all with what we need, and claims we are all entitled to walk on the same ground, the weak and the strong alike, the old and the young alike, no matter who you are or where you are on your faith journey. The God of the vineyard begs us not to begrudge our brothers and sisters of their good fortune, not to look at generosity with an eye of evil. The God of the vineyard throws caution to the wind and upsets the systems of power and domination and offers a new paradigm. The God of the vineyard offers generous grace and plenty.
The psychotherapist Gerald May once wrote, “Grace threatens all my normalities.” Yes, yes, yes. Extravagant grace, freely given, is hard to get our heads around. And can shake us to the core.
This is the truth which may be hard to swallow at first, just like that cod liver oil. But once you get past those first tastes you’ll realize how sweet life is in the kingdom of our generous God, where we look upon one another with only the eyes of love.