Help Wanted! Working in the Lord’s Vineyard. The hours are short, but the pay is outrageous.
There was once a monk who joined an order that practiced a very strict vow of silence. There was one exception. Every ten years each monk in the order was allowed to say two words to the abbot.
At the end of the first ten years our monk went to the abbot, and the two words he said were, BED HARD. That was it for another 10 years. At the end of twenty years he was granted another two words. He went to the abbot and said, FOOD COLD. That was all he said for another ten years.
Finally, after 30 years, he came to the abbot, and this time his two words were, I QUIT! To which the abbot replied, Well, I’m not surprised. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here!
In our parable from the appointed Gospel, Jesus tells us that when all the workers lined up to be paid, some of those who had worked all day complained about the fact that those who had only worked an hour received the same wage as they. Take note, however, that Jesus said only SOME of the workers complained. I take that to mean that some did not, and so the first thing I would like for us to do is to take a tour through this parable as it applies to our world today.
There are still workers in line waiting for their pay, and not all of them are complaining. Jesus said, The first will be last and the last will be first. So let’s go to the end of the workers’ line and visit with a few of them.
The first person we meet on our tour is a woman. She seems quite unconcerned about her pay or her rewards. She was called at a very early age to begin her work in the vineyard. Her job there is to feed the hungry and hold the sick in her arms. Since she was seventeen, she did her work faithfully. Oh yes she was a very early arrival in the vineyard. Her name was Teresa, and for over sixty years she worked there. At first they called her sister, but she gained so much respect from her fellow workers that they came call her MOTHER.
A story is told about the time Mother Teresa was interviewed by a young reporter. The reporter was astonished at the menial tasks this famous woman did all day. At the end of their time together, the reporter asked her if she thought her ministry had been successful. This question seemed to astonish and shock the old nun. She replied, We are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful.
Not all the workers in line are famous. The next one we meet in the pay line hasn’t made any headlines. I don’t have his permission to tell you his story, so I’ll just call him John. John isn’t a monk or a priest, he’s a doctor. He did his residency at a famous cancer hospital, but his field was plastic surgery. John learned to rebuild faces destroyed by cancer. After his residency, his future seemed assured, especially in a society like ours where beauty is so important.
John wasn’t elderly. You might say that he was one of the workers who came into the field in the middle of the day. He could have been chief of staff at any UC Medical Center or had an established practice in Beverly Hills, but John chose to labor in the fields of the Kingdom of God far from fame and high pay. He works in a mission hospital and receives only food and housing for his work! He fixes the young faces of children with cleft palates. He grafts skin for burn victims. His stitches hardly leave scars. John never grumbles about his pay.
Now as we continue our tour, we meet a man who is at the very front of the line. His name is Jake. Even though he is in the same line with Teresa and John, his story is quite different. Jake lived most of his life living and waiting for the next dose of heroin. He used drugs to anesthetize the wounds of childhood, broken romances and the disappointments of life.
One night he was found lying half dead under an abandoned house. Jake said that he wanted to die that night, but a man from the shelter where Jake often spent the night went looking for him and found him.
When he was finally able to arouse him, Jake yelled out, GO AWAY!
But his friend just kept calling to him to come out.
Jake thought it was too late in the day for him to start another journey.
He couldn’t go into the vineyard with the likes of Teresa and John who had already logged in so many hours of work. . .
But the call just kept coming. . . and finally Jake crawled out of that cold, dark hole, and his life has changed. He works at the shelter.
He has been re-born, and when people ask him why he came to the Lord so late, he always says the same thing: It was almost dark. It was the last hour when I finally heard him calling.
Jake does not complain about his life now. It may not seem like much to some folks, but to Jake it’s a whole lot because he was dead and is now alive. He was lost and now is found; he was blind, but now can see!
Do we dare to understand this parable? Do we dare to say that our God is so generous. . so gracious. . so reckless with his love that he would reward Teresa, John and Jake EQUALLY?
I don’t believe that there is any other interpretation possible here.
Just when we think we understand what it means to be fair and just, Jesus turns everything upside down.
Have you ever noticed that when it comes to Jesus everything seems to be reversed? Stop and think about it.
First, the Creator of the universe turns out to be a baby.
Second, the Messiah is a peasant boy, born in a barn.
Third, the Lord of all declares that he is a servant.
Fourth, the only innocent person who ever lived is cruelly executed.
Last, Death is overcome by Resurrection.
So where do we stand in the reversal of this parable of the generous landowner?
I want to stand with the laborers who have sweat in the vineyard all day, and I want to shout, IT ISN’T FAIR! IT ISN’T FAIR, JESUS!
This reminds of a time when I read about a $22 million dollar lottery winner right in my home town. I want to confess to you that my first thoughts were not congratulatory.
Still, I think this week’s reading offers us some help. It seems to me that this is one of our Lord’s clearest, plainest, most forceful and most relevant parables. It shows how God has a different wage scale than the world. God’s calculator, like God’s wrist watch, uses a mathematical language we don’t understand. It’s the language of indiscriminate generosity. It’s the new math of the kingdom of God where even zero plus zero equals something of immense value.
In the final analysis, I believe we are all, ultimately, in the pathetically needy situation of the late-comers to the vineyard. We have done little for God, and he habitually over-pays us. We must receive his kingdom, not as a well-earned wage, but as a sheer, unmerited gift. If we think we have earned it, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us!
If we think we can work or earn our way into the Kingdom, we are mistaken It is by grace alone that we are welcomed.
Let me tell you a story about grace. A man died and went to heaven. He was stopped at the pearly gates by St. Peter.
Peter said, Hold it mister. You just can’t walk in here. We have our protocol. We have to see if you have enough points to get into heaven. You need at least 200 points.
The man asked, How do I get points? And Peter answered, We determine your points by the life you you have led.
Well, the man said, I was a member of my church for 47 years. I was on the Vestry, and I taught Sunday School, and I worked on the Stewardship drives and all the fund raisers.
To which Peter said, That’s very good; you get one point.
Oh my, said the man, Let me think again.. Oh yes.. I was a good husband. I never cheated on my wife. My children loved me because I was a good father. I was in the Lions club, and the Rotary and the Kiwanis, and I even volunteered to clean litter along the highways.
St. Peter said, That’s very good again; that’ll be one more point.
Now the man is starting to sweat, and he thinks, and he thinks, and he thinks some more, and finally he says, Good Lord, if I get in here, it’ll be by the grace of God.
To which Peter said, Very good, that’s worth 198 points. COME ON IN!
Looking back on my life, I know that I’ve been blessed in so many ways, ways that I couldn’t even begin to count. I didn’t deserve any of them, but by grace they came anyway. Even in my sadder and lonelier moments, the sun still gave warmth; puppies and babies were born, and people fell in love. I need to realize; WE ALL need to realize that we are the laborers who only had to work in the Master’s vineyard for one hour in the cooler part of the day.
But still, there are those times when we’ll forget all about that and ask, Who are these outsiders? I’ve worked so hard for so long, and they want to come in and move right to the top. Why don’t I get more recognition? Why doesn’t somebody speak up on my behalf? In those moments I believe we move just a bit further away from the Kingdom of God.
Oh, but how lucky we are! God’s forgiveness is infinite, and so he says, Don’t worry; you still have a job in the vineyard, and the rate of pay is still outrageous!