Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
When I was little, I noticed that there were a lot of people who called my Grandpa Grandpa even though he wasn’t their grandpa. This included some of my second cousins, who were so close to us growing up that it was natural to call Grandma and Grandpa just that, and that was ok. But there were also some of my peers - other young girls at church - who called my Grandpa Grandpa. I have to admit, my heart was not very generous. He was my Grandpa. I understood why they wished he was theirs - my Grandpa was one of the best people I have ever known. But he wasn’t theirs. He was mine. I never said anything. My Grandpa certainly didn’t seem to mind. But I was resentful in my young heart that they thought they could lay claim to my Grandpa.
It was a lot later - I won’t say how much later, but I will admit that it was too much later - that I began to realize a few things. First, there were a lot of reasons why someone might want to call my Grandpa Grandpa. They might have lost their own grandpas already. Or sometimes others had grandpas who weren’t so kind and loving as mine. And sometimes people had never even known a grandpa in their life. And my Grandpa just exuded Grandpa-ness. Of course others would want to claim him as their own. The other thing that I learned, a little slowly, is that my Grandpa liking it when other people called him Grandpa didn’t lessen how much he loved me, or how special I was to him. He could love other people, other children, and think they were special, and it didn’t change how much he adored me one bit.
I’m glad I learned this lesson, because I find the same thing happening with my Mom. She’s pretty awesome, and there are a lot of people, beyond me and my siblings, who think of her as Mom. In fact, I tease her often that even complete strangers usually see her as Mom. It is not at all uncommon for people to randomly treat her like you might treat a beloved mother. The big burly cashier at the convenience store who looks really tough and intimidating will probably end up chatting with her about his life because he sees my mom and thinks, “Oh good, my Mom stopped in to see me at work!” It doesn’t bother me anymore. Instead, it inspires me. I hope to be the kind of person that she is - someone who so radiates love for others that they see her and immediately know that she is someone they can trust, they can open up to, they can share their hearts with.
I had my Mom and my Grandpa on my mind as I was studying our text for today. Our last parable in our series is from the gospel of Matthew. Before our passage begins, at the end of chapter 19, a rich young man had approached Jesus and asked about getting into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, and the man went away disappointed, because he had many possessions. Jesus then says to the disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The disciples wonder, then, at who can be saved, if God’s standards are so hard. But, Jesus replies that with God, anything is possible. And then he tells this parable.
It is usually known as “The Parable of the Workers (or Laborers) in the Vineyard.” Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, whose insights we’re using to guide us as we read these texts, reminds us that the titles we give to parables shape the way we read them, and this common title, she says, suggests the emphasis is on the actions of the workers in the parable.* But Levine is much more interested in the landowner. She also suggests that putting “vineyard” in the title distances us, 21st century readers, from Jesus’ parables, since most of us have no experience with such a workplace. Rather, “The Conscientious Boss,” Levine suggests, or maybe “The Parable of the Surprising Salaries.” (214-215)
A landowner - literally a householder (221) - goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard, Jesus says. They agree for the usual daily wage, and then the workers head to work. A little later in the day, he heads back to the marketplace, and sees more workers there. Our NRSV bibles say that they were “standing idle,” which might lead us to read some kind of laziness into the text, but the phrase literally means simply “without work.” There are workers who can’t find work, standing in the marketplace. The householder hires them too, and promises to pay them what is right. And the word there means: just. He will pay them what is just. (225) And then the householder goes again, and again, until the last workers hired have only an hour left to work before the end of the day. “Why are you standing here unemployed?” he asks. “Go to the vineyard.” The story Jesus tells would have the attention of his audience. What kind of householder doesn’t know what size workforce he needs? Has he underestimated the size of his project? Were there not enough workers available at first? Or does he have some other agenda? Levine suggests that the latter is most likely, and so we listen in extra carefully to see where this story goes. (227)
Finally, at the end of the day, the householder has his manager call all the workers in and has them paid. Everyone receives the usual daily wage. No one receives less than they were promised. But those who worked part of a day and those who worked all day receive the same amount. Those who started working first, we read, assumed that they were going to get more than they had agreed on with the householder. And when they don’t get anything extra, they get angry with the householder. “You have made them equal to us,” they complain, when we had to work all day in the sun. The householder, though, won’t hear it. “I’m doing you no wrong. You agreed with me for the usual daily wage,” which the text already told us was a just amount. “Take what belongs to you and go,” he continues. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Oof. I don’t know about you, but it is hard not to sympathize with the workers who worked all day long. It is so unfair, isn’t it? We’ve all heard that life isn’t fair, but we value fairness nonetheless, and this scripture - oof. It is just so not fair. And that’s exactly the point. The parable shows us how God acts, and how we are called to act - like God would act. The laborers, Levine writes, “are interested in receiving their own payment, not in whether the other workers have enough food.” But whenever we’re ignoring whether or not others have enough, we’re on the wrong track, out of step with God’s picture of justice. (229) “The first hired do not want to be treated equally to the last;” says Levine. “They want to be treated better.” (231) But, “What God wants is not necessarily what ‘we’ think is appropriate … The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right,’” what is just. (230) And God is always more interested in justice than fairness. The workers all receive the usual daily wage - plenty to live on, enough to meet their needs. And so, despite their grumbling, “the only point that the workers could make about [the householder] was that he was generous to others. And in making that point, the workers [learn] their own economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough.’ One does the work - in the labor force, in the kingdom - not for more reward, but for the benefit of all.” (235-236)
We know that the greatest commandments are first to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then, to love our neighbors. The householder shows that love by making sure that as far as he can, he has provided enough for all. He’s worked for the benefit of everyone in his employ. Are we interested in working for the benefit of all? Or are we more caught up in what is fair rather than just?
The householder’s questions to the disgruntled workers really tug at me. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” That second question literally reads, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (231) It’s kind of like our phrase “green with jealousy.” Our vision is distorted. We’re not seeing like God sees. Is our “eye evil” because God is good? Are we envious because God is generous? Yes and yes. We must confess, we are envious. We’re not seeing clearly. Somehow, we are like my little-girl-self who doesn’t like it when someone else is calling my Grandpa theirs. Over and over we get the message that we don’t have enough, that what we have is never enough, and that what we should seek is not what is enough, but what is more than what others have - whether it is more money, or more facebook friends, or more likes on our posts, or more square footage in our houses, or more vacation time, or more friends, or more of God’s love and affection. We’re not satisfied if everyone has enough. We want more. Need more. We’ve worked harder, after all. Worked longer. And we want our fair share, and maybe a little extra too.
My Grandpa being Grandpa for lots of other people too - eventually my vision cleared, and I looked on that fact with joy, because it was a sign of my Grandpa’s goodness. He was overflowing with love, and he always had enough for whoever needed some. My mom is that way too. I hope I am growing into someone who is that way too. Certainly, it is the nature of God. Remember, we talked about how parables are Jesus’s way of telling us what God’s reign among us, right here and right now, is like. It’s like this: God is a God of abundance. God has blessed us with abundance, both spiritual and literal. There is enough - more than enough for all of us - both spiritually and literally. More than enough food for all. More than enough resources. And more than enough, more than enough of God’s love and grace and affection. God’s goodness and grace means God is always seeking to make sure we all have more than enough of what we need to thrive. When we act to prevent God’s work of abundance, when we try to undo what God does because we don’t think it is fair? Well, God says to us, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” God will call us out on the jealousy and hard-heartedness. God will always choose what is right, what is just, which is not, as it turns out, always the same as what we think is fair. But what God chooses is always good, and always loving.
If we’re people who seek to follow Jesus, who want to nurture in ourselves a heart like God’s, then we need to seek out those who need a share of God’s abundance, who need a share of our food and shelter, who need a stand-in Grandpa or Mom, who need a measure of love that sustains and renews them. I promise, we’ll find that in God’s economy of plenty, there is more than enough for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* All quotations/references in this sermon are from Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus.