The Parable of the Laborer…, Proper 20 (A) – 1996
September 15, 1996
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
The Scripture today resonates with the challenge, “Come, labor on.” It has been said that we are what we do all day so that’s probably why we so often ask people we have just met, “What is it that you do?” In fact, our labor has such a profoundly personal aspect to it that deep feelings are held about the value others ascribe to our work. But let’s face it, work can be monotonous, stressful, or difficult. I went into an office the other day and a worker had a sign on his desk which said, “I have job security, because nobody wants my job!” It is not always money. Some positions are paid by honor, power, or some other reward. Spiritually, work can be seen as a gift from God with a corresponding measure of gratitude or ingratitude based on how meaningful the work seems.
After becoming a priest, I went back to school to earn a Ph.D. I accumulated about ten years of higher education in the process. Along the way, I had to work several part-time jobs to support my family. One of the jobs that I did was on a construction site. One rainy morning just before I finish my studies, I was asked by the foreman to shovel up the mud that had fallen into the street from the big trucks leaving the work site. The foreman said wryly that it was his graduation present to me. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. As I worked near a traffic light, I looked up to see a pristine white Cadillac just stopping at the signal. My eyes met those of a proper looking middle-aged woman driving the spotless vehicle. As I continued to work, I happened to see that the woman behind the wheel was lowering the passenger window and I thought perhaps she needed directions. But going over to the car, the woman said to me with all the seriousness of a dedicated disciplinarian, “You know, young man, if you had stayed in school, you wouldn’t be doing what you are doing today.” As she sped away, all that I could muster to thank that woman for her sage advice was a wave and smile.
The twist in this story is little like that in today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel. Parables have a way of slapping us awake. They may daze, befuddle, or confound us. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has said that when a parable engages us, we are confronted by its revelatory insight. Then we find ourselves face to face with the Kingdom of God and we are challenged with a new understanding of ourselves. We are sifted, sorted, and rearranged by the parable. Instead of explaining the parable, the parable explains us. Our meeting with the parable makes us find something new, lose something old, and chose a new understanding. We are brought to a decision about God, about others, and about ourselves.1
This parable of the laborers in the vineyard vexes us because, like the workers who grumble against their employer, we expect equal pay for equal work. But the contracted amounts were honored and no injustice was done. The only real charge that could be made is that the owner of the vineyard was generous to those who labored little. He was generous enough to pay everyone who worked at all–a day’s wage. But now that I think about it, maybe another charge can be made against him– he appears to be a terrible businessman. But his generosity meant that everyone of those who came to work was paid enough to eat for a day. So the issue is not the wage and not the contract, but the generosity of the employer.
Historically, this parable has been interpreted around the themes of human jealousy, God’s generosity, and the danger of presuming upon the guarantee of God’s grace and salvation.2 Let’s explore these for a moment. Our jealousy of one another is based in fear of unfair treatment, or the fear that we may not measure up. Jealousy causes us to see others as objects rather than people. It makes “them” separate from “us.” Jealous fears are a wedge of pain driven between persons which can annihilate the most basic bonds. It certainly made the offended workers oblivious to the generosity of the vineyard owner. Jealousy blinds us to the needs of others because it is based on the notion of scarcity and limited resources. But this jealousy could not be more foreign from God whose grace and love are not limited in any way.
How can we begrudge God’s generosity? If God is our friend, we find ourselves asking, “How can it rain alike upon the just and the unjust?” This parable shames our grudging of others’ gifts and good fortune. In God’s household, all the children are unique and all are special and all are gathered into one company! When we want to cast others out of the circle, we are climbing above others and assuming a superior position–a justification–over others which we have not earned. There is an anonymous poem which addresses this issue when it asks, “Has God deserted Heaven, and left it up to you, to judge if this or that is right, and what each one should do? I think God’s still in business, and knows when to wield the rod, so when you’re judging others, just remember, you’re not–God.”3 It is this presumption which cuts us off from each other and from God and it is a reminder that we all stand before God in need and wounded by life and it is the generosity of God’s grace which supplies our needs. This bears out the saying that “God pays his servants neither by time nor piece-work, but by grace.”4
As we apply ourselves to this life we have been given, we gather in the full meaning of God’s graciousness to us. Our life and labor are a gift, what will we do with it? Sometimes, it seems to be so difficult to live it with gratitude given the trials we face. But it really is a choice. There is a story about a sage who was often asked for advice because he seemed always to know the right answer. A bully who wanted to shame the sage devised a plan to catch a small bird and hold it in his hands and to ask the man, “Is what I am holding in my hands alive or dead?” So that if the man answered, “Dead” he would release the bird to fly away and if he said, “Alive” the bird’s crushed body could be thrown at the sage’s feet. When the occasion came and he was asked the question by the bully, “Is what I have in my hands alive or dead?” The sage looked squarely into the eyes of his challenger and said, “It’s in your hands.”5
This is precisely where the issue of this parable meets us. We are challenger to “Come, labor on” in the face of distortions to what seems fair and when the greater portion which we think we deserve doesn’t come about as we expected in our life’s work as Christians. There are times when it appears that some are rewarded handsomely for their work despite the face that their sacrifices and losses seem unequal to ours. They may even pass us by and they may even deliver some pithy and misguided disparagements of our work. But when we feel that what we’d really like to do is put a banana in their tailpipe, we must remember the contract, do our work, and give thanks to God for providing the opportunity to be in the vineyard even if we are bearing the heat of the day. Our work is a reminder to acknowledge God’s graciousness and generosity in calling us to the Kingdom. In the words of the hymn, “Come, labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, ‘Go work today…and a glad sound comes with the setting sun, ‘Servants, well done.”
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