September 18, 2011
The kingdom of heaven is like…
This is the way Jesus introduces many of his parables in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke and Mark, the phrase used is “the kingdom of God is like…” The parables are meant to help Jesus’ listeners—and us, listening in 2000 years later, to catch a glimpse of this new realm of existence that Jesus is proclaiming. The parables are meant to teach, to shed light on this new existence, but they are also meant to shock and unsettle us, for the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, is, above all else, something that transcends and challenges all human values, all expectations, all of our comfortable ways of thinking about things and living.
I’m sure I say this every time I preach on a parable, but the one we heard today is both one of my favorites, and among the most challenging and unsettling of all of Jesus’ parables.
Unlike many of Jesus’ parables that reference a world and experiences very different than our twenty-first century lives, an agricultural world populated with sheep and shepherds, farmers, masters and slaves, this parable has elements that hit very close to home. Few of us have worked in a vineyard, but most of us have worked for a wage. We know the meaning and value of a day’s work, we have a good sense of how much we are worth; we know the value of the day’s work we put in. Many of us also know the frustration of supervising workers, dealing with personalities, with the pressures of deadlines and dissatisfaction with the quality or amount of work accomplished in a day.
So the parable of the laborers in the vineyard seems familiar to us, but that familiar situation conceals from us how very different our world from the world of the first century. For this parable does not take place in the economy of the United States; it takes place in a peasant, land-based economy. The day-laborers of whom Jesus speaks are not wage-earners with steady jobs and incomes. They live from day to day, subsisting on what little money they can earn working for someone else because they are too poor to own enough land to feed themselves and their families. What money they make during one year’s harvest will have to keep them alive until the next year. There’s nowhere to turn if they are cheated out of their wages or treated poorly by their employer.
Imagine yourself a day-laborer like those in the parable; hired in the morning for a day’s work. You notice new workers coming into the vineyard throughout the day. At day’s end, hot, sweaty, dusty, exhausted, you line up to receive your pay. But the landowner doesn’t begin at the front of the line with you, with those who started earliest, he begins with those who came last. They receive their pay, a full day’s wage. What do you begin to think, that perhaps you will receive more than the agreed wage? The landowner goes down the line, and comes to you. Your visions of a windfall are dashed. Your pay-packet is exactly what was agreed. What’s your response? Anger, outrage, annoyance?
In the parable, the workers were beyond angry; the Greek suggests they cursed the landowner, gave him the evil eye, because the landowner’s response reads literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” There was no one to complain to, nowhere to go to address this fundamental unfairness, so the workers resorted to the weapons of the powerless; they invoked a curse, perhaps some sort of magic, on the landowner.
My guess, though, is that if you thought of yourself in relationship to the parable, you didn’t put yourself in the sandals of the first group of workers. Rather, you saw yourself as one of the later group, receiving the unwarranted, undeserved grace of the landowner. Perhaps you were even a little smug, having gotten a day’s wages for an hour’s work, while your friends and neighbors put in a whole day.
Stay with the story for a moment. You are one of those workers, it doesn’t matter which group you belong to, in the parable. You’ve received your pay, fair or not, and you go home talking about the day’s events, and wondering what will happen tomorrow. What are you going to do? Will you show up for work first thing in the morning? Will you sleep in, hang out, relax, and show up in the late afternoon? Imagine you’re the landowner? Who is going to show up for work in the morning? Will anyone?
What I love about this parable are these questions that arise when we think about the story, about the people in it, the relationships, the lives and livelihoods, and leave God out of the equation for a moment. Let’s be frank, this is no way to run a vineyard, this is no way to treat one’s employees. The landowner has made one group of workers ecstatically happy, another group he’s enraged. To top it off, he’s probably made sure that he will never get a full day’s work out of anyone. He’s probably lost face, he’s certainly lost power, and probably his place in the community.
In fact, the landowner’s actions point out that he’s not really a landowner at all. Farmers, estate owners, vineyard owners worry about profit margins; they worry about getting the crops in and getting a good price for those crops. The landowner’s behavior is so surprising, so unexpected that it breaks down the relationship he established in hiring the workers. Instead, he opens up the possibility of a different kind of relationship between himself and the workers, not a relationship of employer and employee, based on wages earned and productivity, but friendship, generosity, openness.
What is this parable telling us about the kingdom of God, about the nature of God? The easy answer of course, is that it shows a landowner acting with generosity toward his laborers, well at least some of them. The landowner doesn’t owe the first workers any more than he gives them; to them he acts fairly; to the workers who didn’t put in a full day in the vineyard, he is being magnanimous.
But there’s something else important in the parable. How precisely is the landowner acting? In fact, he is not being fair. He’s not fair to any of the workers; most of them don’t deserve what he gives them; the others legitimately resent the generosity the landowner shows. That’s the rub, that’s how the parable reflects the kingdom of God. It’s not that God is merciful toward those who don’t deserve it.
The landowner isn’t acting like a landowner at all. His behavior breaks the rules of the game, and probably none of the day laborers understand what’s going on. They are counting their pay envelopes, judging the landowner’s actions by standards of fairness, a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. In the same way, we expect God to fit our standards of fairness and justice. God is a loving and forgiving God, showing mercy to us. But that’s not the end of the story.
The parable reminds us that the kingdom of God doesn’t reflect our expectations and values. That’s really the point of many of the parables, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. In today’s parable, a landowner behaves unexpectedly, perhaps even absurdly, toward his workers. The kingdom of God is unexpected; it doesn’t meet our assumptions. That’s why the traditional interpretation of the parable misses the point. To see the landowner as God who rewards everyone the same, no matter what their value or worth, is to make the kingdom of God fit our expectations, to place ourselves in the role of the workers who showed up at the end of the day. IT is to place ourselves in a relationship of employer-employee with God. We receive the reward for the work we’ve done.
But what if we are the workers who came at 8:00 in the morning? Does the kingdom of God, does God, does the landowner, fulfill our expectations as we watch him give the latecomers the amount we agreed. What do our expectations then become? Is it our eye that becomes evil because God is good? Or do we recognize the landowner’s generosity for what it is, an invitation into a different relationship with God and with our fellow human beings? Do we rejoice in the good fortune of our fellow humans, do we embrace them as generously as God does?
To respond in gratitude to God’s generosity is a great challenge. It is also a gift. The reign of God offers us an opportunity to experience the love and grace of God. It also invites us to respond gratefully to God and in that response, to begin to share our experience of God’s love with others. That gift is not for our selves alone; we only begin to experience it when we share it with others.