Jesus’ parables weave a rich tapestry of truths. What does it mean that Jesus answered tough questions and unpacked theological truths with a stories instead of an extended list of rules? When the religious experts sought to define, “who is my neighbor?”, Jesus used the image of a rival Samaritan clan as the Good Neighbor who saves the day. When they asked about taxes, Jesus asked for a coin embossed with an image of Caesar, who some considered an idol, stirring a tension that calls his hearers to think. Jesus used parables to teach the deeper lessons of welcome, duty, generosity, forgiveness, prayer, and spirituality — trusting that the Holy Spirit can lead, we who hear, into the deeper truth. (John 16:13) The feeding of the five thousand and Jesus words: “you without sin cast the first stone”, come as historical parables holding a deep truth that transcends pages of theology and lists of rules. Indeed, the cross transcends theology, holding a power beyond one lesson, showing us love: grace, empathy, peace-making, sacrifice, courage, forgiveness, triumphant, hope, resurrection, resistance, and life, amid this world’s betrayal, brokenness, evil, injustice, oppression. The Way, The Truth and The Life, hanging upon the Cross surpasses our words, rules, or theologies. Jesus’ parables weave a rich tapestry of truths that only our hearts, given over to the Holy Spirit, begin to comprehend.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for the vineyard” .
It was grape picking time. An hour before sunrise, seasonal guys gathered around a rough low-rent motel. Did they fear deportation or abuse? It’s easy enough to imagine that they did. King Cabs and Super Duties carried farmers ready to negotiate terms for a hard day’s work cutting grapes. The first trucks scooped up the strong and seasoned guys. At 9am, she came back holding up five fingers and carrying six leftovers, perhaps with bandaged hands or old limps. Sometimes vineyard bosses returned at lunch for supplies or extra workers so he waited. He could not face his wife and children without food money. At noon, sure enough her King Cab entered the nearly empty parking lot like a chariot from heaven. He pushed up to his feet and hobbled towards her truck. Looking at his bum leg she shook her head, “no”. He slid to the curb, his soul too dry for tears. Perhaps, that evening when the happy workers returned they might remember his plight and press a few dollars into his neddy hands. So he waited for the trucks to return. And too early, before dusk, her King Cab came down the road. Was the harvest over? Were the workers coming home? She hopped out and signaled for more laborers to come into the vineyard. Would he risk rejection? He arose from the concrete and joined the desperate migrants in the truck. He feverishly cut the peak grape clusters from the vine, almost praying the boss might notice his effort. Dusk turned the sky violet and the vineyard’s hills a deep lush green. Baskets full of grapes spilled into the winepress as a cool breeze refreshed those weary from 12, 9,6, and 1 hour of labor. Too dark to work, they lined up for payday. The vineyard owner upheld the law found in Leviticus 19:13 “You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight.” She began with those hired last. She had not even talked about wages; he was just happy for anything. She pressed two crisp 100 bills into his palm. Seeing the bills he protested his overpayment in broken English, touching his chest and holding up one finger to say “one hour”. Her sun-weathered farmer’s hands pushed the bill back into his palm. “Gracias,” a word imbued with grace did not capture his gratitude. In the truck-bed’s solitude and darkness, he rode back home, his soul renewed with hope, his lips repeated “our daily bread” and he wept knowing they would eat another day.
Jesus’ parable offers many images of the kingdom of heaven. You might think about a living wage about the equal pay of the workers. John Wesley talked about this and in his sermon “On Riches” calls us to conduct our business with the “love of neighbor as self” as our guide at one point warning, “None can gain by swallowing up his neighbour’s substance, without gaining the damnation of hell!
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a vineyard.” God owns the vineyard and the parable seems to be about God’s generosity! God offers grace even at “the eleventh hour.” God so loves our world, God rewards those who work only one hour in the vineyard. Some offer only 8.4 percent of effort of the all-day workers but grace carries the day. God’s love wins. Jesus invites us into the vineyard until the 11th hour. As long as there is day, Jesus offers grace. The Apostle Paul worked so very hard for God, defending his first orthodoxy, judging others, persecuting and burning with revivalistic zeal, until he encountered the Divine grace. Paul tells friends in Ephesus, “We are saved by God’s grace because of faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something we possessed. It’s not something we did. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.” (Ephesians 2:8) The parable tells us of God’s eleventh hour grace.
And grace does not save us just for heaven. Grace saves us right now. Grace changes us right now. Grace converts our living into a new creation right now. Love wins right now. Love changes us right now. God’s love challenges our ideas. God’s love educates us. God’s love re-shapes our conversations, tweets, and posts. Love pulls back the harsh word and softens harsh judgements. Love opens our ears to hear. God’s love redefines us. Love lets us see the world with new eyes, new hopes, new words, new relationships and new goals.
Julian of Norwich wrote: I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us in divine love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for love, which is so tender that the Lord will never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that God is everything which is good. (adapted from Showings, fifth chapter)
Would you, just for moment, imagine yourself in the middle of Jesus’ parable? Let us not imagine ourselves as the gracious vineyard owner. Jesus gives the part of the generous vineyard owner to God. No, imagine yourself in that line at the end of the day, having worked for for maybe 12, 9, 6 or maybe just one hour.
Most of us here do not consider ourselves eleventh hour workers. Some of us have been standing around inside God’s vineyard since our parents carried us to church in carseats. We think we are 12 hour Christians. Some of us have even worked in the vineyard half our lives so we are six hour, half day, or halfway christians. Now, someone might label you as an 1/12 Christian or only 8.4% Christians. I chatted with a zealous preacher in training this summer, who I am guessing from their judging ideological tone, counted me as maybe less than a 1/12th Christian. But let’s not judge and instead for the sake of the parable simply imagine ourselves as fully committed or at least halfway Christians.
Hear Jesus’ parable, “when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired. When those eleventh hour workers came, each one received a denarion. Now when those working 12 hours came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them received a denarius and they grumbled against the landowner.’”
“They grumbled against the vineyard owner” Ever since the Protestant Reformation, we have been grumbling against each other. The right complains against the left. The left judges the right. Let us resist our self-righteous casting of blame and instead confess our grumbling against the generosity of the Vineyard Owner. .
They grumbled against the landowner, “These jokers only worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did. We worked the whole day in the sun. The vineyard owner replied, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’”
It is that looking around and judging others that robs us of much Christian joy. We give with expectation of reward and miss the joy of the harvest. We miss the joy of the kingdom of heaven. We fail to see Jesus in our midst, for our eyes our are focused on the other workers instead of God’s love lavished on us in Jesus. We complain about our treatment and miss the fact that everyone got supper that night, even the eleventh hour workers. We miss grace. We go home angry, complaining about what some Christian down the street or across the pew did, instead of looking up at the cross and seeing the amazing love of God poured out for 8 percenters like us.
Our focus on other workers robs us of the intrinsic joy of serving Christ. Once Paul left his work-righteousness he lists “hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy”, along with “witchcraft” as fruits of an unspiritual life(Galatians 5). Jesus warns us against judging, expecting, and examining others. (Matthew 7 and Luke 6) How easily we fall into judgement overvaluing our hard work, confident in our superior theology, and certain of our more faithful manner. So, perhaps Jesus is whispering to we who love to grumble about others, “Friend, I did you no wrong. Take what belongs to you. Don’t be resentful. I am generous!” Once we are freed from our expectations for others, once we lay aside our grumbling, then we may learn to rejoice in the instinctive beauty of loving God and serving neighbor and God’s love may become our clothing, enfolding us in love. Amen.