15th Sunday after Pentecost
Sept. 21. 2014
To the human ear, today’s Gospel lesson screams unfairness: Equal reward for unequal work. Those who worked many more hours — and have endured the worst part of the day’s labor (the scorching heat and wind of midday) — are paid the same wage as those who came just in the last hour (in the cool of the evening and as work was winding down). It’s not hard to understand why these first workers are mad, is it?
Yet the Master points out to the protesting workers that they received a good wage that they had previously agreed to. He points out that he is the master of the vineyard and so he can do as he will with what is his, and he chooses to be generous to the latecomers. He has cheated no one out of their just reward.
The question remains for us then: Are we going to begrudge our master his generosity? Or will we rejoice in the wonderful good fortune of those who came to the vineyard late, but nonetheless went home with all they needed?
That fact is, working for the master – living in the service of God — that’s the whole point of life. It is out of relationship with God that we receive the essential things of life… the things we need to make our lives full, healthy and happy. There are many other things in this world that look good and tempting; but it is only from the source of life itself (from our Creator) that we receive the things that really matter.
It is from God that we receive the nurture we need to grow and change as we should. It is from God we receive the love that fills us with well-being and hope, and works in us wonders that become blessings in the lives of others. It is from God that we learn the truth about power and love and service.
It is from God we receive the wisdom to recognize and hold fast to life’s true treasures, in both good times and bad. It is from God that we receive the strength we need to face and bear the hard times that come our way. And it is from God that we receive the gift of eternal life.
These things — which come only from God — these things he desires us to have… not because he thinks we might like them… not because he thinks we have earned them. He desires us to have them… he gives them to us… because he knows we need them. The things he has to give are, quite simply, the difference between life and death for us. And he knows that.
That’s the truth that lies behind this parable. The truth we need to remember when we consider the master’s actions.
Those who came late into the vineyard — their lives are just as precious… and their needs are just as real as those who came first. They too need to work in order to feed and provide for themselves and their families. However, the fact that they were hired so late in the day does not bode well for them. What hope could they possibly have to earn daily bread and feed their families? None, apart from the generosity of the master.
Whether their being hired so late was their own fault – or because of factors outside their control — is not mentioned. It doesn’t matter to the master. What matters is getting them employed, getting them working in the vineyard, getting them what they need for life.
It is God’s will and his way to fill his people’s lives with good labor and good gifts. That’s what we were created for. Giving and receiving… labor and wages… good work and reward are all traits of holy living; but it is a mistake when we try to apply our human ideas of fair rewards to God’s giving.
What is important to understand — and what the unhappy workers failed to understand — is that, in the kingdom of God, our good works don’t actually earn a reward. All reward in the Kingdom of God is God’s gift. We can never claim God’s blessing as our right; nor should we ever compare our performance to that of another. We can only receive God’s gracious giving, before which all human boasting of accomplishment vanishes.
God is willing and eager to give all of us richness and blessing far beyond what we deserve.
The parable ends with a contrast between the generosity of the owner and the envy of the workers. Verse 15 reads literally in Greek, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or is your eye envious because I am generous.” The question which remains is are we going to see with God’s eye which rejoices in generosity, or with the envious human eye that wants to make sure that our neighbor gets what he deserves.
Though the message of this parable may be hard for us, it is one of the most consistent themes of Jesus’ teachings and of his living. He repeatedly brings this parable to life is his own actions.
For example, one day Jesus is invited by a Pharisee to come and eat at his house; which Jesus does. While he was there, a woman of the city (“who was a sinner,” the text says) heard that Jesus was at this house so she went there, and took with herself a jar of ointment. She went in and approached Jesus. She fell at his feet and began weeping. She washed and anointed Jesus’ feet.
While this spectacle was taking place, the Pharisee, whose house it took place in, was not pleased. He grumbled to himself, “If this man really were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner.”
Jesus, aware of the Pharisee’s unhappiness, posed a parable to him: “There was a man who had two people who owed him money. One owed him 500 denarii, the other 50. When they could not pay, he forgave the debt of both. Which one do you suppose will love him more?” The Pharisee answered, “I suppose the one who owed him most.” “You are right,” said Jesus.
Then he proceeded to point out the greater love shown by this woman. “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven. Thus she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Tax collectors and sinners come to Jesus and find entrance into the kingdom of God. The grumbling of the workers hired at the beginning of the day is like the grumbling of the Pharisees and others who say things like “Why does he (Jesus) sit with tax collectors and sinners.” (Mk. 2:16) “Look, he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” (Lk. 19:7) “Look, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Mt. 11:19) “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk. 15:2)
The need of these people… the latecomers into the vineyard/the sinners and outcasts of both Jesus’ time and our… their need for the good things in life are just as great as the needs of the others. Indeed because of their trouble, because of their wounded, messed up lives, their need is so great that hope seems lost for them.
But it’s not; because God in his love and compassion looks especially for them.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says to his disciples “the last shall be first.” This is his promise that he knows and attends to the needs of his children. And those who need him most have his attention first. The lost and lonely ones are always foremost in his mind.
He desires to give them the good things he has to give. He is not interested in having them pay for their sins, but rather that they leave their sins behind… stop living idle lives, waiting for something good to happen to them. Instead, come to work for the master of the vineyard. Come enjoy the full blessings of life he has to give them.