This morning Jesus is coming to us by way of another parable, another story told with familiar themes and objects in such a way that his hearers would be able to understand his meaning. He tells a lot of parables and he frequently uses hyperbole and exaggeration to make his point. He uses a different technique in the parable today as the plot twists in a way very unexpected for his hearers.
Okay, in the first place he’s talking about the kingdom of heaven. First and foremost we have to keep that in mind. It’s intentionally easy, Jesus was really good at setting this up, to get bogged down in the details of the workers and the landowner but Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven.
With that said, we start off with a landowner looking for help with the vineyard harvest. This is familiar to most of us. We live in Nebraska after all so harvest is something we understand even if we’ve never been in the middle of working a harvest. In particular, many of us have seen James Arthur Vineyard’s ads for help in the fall to harvest grapes. We even have a fun run in the James Arthur Vineyard to raise money for Kicks for Kids. Like the people listening to Jesus, we can very easily picture this in our minds and that’s the beauty of a parable.
So the landowner is out scouting out some day laborers to help with the harvest. He finds a bunch right out of the gate and sends them into his vineyard to start picking the grapes, promising them the usual daily rate. Based on the timing of the others I’m going to say this was at six in the morning. The laborers head out and everything is moving along just fine when the landowner goes back into town about 9 in the morning and sees there’s some more guys waiting to get some work. The landowner sends them into the vineyard to pick grapes, promising to pay them whatever is right.
You’d think that would be enough and away everyone goes happy as can be but the thing about picking grapes in a vineyard is that there is a fairly narrow window to get them picked to have the best wine out of them. With that in mind, the landowner goes into town a couple more times and finds more workers. Because more is better when you have limited time to accomplish a task. He promises all of them the same deal, that is to say, to pay them whatever is right.
Everyone finishes their day of picking grapes and lines up to get whatever is right. Strangely, they line up in reverse order to get their wages. Here’s where the plot thickens. The setup and phrasing have all reinforced our preconceived notion that the workers who worked the entire day would be getting their promised daily wage. Which they ultimately do. Everyone else will be getting whatever is right, which we ASSUME means they’ll get some pro-rated amount based on how long they worked that day. Because that’s only right. Whatever.
But no so fast there, Carl. Our preconceived notion is very incorrect. And not because the workers all got paid the same but because we likely forget that this story is about the kingdom of heaven. That’s the masterful stroke Jesus uses to get us wound up. Some of you may be hearing this parable for the first time and some of you might be hearing it for the 101st time. Either way, how do you react to hearing that all of the laborers got paid the exact same? Did you think to yourself, “Well, that’s not right” or did you think to yourselves, “Yes! They all got paid the same!”
If you reacted with joy that they all got paid the same, good for you. Seriously, that’s a good thing but I suspect that’s a very minority opinion for a lot of us. We don’t like the fact they all got paid the same. Which is terribly ironic because NOBODY GOT CHEATED! The full day workers got paid a full day’s wage. They got paid what they expected. But they weren’t happy about it. Instead of being happy about getting the full day’s wage that they’d been promised, they were angry at what others had been paid. Which is also terribly ironic because what the others got paid has no bearing on them whatsoever. There’s probably an entire sermon based on the full day workers minding their own business and not worrying about the others.
It’s a sad commentary on society then and today, that we react the way we do. It’s a sad commentary because the story isn’t talking about picking grapes and getting paid for it, it’s talking about the Kingdom of Heaven and who gets in. Spoiler alert, getting into heaven isn’t based on the amount of work we do.
It’s based solely on the one who went to the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. It’s based on Jesus hanging on a cross until he was dead and buried and our sins buried with him. It’s based on the Christ who rose from the dead three days later, opening up the promise of eternal life. For each and every one of us.
We don’t deserve it. It’s not fair. It’s not right. Whatever. It’s the grace of God.