You’re probably not going to like this parable. There. You’ve been warned in advance. This isn’t going to be one of those sermons you want to send off to the relatives. This one’s kind of embarrassing. Best keep it “in-house” so to speak. You won’t like this parable because you and I, along with the rest of the world, believe in fairness. An honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work. Those are the rules. We despise the slackers, those who don’t pull their oar for the full ride. We expect God to play by the rules too. We expect God to take notice of our blood, sweat, and tears. We expect God to run His Church much like an American Express card where there’s a little notice down in the corner – “member since 1968.”
But God’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts, as Isaiah reminds us this morning, and nothing says it clearer than the parable of the vineyard workers. It comes on the heels of one of those upside-down kingdom statements from Jesus. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Not our way of thinking is it? Not the way the race is ordinarily run, is it? It doesn’t seem fair, but then God isn’t fair. He’s just. He’s gracious. He’s good. Anything but fair.
A vineyard owner went out to hire workers for his vineyard. He has a vineyard busting full of grapes. And like all those fine grapes at the end of September from Napa to Santa Ynex, their sugar is perfect, their flavor at its peak, the yeast ready for action. It’s picking time.
So the owner gets in his pickup at the crack of dawn and goes down to the local union hall and hires every available worker at union scale. A denarius a day, about $120 in today’s dollars. And off they go to work in the vineyards.
He looks out over his fields and notices that the workers are barely making a dent in the Cabernet, much less the Merlot and the Pinot. So about nine in morning he heads over to the Home Depot where day laborers are, and hires them for “whatever is just,” (he doesn’t say how much that is) and off they go to work in the vineyard.
Dark clouds looming overhead. It looks like rain is on the way. And the Chardonay really needs to be picked before the rain hits. So the vineayard owner goes out again at noon and three, picking up whatever workers he can find.
Still, not enough. It’s almost five o’clock, the sun is sinking, and there are still grapes on the vine. He’s hired just about every worker in town, so he goes over to the local bar where he finds…. tattoos, leather, pierced body parts, mousse holding up spiked blue hair, six-packs, music with the bass loud enough to reprogram a pacemaker at 200 yards. He turns the volume down on the offending boombox, and says, “Why aren’t you working?” And one of them says, “Duh. It’s ‘cause so no hired us, dude.” LIttle wonder!
He looks at his watch, looks up at the setting sun and the gathering clouds, lets out a long sigh, and says, “Look, I’m rich. I’m famous. I pay. I need workers; you need work. It’ll only be for an hour. So what the heck. Deal?” And they figure, hey it’s only an hour, and a few bucks will buy some beer, so why not?” And off they go to work in the vineyard.
At six o’clock, the bell tolls, and the fun begins. The grapes are in the hopper, and our vineyard owner is one happy winemaker. He’s feeling good, and says to his foreman, “Let’s have a little fun. I’m going to fill the pay envelopes myself. And when you hand them out to the workers, let’s do it LIFO, as the bean counters say – last in, first out.
The first in line is one of those eleventh hour workers, hired at the last minute, who barely broke a sweat much less raised a blister. He opens his pay envelope and finds six crisp twenties and hustles off as quickly as possible, but not before word trickles down the line. So what do you suppose the rest of the workers in line are thinking? They’re thinking, $120 an hour, that’s what they’re thinking. And so one by one they step up, rubbing their hands together, expecting the biggest payday of their grape-picking lives.
But in all their figuring, they hadn’t figured on one thing. In this vineyard pay is based on the owner’s goodness, not on the workers merit. And in his goodness, he hands out a denarious to everyone, regardless of how much or how little they worked. Whether twelve hours or a single hour. Whether they picked a hundred bushels or a single cluster.
You can imagine that as the line of workers gets shorter, the faces get longer. “Not fair,” say the sweatiest and most exhausted. We’ve knocked ourselves out in the heat for the whole day, and these deadbeats worked less than an hour. That isn’t fair!
But our vineyard owner won’t hear any of it. “Look pal,” he says. “A denarius a day is what we agreed on, and a denarius a day is what you got. So what’s the gripe? If I want to give a full day’s wage to some eleventh-hour slackers, that’s my business, not yours. And who said anything about fair? Fair has to do with bookkeeping and spread sheets. I’m a winemaker not a bean counter, and I prefer to be good rather than fair. Crazy good. Be glad you’re working. Or are you so busy keeping book on everyone else that you resent my crazy goodness? Now, we’re tasting a very nice Cabernet over in my tasting room, so why don’t you just go and have a drink on the house. And remember, the last are first and the first last.”
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die for the world. Not just for the redeemable, respectable, religiously hard-working parts of the world. But for the whole miserable, sinful, dying world – lock, stock, and wine barrel. For first-hour, hard-working winners and the eleventh-hour losers. Jesus was going to Jerusalem to close the books of the Law once and for all, to cover humanity’s debt with a bailout plan that makes this week’s action in Washington look like petty cash.
This parable reminds us that God’s goodness is outrageous grace. It rankles the religious. It grates on our sense of fairness and how things should be if we were God. It’s grace that puts the first last and the last first. It makes winners out of losers and losers out of winners. John the Baptist, who worshipped Christ from the womb, gets the same salvation as a repentant thief who turns to Jesus at the eleventh hour of his life and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The lifer-Lutheran gets the same denarius as the drunk driver who says, “Jesus have mercy on me” as he crashes through the windshield on the way to his death at the eleventh hour, fifty-ninth minute, and fifty-ninth second of his miserable life. The charter member the same as the catechumen.
Nothing irritates the religious of this world more than undeserved kindness. The Commandment-Keepers Union Local 101 files protests and threatens to strike. Unfair! If that’s how it is, then why bother to keep the commandments at all, they cry. But then grace wouldn’t be grace, would it? It would be back to the drudgery of booking – have you done enough? Have you earned your way in?. And if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses with his ledger book of ten commandments and we wouldn’t need Jesus with his bloody ross.
With this parable, Jesus was likely referring to the Israelites and the Gentiles. You recall how hard it was for the Israelites to accept Gentiles into the church.. Who did those pagans think they were? They can’t just waltz in here; they have to earn their way in! They have to be circumcised. They have to keep the rules of the Torah. Old resentments loom large.
Many of us here today are among the first hour workers. Or maybe more accurately, the third, sixth, or ninth hour ones. Baptized as babies. A dozen or so Christmas pageants under our Lutheran belts. We’ve grown up in the church. There has never been a moment of our conscious life when we did not know Jesus as Savior. We’ve worked in His vineyard our whole lives, literally grown up among the grape vines. And we can easily resent those eleventh hour late-hires, who benefit from everyone else’s hard work.
Jesus would remind us that we rob ourselves of the joy of working in our Lord’s vineyard, and we spoil the happy hour of salvation by our grumbling, when we live by the Law and insist on keeping books on ourselves and each other. There’s no joy in work if we’re worried about what the next guy is making. And there’s no joy in rising to eternal life if we expect grace for ourselves and deny it to others. Grace is undeserved kindness. Unconditional kindness. The justification of the ungodly. The forgiveness of the sinner. It’s not simply good, it’s crazy good.
Come to think of it, we really aren’t even 9th hour workers, are we? Others have believed before us. Others have suffered before us, and much more than we have. St. Paul reminded the Christians at Rome that the Jews came first. We aren’t the first to believe in Christ. There have been workers in the vineyard for nearly two thousand years.. There were countless, nameless believers who bore the heat of persecution, who defended the faith, who suffered for the name of Jesus.
And now at the eleventh hour of the old creation, with the sun setting and the fields ripe and harvest near, the Lord of the vineyard has been so kind as to call us live under Him in His kingdom, to labor in the vineyard of the saints. What a privilege! When you look at it that way, we are the last. We came on the scene when the bulk of the work was already done. We’ve had these things handed to us. (Tradition!) And we get the same denarius, the same salvation, the same forgiveness, the same resurrection to life in Jesus. In fact, if we push the parable just a bit harder, we’ll recognize that we haven’t done a blessed thing to earn our denarius. It was there in an envelope with your name on it long before you ever showed up for work. And even the work you showed up for is God’s doing.
And so whether first or last, whether called at the first, the third, sixth, ninth, or even the eleventh hour, whether we have worked hard, or little, or barely at all, there is a denarius of salvation awaiting us. It was won for all by the death of Jesus. Not fair, you say? Take it up with Jesus. But you don’t want Him to be fair. You want HIm to be like that vineyard owner – crazy good.
In the Name of Jesus,