Sunday, September 21, 2008

Proper 20A

Another week at Christ Church in Vicksburg. The drive over this morning was foggy, softening the edges of the world. I was listening to a podcast of NPR's program Speaking of Faith in which physician and storyteller Rachel Naomi Remen spoke about the edges of life, when the difference between healing and curing an illness softens grief and secures hope. The stories we read and write have beginnings and endings, but our lives' stories continue in the lives of those who follow us.

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145: 1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. The grapes must have been at their peak, bursting with juice and nearly falling off the vine. They needed to be harvested quickly before they became overripe and unsuitable for making into the fine wines for which he was known...

This morning we hear the second in a series of five parables, stories in which familiar characters and circumstances are poured into the press along with an unknown quantity of grace, that we might drink a draught of God's kingdom.

...The landowner went early to the marketplace, where those who were not so fortunate as he to own land waited in the darkness before dawn to be hired as manual laborers for the day. The routine was always the same – up before daybreak, home after sundown, another day's work done, another denarius earned. It was just enough to feed a family for a single day, and so the law demanded that laborers be paid on the same day they had worked. Not all landowners observed the law.

At the marketplace, the landowner picked the laborers who would pick his grapes, and he contracted with them for the usual daily wage. They followed the landowner back to his vineyard and took their places among the laden vines. There they worked for several hours before the landowner announced he had further business in the marketplace. When he returned, he brought with him additional laborers for which those who were first hired were grateful. The vineyard was large and the harvest was bountiful, and their arms were already aching from plucking so many grapes...

Parables are not like any other kind of story. Most things we think parables are it turns out they are not – allegories, metaphors, not even similes, although they often use the words like or as. The kingdom of heaven is like... The Greek word for parable means to lay beside. And so it is that, in his parables, Jesus lays such familiar images as vineyards and landowners and day laborers beside such unfamiliar images as the grace of God. Theologian Walter Wink wrote that parables are “lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.”

...As the day wore on, and the sun baked the backs of the workers in the vineyard, the landowner returned three more times to the marketplace. Always there were more who were willing to come to his vineyard to help with the harvest, and the landowner promised each a fair wage.

At last the work was done, just as the last rays of sunlight cast their golden gleam over the vineyard, empty now of grapes and full of those waiting for their pay. The first hired walked wearily to where the landowner was carefully counting out coins. The last hired watched him wondering what portion would be left for them after all the others had been compensated. Everyone was counting their blessings that this landowner was going to pay them anything at all. Looking up from his ledger, the landowner motioned to the last hired, who came forward to receive their pay. They shrugged, thinking it strange that he would pay them first, and held out their hands for their pittance. In the near-dark, none could believe their eyes as they looked at the full denarius the landowner had given them...

Parables always start with the part that is familiar, so that as the story is told, we can easily add up the details and determine what the sum will be. Except, we know, parables always contain a twist at the end of the story, the entirely unfamiliar part, so that the total ends up being much different than the sum of its parts. That a landowner, for example, would be so generous as to pay someone a full denarius – a full day's wage – for an hour's worth of work was entirely unfamiliar. The parable could easily have stopped there and glinted a gilded ray of something ultimate at our lives – the generosity of God toward those who least expect it. But this parable twists again...

...The rest of the laborers wondered if they had misheard the landowner when they were hired. Perhaps they were being paid a denarius for every hour they had worked? The first hired were so busy adding up new and enormous sums in their heads that they hardly noticed as the workers hired throughout the day went forward to receive their fair wage as well. Finally, only the first hired were left, their muscles aching, their hands stained purple, their faces dirty with a mixture of sweat and dust, their minds rehearsing their gratitude for the landowner's generous reward. Into their palms the landowner pressed their pay – a single denarius, no more.

As their calculations crumbled, their anger rose. You have made them equal to us?!? they protested, in the same way a child stamps her feet and insists, It's not fair!! At this, the landowner, in whose eyes mingled both pity and patient amusement, in the same way a parent looks upon a child stamping her this the landowner said, I am doing you no wrong. I am not unfair. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

Because, more often than not in scripture, and I daresay more often than not for us, it takes characters more than once to learn a lesson (just look at the disciples, who will follow this parable with an argument over who gets the best seat in heaven)...because it takes more than once to learn a lesson, those first hired to work in the vineyard most likely stamped and seethed all the way home. Over dinner they speculated loudly over the personal merits of those who had been hired later in the day, the ones who had not been so diligent as they to get up before daybreak. Surely they had slept late. Surely they had spent the morning spending the previous day's wage on booze. Surely they were out wasting the grace - I mean, the denarius, they had been so generously given in the landowner's vineyard...They didn't deserve it...

Parables invite us to glimpse what is ultimate through their many facets, not just one. And so it is that the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wonders why we have for so long gazed upon the facet in which we see our faces reflected in the faces of those first hired. Like them, we aren't really offended by the landowner's generosity toward those who came last (we can grant that much grace)...we aren't offended until we realize our hard work hasn't earned us even more generosity. We instantly understand the injustice of the situation. It's not fair!! We easily sympathize with their anger, sharing their conviction that they worked harder and therefore deserved a higher wage. It's not fair!! We readily recognize their fear of losing their identity, an identity wrapped up in measuring worth as merit, as something earned. It's not fair!!

If we turn the parable slightly, though, we find ourselves facing the facet in which are reflected the faces of those hired last. Can we admit that we recognize ourselves in those faces, too? In the faces of those who have not labored the longest or worked the hardest? Because, of course, this is a parable – it is not about grapes or vines or coins or marketplaces or laborers who arrive first or last. This is a parable. It is about grace. It is about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is like...

It seems that in the kingdom of God, grace is offered not as a wage but rather as a gift, and it is given in equal measure to all. Or can we even use the word “measure” when we speak of grace? For how can we measure fullness that cannot be exhausted? God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. I knew it! Jonah cried. I knew you would be gracious, that you would be generous toward Ninevah. And where does that leave me? It's not fair!!

The truth is, none of us deserve the grace we have been given by God in Jesus Christ. Not one of us. Thank goodness grace is by its very nature not fair, it does not play by the rules, it does not pay by the ledger book. It is given because God loves us, and desires that we receive daily what we need to live in the kingdom of heaven, to work at its harvest, to bring in its bounty.

God knows us, writes one of my favorite authors, Molly Wolf. God knows every smallest strand of who we are, and loves us with a stunning extravagance of love. God's grace is wider and higher and deeper than the firmament of heaven, richer than the Milky Way...God's great desire is for us to be all that we can be...and for us to take that bounty of love and wrap ourselves in it, rejoicing. Maybe not what we accept or deserve...But who said grace was in proportion to anything? Amen.
Artwork: Photograph from Wing Canyon Vineyard; "The Red Vineyard", by Vincent Van Gogh; Jan L. Richardson

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