text this morning from the Gospel of Matthew is a parable.
Parables, you probably know, are much more than stories with a moral at
the end, they are hard-hitting stories taken from every day life which
Jesus used to illustrate some truth about the way of God in this world.
Many of these stories ran directly counter to the conventional wisdom of
the day, in fact, of any day. They often turn the world as we know
it upside down, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
get the full impact of the parable I am about to read, it will be
helpful to understand the context. Jesus has just told the
disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a
needle than it is for the rich to enter the realm of God. That was
not the common understanding. Indeed, wealth then more so than
today was seen as an indication of God’s blessing. If the
wealthy are going to have a hard time getting into God’s realm or
kingdom, then what hope would there be for everyone else?
worried, Peter says, “Jesus, we have left everything to follow you.
What then, is in store for us?” Jesus then replies, “You will
be greatly rewarded. Everyone who has left their home, family and
friends for my sake will be blessed a hundred times over.” If
you read that text carefully, quietly, attentively—you can almost hear
the audible sigh of relief between the lines. After all, if you
work hard, sacrifice much, all for Jesus, well then, you should be
rewarded for your labors, right? If not in this life, then
certainly in the next. It is only fair that the disciples who gave
the most to Jesus should be the ones most rewarded in the realm of God.
It is only fair that we who have given so much to the church should
receive some kind of reward for our efforts. It is only fair that
those who work the hardest receive the most benefit. The
freeloaders, the cheats, the Johnny-come-lately's, should not expect to
get a free ride. Only fair that every person receive their reward
in proportion to their efforts. If we cannot count on that from
God, what can we count on?
as the inner circle around Jesus is beginning to feel a little better
about everything they have given up for him, he adds this little gem to
throw them off balance again. He says, “many who are first will
be last, and the last will be first.” The parable that follows
then is meant to expand on this little jewel of very unconventional
wisdom. Listen carefully.
the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the
morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing
with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his
3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others
standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them,
“You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is
right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon
and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five
o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to
them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They
said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You
also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner
of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them
their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When
those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual
daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they
would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.
11And when they received it, they grumbled against the
landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and
you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and
the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them,
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the
usual daily wage?
14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this
last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what
I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am
16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
I ask you, does this sound fair to you? If you want to test it out
for its fairness quality, I recommend to you the world’s experts on
all matters of fairness: kindergartners. I dare you.
Tell a group of kindergartners that if they stay silent for the whole
day, they will receive a special treat. Bring in more at noon and
another group at three and tell them same thing. If you can
imagine that this hypothetical group of children were actually quiet,
imagine the reaction of the first group who have struggled with the
assignment all day long when they learn that the last group who have
only participated for the last hour, receives the same treat. Boy
will you be in trouble. When my kids were that age if I gave them
different colored vitamins I was accused of being unfair!
master of preaching Fred Craddock recalls teaching a class of high
school students when he read this story. One young lady, offended
by its lack of fairness immediately said, “Jesus did not say that.”
Dr. Craddock was a little taken back and said, “Well, yes he did.”
“No he didn’t.” “”It says here in Matthew that he
did.” “Jesus could not have said that,” she retorted angrily
and walked out of the room, never to come back.
can explain something like this?
many of the other parables--the Great Banquet where vagabonds off the
street take the place of invited guests, the Prodigal Son where the
youngest son, who has squandered half of the family wealth is welcomed
home with open arms much to the dismay of the older, obedient son-- the
parable of the workers in the vineyard changes the rules of what is fair
and just. Jesus tells the disciples that yes, they will get a big
reward for all of their sacrifices and then he tells them, “Oh yes,
everyone else will get the same thing.” In the realm of God,
whether you’ve been a member your whole life or you have just joined,
you are treated the same. To be truthful, that hardly seems
fair. But as Helmut Thiellicke says, “You will never be able to
see the goodness of God with jealous eyes.” To be honest, God
really is not concerned about fairness, God is concerned about what is
just and God’s justice is not our justice. God’s justice is
not based on fairness, it is not based of merit, it is not based of
effort. God’s justice is based on the value of every human life
as a child of God.
you hear what Jesus is saying to the landowners and employers of his
day? Do you hear what he is saying to the privileged and wealthy?
Do you hear what he is saying to those living on the edge, those unable
to get enough work to pay the usual daily wage? Do you hear what
he is saying to us?
the aftermath of Katrina, we hear the usual squabble over who is the
most at fault for the various mistakes made along the way. Without
jumping into that blame game, I want to take note of the one survey that
compared the different perceptions between Caucasians and people of
color. Whereas a little over 60% of whites said they did not
believe race played a significant factor in the relief efforts, over 80%
of people of color said the reverse, that race was a major factor.
To be honest, I think most white folk are in denial on such issues and
simply do not realize the significance race still plays in our society
simply because we are the benefactors of if. We don’t see the
racism because we do not experience its effects. Even if I am completely
wrong we still have a very significant problem just from the differences
the parable, the first workers complain that the owner has made the last
workers “equal to us.” Precisely. It is only when the
last are equal to the first that we will begin to undo the damages of
centuries of racism. Only when the poor are equal to the rich will
we begin to solve the problems of poverty and hunger. Only when
Christians are equal to Jews, and Jews equal to Muslims, and Muslims
equal to Hindus, will we begin to build a world of peace.
do we make such a world?
Shandu is not abnormally poor by South African standards, she represents
a nation of people ravaged by the effects of apartheid. Her home
is a simple sod hut with thatched roof and dirt floor. Her kitchen
consists of a cooking pit, a few pots and pans and tin plates. Do
not feel sorry for Gogo, she is a happy woman with a great sense of
pride and dignity.
Sibusiso, her 5 year-old grandson and her pride and joy, came down with
a high fever, she took him to the government subsidized hospital.
Two weeks later she and Ana Gobledale, our missionary in the Zuzuland,
returned to fetch a much healthier Sibusiso. Gogo was presented
the subsidized bill: 130 rands, or $60, was her small share.
Gogo looked at it with disbelief. 130 rands was the equivalent of
3 to 4 months of food for her and her two grandsons. Her sole
income was the four rands a day Sibusiso’s older brother brought home
from the fields. Like many children of apartheid, the boys parents
were absent, working in factories and mines far away. Gogo did her
best to care for the boys, but how would she pay this impossible bill?
asked to see the Superintendent. An Englishman with rosy cheeks,
he reminded her of jolly St. Nick. Ana prayed for a gift.
She received a lump of coal instead. “This is only 1/15 of the
actual cost,” the pseudo St. Nick told her. “The patients need
to begin to help meet these costs. They must learn this all
doesn’t grow on trees.” Ana was the school girl, he was the
Head Master. The lesson was underway. “Some people cry
poor, but really can afford the fees. If there is a case of dire
poverty, we can arrange an account for payment.” Ana
wondered where there was not a case of dire poverty in the region.
was deserving, and Ana assertive. An account was opened.
Would it have been, had the American woman not been Gogo’s voice?
The Head Master finished his lecture: “I don’t really expect
her to pay off the account, but ‘they’ [referring to native peoples]
must know how much things really cost.” Ana wanted to ask, do
they [referring to white bureaucrats] know what it really costs to sell
your pride to a system that degrades your humanity day in and day out?
For Gogo’s sake, she held her peace. Gogo would pay her account.
She may not have soap for a year, school clothes for the boys or health
care for herself, but she would pay her account. Just as she found
ways to turn scrap metal into cooking utensils, she would turn pennies
into rands until the account was paid.
year-old Tessie Blake was not sick, she was angry. Normally a good
student and very cooperative, her violent behavior in school caught
teachers and counselors by surprise. Interviews with parents
provided no clues for the sudden change in behavior. Drugs seemed
the most likely explanation, though Tessie denied it. After the
3rd suspension when Tessie injured a good friend and damaged school
property, the principal reluctantly suspended her for good. Tessie
seemed to calm down at home at first, but after a few weeks, she had a
sudden psychotic episode in which her speech became incoherent and her
behavior uncontrollable. A social worker feared she might be
homicidal. In the subsequent psychiatric evaluation, a complete
family history was taken.
to the parents’ displeasure, the employment history of Tessie’s
father was revealed for the first time. Unable to find work for
two years, he had become what is often called a “discouraged
worker”. He was no longer counted among the unemployed because
he no longer sought employment. Why bother, no one would hire him
anyway. Worse than the loss of income was the loss of
self-respect. It is hard to be someone your children look up to
when all you do is mope around the house throw fits when no one else can
be found to blame for your condition. Tessie’s mother often came
to his aid. It’s not Daddy’s fault, she would say, it’s
society’s fault, it’s the racism. But Tessie was told not to
talk about it. Public knowledge of his chronic unemployment might
hinder what slim chances Tessie’s father had for finding work.
The family secret was the disease and Tessie’s behavior its sympton.
psychiatrist asked Tessie about her father’s unemployment.
Tessie became panic-stricken and broke into tears. Her tears soon
gave way to a confusing giggle. “The secret’s out, the
secret’s out” she muttered over and over to everyone and no one.
Tessie’s recovery was much faster than her father’s. She was
soon readmitted into school while her father remained out of work, his
shame only compounded now by the awareness that in addition to all the
other sins of being good for nothing in the eyes of society, he was also
responsible in one way or another for his daughter’s near demise.
and her father, Gogo and her grandson, literally a world apart and yet
only a neighborhood away. You know them. You see them on the
street with their desperation signs and in the supermarket with their
food stamps. You read about them in the news when their psychotic
episodes end in a spray of bullets. You hear the politicians talk
about them when they preach on welfare reform. And if you look
close enough, you will see them in your Bible, right there between the
manger of Bethlehem and the cross of Golgotha. Can you see them?
Out there on the edges of the crowd, straining to hear what good news
this Jesus may have for them, the last hired for work, the last in line
for food, the last to receive what has trickled down after those above
have taken their fill.
he looked over the crowd, there, way in the back is an old woman and her
young grandson; over there, behind everyone else is a discouraged
looking father with his troubled teenage daughter. And Jesus said,
God’s country is like this: there was a banquet for all the rich
folk, but they did not come so the host invited in all the poor and
lame; and there were two sons, one who squandered away his father’s
wealth while the other worked hard on the farm and when the younger son
returned, the father threw a great party; and there was a vineyard owner
who paid all his workers a living wage, whether they worked all day or
one hour. And the rich folk grumbled, the older sons complained
and the full-time employees protested. But in the back of the
crowd, a tear ran down an old woman’s cheek and a teenage girl hugged
her smiling father.