Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Today's story comes after the very
familiar encounter with Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know
what he has to do to get into heaven, and Jesus says 'go and sell all
that you have and give it to the poor', and he leaves very sad because
he can't do that. And then Jesus gives that famous saying about the eye
of the needle and how hard it is to get into heaven, and the Disciples
wonder 'gee, if the rich can't do it, what about us?', and Jesus assures
them that they're OK.
That section in Chapter 19 end with this saying, this aphorism of Jesus,
that we read many times in the gospels: 'that many who are first will be
last, and the last will be first'. And this parable, then, is a story
that's told to expand that aphorism.
Chapter 20, 1-16:
Just as Jesus taught so
often with stories, I have a few stories. So I'd like to share one that
I think helps us to understand this parable. There once was a man with a
dog named "Mace". This dog had the unusual habit of eating grass. He
thought that wasn't healthy for the dog, so he kept the dog inside most
of the time. The grass was getting kind of long, so he decided to get
out the lawnmower, but the grass was so long, the lawnmower had
difficulty and bogged down, and eventually stopped. The man got out his
tools to fix a lawnmower, and he dropped his wrench. He dropped it in
the long grass, it was so long he couldn't find it. He wondered what am
I going to do, the lawnmower is broken. And then he said "Ah, Mace!". So
he let Mace out into the yard to do his thing.
The next morning, he gets up to the shining sun, and there, sure enough
in the newly, freshly-chewed grass is a shiny, silver object -- his
wrench. He was so thankful, he wrote a song about it -- you know it,
A grazing mace,
How sweet the hound,
That saved a wrench for me.
It once was lost but now is found,
Was gone but now I see. . . . it :)
Alright, so maybe Jesus
had better stories than I have :)
The story of the workers and the vineyard is a story about grace. Only
it's not 'amazing grace', so much as it is 'shocking grace'. So let's
put it into modern terms to get the full impact:
An employer goes out to hire a bunch of day laborers, for the standard
daily wage. Now, that's a little code -- the wage here paid is basically
sustenance living. It's the minimum wage of that time. Minimum wage is
what, $8.75 an hour, right? I read this week it's going up to $8.80,
whoopee. So, $8.75, a full day's work, would be about $70 a day (they
worked more than 8 hours a day back then, but you know, we have labor
laws now). So about $70 a day. OK, that sounds pretty good, I need the
work, good deal.
So picture yourself -- you're out there working, you're working out in
the hot sun, it's hard work. I picked strawberries as a kid, I know,
it's hard work (especially when you eat half of your profits :). They
come in, the worker goes out, the employer has hired a bunch of other
folks, and in the last hour, he's hired more to the crew, a lot of work
to be done. So the last hired are first paid -- very intentional here.
So you're standing in line, and you see those people who have only been
working for 1 hour get paid $70. And you think, huh, the rate just went
up! This must be a union job! This is great! And then when it comes your
turn, you get paid the same $70. Well how would you feel about that?
Is that fair? And of course, it isn't. And so you can understand why
these workers would grumble. Now, keep in mind Jesus most likely is
talking to a bunch of folk who worked precisely these kind of jobs. From
day-to-day, looking for work, working at minimum, sustenance wages, you
can imagine that they too would identify with those first-hired folk who
feel a little resentful. That's not fair. You can bet they walked away
scratching their heads, thinking "Hmmm, the kingdom of heaven, is like
that vineyard where everyone gets paid the same no matter how long they
worked. How is the kingdom like that?"
No wonder Ayn Rand didn't care for the Bible, or religion in general, if
you're familiar with some of her philosophies. I find it very ironic
that so many Christian politicians today are touting her economic
philosophy, when she was a devout atheist, and many of her ideas, I
think, are simply just plain counter to the teachings of Jesus.
Episcopal Bishop Edward
Little, writing in a recent edition of Christianity Today, noted at her
funeral (I think she died in the 1970s) at her funeral there was a
6-foot tall wreath formed in the shape of a dollar sign ($). If you're
familiar with some of her ideas, you'll understand the symbol of that,
it's very big in her book "Atlas Shrugged". He said that he himself
found her ideas of rational self interest very persuasive early in his
life. He thought that made sense. But then he became 'convicted', in
that sense of faith, turned his life over to Christ, went on to become a
bishop in the Episcopal Church, and he writes now in this article: "That
ethic of rational self-interest is incompatible with the Gospel and
leads to social as well as spiritual disaster".
I think that's absolutely right. That's why it so greatly concerns me
because I think that is the disaster to which we as a country are
headed. And I worry greatly about that. And so even as I strongly
disagree with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and find it contrary to many
of the teachings of Jesus, I'm not suggesting that we develop economic
policies on the basis of this parable. I think that would probably be
even more disastrous than the teachings of Ayn Rand, frankly. So just
imagine what would happen on day two, when that same employer goes out
to the marketplace and says "You come and work, out in the hot sun, all
day long, and I'll pay you $70". No thanks, I'll wait until you come
back -- put me on the 5:00 p.m. crew, right? No work would get done.
So this is not any kind of basis for sound financial planning or
economic policy. Just as equally, the story is not about making
death-bed confessions in order to get into heaven. You know, "I'll just
live my life as a I want, and I'll catch the last train to glory".
Confess your faith in Jesus before you die, and all is covered, right?
That's not what it's about. In fact, the story is not about getting into
heaven at all. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is once
again not about us living with God in the next life, it's about us
living with God in THIS life.
Now, I think maybe I could take a lesson from President Obama's
rhetoric. If you caught his last speech on the jobs bill, you know, you
can summarize the speech pretty easily: "Pass this bill". I think he
said it 57 times :). I think I've said this so many times in so many
ways, I probably sound like a broken record. And yet I keep hearing some
of the same old bad Sunday school lessons (not that all Sunday school
lessons are bad, please, thank you Sunday-school teachers for all your
good work :) -- I'm talking about lessons from a long time ago :). You
know, the kingdom of heaven is waiting for us, just waiting for us, for
our time to go be with God in heaven.
No, no, no, that is not the message! It's not God waiting for us to get
into heaven, it's God waiting for us to get the kingdom of heaven. To
get the message of Jesus. To get it here, and to get it now. That's what
this is about. Get it?
So, if Jesus is talking
about this world as it ought to be on earth as in heaven (heaven's OK,
I'm not denying the reality of heaven, that's OK, that's good, that's
there), it's about here. So if Jesus is talking about this world as it
ought to be, what on earth is he saying? That everyone be paid exactly
the same? Doctors and ditch-diggers? Lawyers and farm-workers? Football
coaches and preachers? YES! I'm ready Lord, lay it on me!
No, no, no -- that's not it at all. Jesus is telling a parable to make a
point about the character of God's way of running this world. Of the way
things ought to be, even the way things are for those who live the way
of the kingdom of God.
So no, this is not about economic policies, although it may have
implications for that. It's not about politics, although it might have
implications for that. It's not really even about religion. It is about
the way we live. Or, how this world would be if we really took this
The first thing that I think is clear in this parable is everyone is
invited to work in this vineyard. Everyone has a place. Everyone is
welcome. Everyone has a role to play. That in and of itself is a pretty
radical message, isn't it? It's not about Us vs Them. It's not about the
team in the cool Nike uniforms that scores 56 unanswered points, vs the
team in last year's hand-me-downs who can't score again after the first
opening drive (not that I have any game in mind). That is not the
kingdom of heaven. It's close, it's so close :) Especially when you're
there at Autzen Stadium, as I got to be yesterday.
In this game, we're all on the same team. In this vineyard, we are all
working to the same end. Now, maybe life isn't always like that. Maybe
the world is rarely like that. But could it be? Can you imagine such a
world? Can you imagine a Congress where everyone is working to the same
end, on the same page? No? I understand, it's pretty hard to imagine.
But could it be. You see, that's the ideal of the kingdom of God that
Jesus holds up for us.
The second thing that I think is evident from the story is that the
kingdom of God is not a reward for living a righteous life. Rather,
working in the kingdom, working for God, is the reward in itself.
Anything you get paid at the end of the day is just icing on the cake.
Lastly, most importantly, the kingdom of God does not work on a merit
system. It's not about collecting chits for all the good work you do, so
you can get a better place in heaven, a place closer to Jesus. Right
there overlooking Autzen :). That's not what it's about.
And this one is really hard for me. It's not even really about justice.
A better way to say it: it's not ONLY about justice. Now, certainly
correcting injustice is a big part of the kingdom of God. Making sure
that none of our children have to fear that they're going to get beat up
because of the color of their skin, right? In this story, no one is paid
less than what they are due, less than what has been promised to them.
That's justice -- those ones first-hired, they get their just wage. But
the ones hired last get more than a just wage, they get a gracious wage.
And this is the point: that the kingdom of God is that place not only
where justice happens, it is that place where grace happens. Where the
two, those who benefit from grace and those who benefit from justice
working side by side in the same vineyard.
There was a very
troubling moment in one of those Presidential debates for the Republican
nomination, I suspect many of you may have seen it (you can watch it on
YouTube). Senator Ron Paul, who is a physician, was asked what should be
done in that case of a young person who declines to buy health
insurance. They're healthy, they don't need it, why would they need it,
right? Then, struck with a debilitating illness or injured in some way,
and needs life-saving treatment, the question is: does that person get
that treatment, and who pays? Or do we let that person die, because
they've made that choice?
Senator Paul, as a physician should, said no, of course we would provide
that. Someone in the crowd, however, shouted out "Let him die!". And
People, that kind of world is a world without grace. It is a world where
everything is a cold calculation of natural consequences; for every
action there is an equal reaction -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a
tooth. You make a mistake, you pay the penalty, you pay the
consequences. It's fair, it's clean, it's just.
And it is not grace.
Do you want to live in such a world that knows no grace?
We heard a wonderful story Friday at the memorial service for Bill
Dugan. About his life as a young child, grew up in the Great Depression
in Kansas, no work to be found, the family decided to move west. Wanted
to come to Idaho, but it looked too much like Kansas so they kept moving
:) Arrived here in Oregon, came to Eugene first, then Oakridge. Bill
graduated from high school at the top of his class. Was the
valedictorian. But the family was, as we say, poor as dirt. They could
not pay for him to go to college. And what's more, no one else in the
family had a degree past high school, you know, why did you need
anything more than that? So a decision was made for Bill to stay home to
help work and support the family, and his siblings. You know, if you're
going to make it in this world, you've got to pull yourself up by your
own bootstraps. It's just the way it is. Of course, that only works if
you have boots, and straps.
Well, the Preacher didn't see it that way, the way preacher's are, you
know. The preacher went to the family and said 'Bill needs to go to
college'. If you're willing to let him go, I'll pay for his first
semester. Back in those days, I guess you could that on a preacher's
salary :) And so they said "OK", and so began Bill's life-long career in
education, and giving back many more times. That is grace. The kingdom
of God is where grace happens.
Ray Clark is a pastor
in a large city, serving a suburban church, and he volunteered once a
month for an urban inner-city ministry as their Chaplain. He had plenty
of work in his own church, but he figured it's the least he could do, a
couple hours once a month. He showed up at the appointed time and they
asked him if he would be willing to take a young man and give him a ride
home. Sure, that's easy. Young man was clean-shaven, good looking, well
dressed, but looked a little down.
So they got in the car and Ray began asking him some questions, said
'You are dressed really nice, looks like you're headed somewhere
important today'. The young man said "Well, I was. Supposed to be my
first day at work but they found out I have a prison record and fired me
before I showed up". And pretty soon his life story came out -- he was
raised in a good family, went to college, made some bad choices, got
involved in drugs, ended up in prison. Now, whenever anyone found out
they wouldn't hire him. He tried to hide it, but it didn't work, they
found out anyway.
So Ray asked him what kind of work he had done in the past, and he told
him some of the things he'd done, and one job was as a short-order cook.
And Ray said "I have a member my congregation has a restaurant, I happen
to know he's looking for someone to cook, right now, would it be OK if
we drive by and just see?". Sure.
They drove to the restaurant, the Manager was there, interviewed him, he
was very open about his past and history, very honest, and they decided
to take that chance and they hired him on the spot. He was so excited
and elated. He gave Ray a great big hug. And he said to him: "I have
come back from the dead". Ray said, "What do you mean?". He said: "Well,
I had decided that when I got back home I was going to do one of two
things: I was either going to score me some drugs and go back to that
previous life, or I was going to kill myself because my life was over".
And Ray thought, what if I hadn't been there? What if I hadn't given
those 2 hours? If I hadn't shown up that day? And I wonder, is there
some other person who deserved a job, who hadn't been to prison, equally
deserving, or more deserving? Would they resent the fact that this
convicted felon got a job?
Yeah. But you know what? The kingdom of God is where grace happens.
Grace that extends to all of us.
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