traditional sermon pentecost 16
‘Tis the season for many things. The season for buying pumpkins and mums (by the way did you see that the TAnzania Mission Committee is selling some to support Busoka orphans?) It’s a season where weather should get cooler…and hurricane season should come to an end. By the way…I give thanks to you for donating to the hurricane disaster relief, as many people in Texas and Florida and the Caribbean have had lives dramatically changed from the hurricanes. In the church year, it’s the season for starting new programs, and it’s also the season for us to hear the many parables of Jesus.
What’s a parable? Well, as my 1st grade Sunday School teacher would tell us kids, “Jesus used parables to teach people something really important in a way that they could easily understand.”
If you want a more detailed explanation to what a parable is, then I offer up professor, writer, and theologian Arland Hultgren’s take,
A parable was the primary means of Jesus’ teaching… and carried on instruction by making comparisons between eternal, transcendental realities and that which was familiar to the common human experience of his day.
That’s a bit more wordy than my 1st grade Sunday School teacher, but in the end…Jesus’ parables capture our imagination.
Think about some of the best known: the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the prodigal son…and on and on. In fact, in our Gospels we have about 3 dozen parables from Jesus about the kingdom of God, God’s desire for us, and God’s work in our lives.
And so today we have a parable that’s often called the “parable of the laborers.” And I need to tell you the truth…when it comes to this parable…I really DON’T like this one! I don’t.
Let’s review quickly why I don’t like this parable. A landowner goes out to the town square and finds some day laborers. He gives them a job to do with a fair wage promised. The work is so big that the landowner keeps returning to the town square where laborers are waiting to be hired, and he keeps picking them up throughout the day. All with the promise to give them a fair wage. Five o’clock rolls around and the landowner is still out searching for day laborers…the ones who’ve haven’t been picked by anyone. He puts them to work with a fair wage promised. Quitten’ time rolls around and it’s those last guys that get paid first…a full day’s wage. Wowzers! What a good, generous guy. And eventually the day laborers who had put in a long, hot, tiring day get their turn to be paid and they get paid a full day’s wage. The same as the 5 o’clock chuckleheads. Not so wowzers. What gives?!
You know why I don’t like this parable? Because I’m the one who’s hired early in the morning! I’m the one who’s tired and sweaty and hangry…and I hear about the guys who worked an hour or two getting a full day’s wage and I’m doing the math in my head and expecting double. I’m planning what I can do with that extra amount of moolah…and I wait and wait and get my wage…which is not double, but what was originally promised… and my dreams and expectations are ripped from me. What the heck?!
I heard one pastor say that he had a very faithful church member who attended church every Sunday, but hated this parable so much that when it came up in the lectionary she would skip church. I bet like me, she was an early bird, too! In fact, most preachers when asked about this parable their response is, “Oh…that one. Ugh.”
Even 2,000 years later, Jesus’ words seem to hit a nerve.
Why? Who are these laborers?
In the 1st century they would be guys who needed to put food on their table like anyone else…needed to support a family like anyone else. They didn’t own land, they didn’t have a skilled craft like carpentry, and they didn’t have a brother who could do them a favor and hire them. They needed to wait each day and see if there was work to be had. Usually managers would go out in the morning and hire the strongest. By mid-day the only workers left to be hired would be folks that may have an injury or maybe had a “past.” By the end of the day the ones who were never hired were usually the elderly, the disabled, and the sick. All of them had been waiting. All of them needed to provide food for their family. All of them willing. None of them chosen.
It’s easy to imagine this story playing out. I was talking about this parable at a family meal earlier this week, and my dad was telling me about how it was my grandfather’s job to pick day laborers for work in Chicago during the Great Depression. Men waiting and waiting for the hope of work. Today we may hear these words and have our mind’s eye travel to people standing outside of hardware stores and big box stores, work gloves in hand, waiting and hoping to be hired for the day.
It’s easy for us to place ourselves into this parable and make judgments about the others. At that same family meal where I was talking about how much I dislike this parable, my husband chimed in and said, “Oh, I love that parable! They get paid a lot for doing a little bit of work!” You know why my husband loves that parable? Because he sees himself as the last minute, 5 o’clock guys. What about us early birds?!
And we want to put qualifiers on those last minute hires…imagine them to be lazy or crooked or not up to the standards that we hold ourselves to.
This parable can plunk us into all sorts of issues–social justice, fair wages, merit systems. It may make us go into those places about wages and how much we earn a year. I can tell you when it comes to discretion…for most of us it’s our weight and our yearly income that are our best kept secrets!
And it’s not only about wages, salary or labor…it’s wrapped up in this thing we call “work” or “occupation.” What’s one of the first questions we ask when we meet someone new? “What is it you do?” It’s small talk, but it’s NOT REALLY small talk. It’s a way to measure ourselves up and compare.
As the writer, Robert Fulgham notes,
Asking about our occupations is a politely veiled status inquiry to clarify social standing…say what you are paid to do, and we will know who you are and how to deal with you.
And even when we get past the wage and income piece of the parable, we’re stuck with the question of time. Does being part of something longer make you more legitimate or as the parable points out–do new folks and late-comers have an equal share of the kingdom? And how do we live that out?
I think when we’re honest about God’s salvation, it can be tempting to be dismissive of the guy who happened to pass by the church and thought they would give Christianity a try.
Anyone new to a leadership position (in the church or in your job) may find it intimidating when trying something new for fear of stepping on toes or doing something wrong.
Ever marry into a family? Sometimes it takes years to find a voice or be taken seriously.
Two weeks ago I was in a conversation with leaders from the Protestant, Catholic, Anabaptist, and Evangelical traditions and we were talking about making a space for each other around the table. How to do that when our traditions can be quite old or quite new? How do we work together when it’s so much easier to have disdain for our differences?
How often do we undo the intentions of God. God is seeking out as many workers for the kingdom as possible.
This parable of the laborers in the vineyard hits a nerve because it’s unfair.
But that’s the point, isn’t it?
Perhaps this parable should really be called the “parable of the generous owner.”
As the parable asks us
…are you envious because I am generous?
Actually, the parable in the original language asks us “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
As Jesus teaches us in his Sermon on the Mount,
“The eye is the lamp of the body.”
So if the eye is being evil–that is jealous, envious, stingy, judgmental–it’s a reflection of something deeper going on.
How often do our eyes brood and compare?
How often does bitterness get in the way of relationships?
I’m reminded of working with a colleague who’s son had some developmental challenges. She would lament that she did everything right during her pregnancy, she followed doctor’s orders, and tried to be as healthy as possible. She would continuously be embittered by the fact that her cousin ate all the wrong things, didn’t have healthy habits during pregnancy, but yet had a child who was an honor’s student. And this bitterness deteriorated their relationship.
Or the couple I met many years ago who were having marital problems. One of the issues was that the husband’s parents had died and the wife’s parents were still with them. He couldn’t abide spending time with his in-laws because he was jealous of the time his wife still had with them. And it sent a wedge between them.
Or the many conversations I’ve had with friends sharing my good news about a wonderful vacation, a new job, or a new home. When the friend spoke of their great news that may have been more exciting; the more spectacular vacation, the bigger promotion, the home that we could never have, I somehow felt belittled. Somehow felt robbed by their blessings.
How easy it is for us to have evil eyes because of our Lord’s countenance, mercy, and presence?
Yet the good news of Jesus Christ tells us that life is not a zero sum game. We are too easily lured into zero sum game thinking. We’re tempted to believe that if you have power, than I must have less power. If I have more money, than you must have less of it. If you have hard times, then maybe my times are blessed more. God does not work by zero sum rules–and neither should we as Christ followers.
Because friends…whether we like it or not…we’re all the 5 o’clock laborers. We like to think ourselves as being the early birds that are first to be picked, that are the smartest, fastest, and best. And maybe some days that can be ALMOST true. But it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere. And that 5 o’clock experience…the one that none of us really desire…perhaps being too sick, too tired, our past is too complicated, our mistakes seem too big…when the world seems to abandon us…it’s that hour that the Son of God is by our side, and it’s that hour that the unfairness of God is most blessed and most needed.
And that in the end, we’re all invited to be workers of God’s kingdom…which can be awesome, good, holy, work.
Yes, I don’t like this parable because it speaks too much of the world’s broken ways, or my own struggles, but it also speaks to the grace of God’s ways…that challenge us, flabbergast us, and inspire us to live.