The last post I did about Robert Farrar Capon reminded me of a fine sermon I heard a while ago at from Pastor Cwirla at Holy Trinity, Hacienda Hights, California. And it just so happens that the Gospel reading for that sermon is the same as the one for this coming Sunday: Matthew 20:1-16. ‘Holy Serendipity, Batman!’
Here is the sermon in its entirety. And for many more fine offerings where this came from, check out Rev. Cwirla’s Blogosphere.
In Nomine Iesu
An hour’s pay for an hour’s work. You reap what you sow. You get out what you put in. A day’s wage for a day’s work. And we expect God to operate by the same rules. We expect God to be fair. We expect Him to recognize and reward our blood, sweat, and tears.
Then along comes the parable of the vineyard workers, and Jesus drops a loose bolt into the machinery of our fairness. It comes on the heels of one of those upside-down statements from Jesus. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Winners are losers, and losers are winners. Is it fair? No, not a bit. God isn’t fair. He’s just. And He’s gracious. But He isn’t fair.
The parable bears retelling.* Listen. A vineyard owner went out to hire workers for his vineyard. Let’s call him Robert, shall we? As in Robert Mondavi, maker of fine wines. He has a vineyard busting full of grapes. And like all the fine grapes at the end of September from Napa to Paso Robles, their sugar is perfect, their flavor at its fullness, the little yeasts sticking to their skins are ready for action. The winemaster says it’s picking time. There’s no time to waste.
So Robert gets in his pickup at the crack of dawn and goes down to the local union hall of Grape Pickers Local 101 and hires every available worker at union scale. A denarius a day, about $120. And off they go into the vineyards.
Robert looks over his vineyards and notes that the workers he’s hired are barely making a dent in the Cabernet that day, much less the Merlot and the Pinot. So about nine o’clock in the morning, he gets back in his pickup and heads over to the local Home Depot where day laborers hang out looking for work. “Work in my vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is right.” He doesn’t say how much, just “whatever is right.” (The word, by the way, is “righteous” or “just.”) The workers figure, “Hey, it’s Robert Mondavi, and he pays union, so why not.” And off they go to work in the vineyard.
Again, he looks out over his ripening vines and at the clouds looming overhead. It looks like rain is on the way. And the Chardoney really needs to be picked. So he heads again at noon and at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and picks up whatever workers he can find.
Still, there aren’t enough. It’s five o’clock, the sun is sinking, and there are still grapes to pick. So Robert goes over to the local bar where he encounters…. Well, how shall we describe it? Tattoos, leather, pierced body parts, two pounds of mousse holding up blue hair, six-packs, music with the bass loud enough to reprogram a pacemaker at 200 yards. Robert 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 one’s like hired us, dude.”
Robert looks at his watch, looks up at the setting sun and the gathering clouds, lets out a long sigh, and says, “Look, Mondavi’s the name. I’m famous. I’m rich. I pay. I need workers; you need work. It’ll only be for an hour. So what do you think?” And they figure, hey it’s only an hour, and a few buck will buy some beer, so why not?” And off they go to work in the vineyard.
Now you know how people are, especially at work. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is making. You know how much fuss there is when someone finds out what the rest of the office makes. Especially when someone gets paid more for doing less. So as load after load of worker gets dropped off in the field, at nine, at noon, at three, and at five, you can be sure that before they touch a single grape they are asking the workers who are already there what good old Robert is paying today. And when they find out it’s a denarius a day, they do what the whole human race always does: math. Before they even touch a cluster of Cabernet, they have old Robert figured out and are sure that they’ll get $100, $70, $40, and $10, respectively.
At six o’clock, the bell tolls, and the fun begins. The grapes are in the hopper on their way to the crusher, and Robert, our vineyard owner, is one happy camper. He’s in a good and expansive mood, and says to the 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, do it LIFO – last in, first out.
And so the first girl in line with purple hair and a nose ring gets her envelope. She walks off, cracking her gum, and opens it to find six crisp twenties inside. And what does she do? Well, the one thing she doesn’t do is go back to the foreman to report the accounting error. She just keeps walking – really fast. And when her barechested boyfriend with tatoos running up one arm and down the other catches up with her, he can’t resist going back to the end of the line and telling all the hard-working union guys how they just got a day’s wage for an hour’s work.
And what do you suppose the rest of the workers in line are thinking? They’re thinking, $120 an hour, which, if you’re at the end of the line with the all day workers, comes to $1,440. And so one by one they step up to the table, rubbing their hands together, expecting the biggest payday of their grape-picking life.
Ah, but in all their figuring, they hadn’t figured on one thing. Robert’s pay is based on his goodness, not on their work. And in his goodness, he gives out six crisp twenties to everyone, regardless of how much or how little they worked. Whether twelve hours or one hour. Whether they picked a hundred bushels or half a bushel. Each worker gets his or her denarius. And 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 pot-smoking deadbeats worked less than an hour. That isn’t fair!
But old Robert won’t hear any of it. “Look pal,” he says. “A denarius is what we agreed on, and a denarius is what you got. So what’s the gripe? If I want to give a full day’s wage to some eleventh-hour deadbeats, that’s my business, not yours. And who said anything about fair? I may be crazy, but I’m not fair. Fair has to do with the Law, with bookkeeping. I’m good., as in good news, as in Gospel. And in my crazy goodness, if I chose to be outrageously gracious and give everyone the same regardless of the work they did, what difference does that make to you? Or are you so busy keeping book on everyone else that you resent my goodness? Now, we’re tasting a very nice Cab over in my tasting room, so why don’t you just go and have a drink. But remember, drinks are on the house, and, as usual, the last are first and the first last.”
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works, lest any man should boast.
This is a parable of both grace and judgment. Grace for those who least deserve it. Judgment for those who resent it, who turn the evil eye to God because He isn’t fair and dispenses salvation for free. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die for the world. Not just for the redeemable, respectable, cooperative, hard-working part of the world. But for the whole world. For the first-hour winners and the eleventh-hour losers. Jesus was going to Jerusalem to close the books of the Law once and for all, to become last among the losers to save every last loser in this world.
This parable reminds us that amazing grace is also outrageous grace. It galls the religious. It grates on our religious sensibilities. 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 terrorist 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, 59th minute, and 59th second of his life.
Nothing irritates the religious of this world more than undeserved kindness. It just doesn’t seem fair, this upside-down, undeserved goodness. And the labor unions of religion howl at the thought. Unfair to Commandment-Keepers Union Local 101! But then grace wouldn’t be grace, would it? It would be bookkeeping. And if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses with his ten commandments and not Jesus with his bloody ross.
It’s unfair, at least from the perspective of the first-hour workers. And in one sense, many of us are among the first hour workers. Or maybe more accurately, the third or sixth hour ones. We were baptized as babies. We’ve grown up in the church. There has never been a moment of our conscious life when we did not know Jesus as our Savior. We’ve worked in His vineyard our whole lives, literally grown up there. And we can easily resent those eleventh hour converts, who benefit from everyone else’s hard work without lifting a finger themselves.
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 the resurrection, 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. Kindness on the part of God that has nothing to do with what we did or didn’t do, whether we are a success or a failure.
And if a dying thief on a cross or a drunk hurtling through his windshield get the same denarius as we do, well then praise be to Jesus that it truly is by grace through dead trust in dead and risen Jesus and not in anything we do. If there’s room enough in the kingdom for eleventh hour losers – for hookers and tax collectors and thieves – then there is room enough in the kingdom for me or you.
Then again, we really aren’t first-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. The Church is a curious hybrid of Jew and Gentile grafted onto Israelite rootstock. And we too are heirs of a tradition. We aren’t the first to believe in Christ. There have been workers in the vineyard for nearly two thousand years.. The disciples. St. Paul. Ignatius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, Luther. There were countless, nameless believers who bore the heat of persecution, who defended the faith, who suffered for the name of Jesus.
And now in these last days, at the eleventh hour with the sun setting on this old creation, with the fields ripe and harvest near, the Lord of the vineyard has been so kind as to call us to work in the same vineyard. What a privilege! When you look at it that way, we are the last, the least, the losers at the end of the line. We came on the scene when the bulk of the work was already done. And we get the same denarius, the same salvation, the same resurrection to life in Jesus, as all who came before us. 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. That may not be fair. But then God isn’t fair. He’s good, and He’s gracious.
In the Name of Jesus,
* Pastor Cwirla: I am indebted to Robert Capon, Parables of Judgment. (Eerdmans, 1989) for this breezy paraphrase of the parable. If this is to your liking, I recommend the recently released compilation of Capon’s treatment of the parables: Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2002).
Republished with permission.
By Steve B