(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus tells his disciples a parable to help them understand something about the Kingdom of God. The parable gives us a lot to wonder about; some of it does not seem quite fair. At the end of the parable Jesus says,
‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
I wonder if this is a sort of key for us to unlock the mystery of the parable. The last will be first, the first will be last. A new order of things. In the Kingdom of God, the order is different from how we would order things. There are different rules. Let's keep this in mind as we go through the parable.
‘For the kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
The parable begins with a comparison: the Kingdom of God is like this landowner who owns a vineyard. The purpose of the vineyard is to grow grapes. In Jesus' time, usually these grapes would be made into wine. In the Bible, wine is a sign of joy. We will have to wonder about why there is joy in the Kingdom of God.
The workday in a vineyard begins at about 6:00 a.m. before the sun gets so hot, and ends around 6:00 p.m. The first people invited to work in the vineyard, work for 12 hours. As they mention, they,
have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
The second group of workers work from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. They work for 9 hours.
The third group of workers work from 12:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. They work for 6 hours.
The fourth group of workers work from 3:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. They work for 3 hours.
The last group of workers work from 5:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. They work for 1 hour.
All the workers, beginning with the last and ending with the first, get paid,
the usual daily wage.
We recall from last week, that the usual pay for one day of work is one denarius. This pay would be enough for the worker to buy everything that he or she needs.
Here we can see a new order of things. Here are different rules. Did the last group of workers earn a full day's pay? Did the second, third, or fourth group of workers earn a full day's pay? If they did not earn it, then the money is a gift. A gift from the landowner. Perhaps there is joy in this gift.
We might also say that the work itself is a gift, isn't it? The work both belongs to the workers--because they are the ones who do it--but it also doesn't belong to them. The work belongs to the landowner. He gives it. It benefits his vineyard. All the workers receive the gift of work.
How is work a gift, though? What does work do for us? Certainly, if we are paid, we get money to buy what we need. But think of working to build something: a bridge made of popsicle sticks, a tower made of Lego, a fort made of sheets and furniture. Whatever it is, there is satisfaction when the project is completed, but isn't there also satisfaction in working hard, in a job well done? There is satisfaction in the effort of working. That satisfaction can be considered a gift. It satisfies something in us.
But what about picking those grapes? What satisfaction is there in that? Those grapes don't even belong to the workers. Can there be satisfaction in knowing that the work is important--that it is necessary, even--for the landowner? Is there joy in knowing that they work for the landowner?
I don't know. Is there satisfaction in working for him? That first group of workers, they don't appear satisfied at all, do they? They are not filled with joy.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “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.”
If the landowner had not invited more people to work for him, if he had only invited the first group of workers, would they be grumbling? As the landowner reminds them, they agreed to the usual daily wage. They knew what they were getting into. They had an agreement. They are only disgruntled when they compare themselves to the other workers who get the same pay as them. Now they think it is not fair. Now they want more. Whose rules are they judging by? Apparently, not the rules of the Kingdom of God.
If only they had not noticed the other workers...if only they had kept their eyes on the landowner...
Who are these other workers that cause so much grumbling? Who are the workers who come late but are given everything they need? Jesus doesn't tell us. If this was a true story and not a parable, we might wonder what kind of person would not get hired first (or second, or third, or fourth...) We might guess that they are not the able-bodied, they are not the healthy, they are not the clever. But all of them would be people with the same need to work, yet for whatever reason, they are not hired.
But this is a parable about the Kingdom of God. Who are the people who come late to work in the Kingdom of God? Who are the people who are given the task to build the Kingdom of God even if they are not the fastest or the cleverest? What are the rules here? Who gets to work?
In one sense, we might say that we are these workers. There were people working to build the Kingdom long before we came along. I'm certainly glad there is a place for us to work, that we are included in the building of the Kingdom! Isn't it good to know that the landowner is generous and will welcome all workers, regardless of when they come and what they can do?
The workers who grumble forget that they agreed to the work and to the pay. They don't resent that others are welcomed, but that they themselves are not given even more. What they don't realize though, is that they already have so much more...because who is the landowner that they have been working for? Who owns this vineyard so full of grapes that it will produce an abundance of wine?
Notice what he calls these workers who have been so fortunate to be invited to work in the vineyard, who have enjoyed his company for so long. The landowner is the one who calls us,
Everything is turned upside down! Imagine--the workers are friends of the landowner. No wonder there is so much joy.