The Workers in the
Testament Reading: Isaiah 19:23-25
Testament Reading: Matthew 20:1-16
This morning my
homiletical task is simple. I don't intend to lead you off on theological
goose-chases as I have for the last few Sunday mornings. This morning I
seek only to explore with you some of the ramifications of one of the
parables attributed to Jesus. The one I have chosen is that of the Workers
in the Vineyard. It is one of those that occur only in Matthew. But first
I cannot resist the temptation to make an observation concerning the very
idea of teaching in parables. Once Neil Postman wrote a book called
Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Certainly the parabolic teaching of
Jesus would qualify! For think how radical, how daring it is to teach, not
straight concepts that one could either accept or reject, but rather
images and stories with no interpretation offered!
Jesus seems to have offered no
interpretations, no commentaries, for his parables. Readers of the Gospels
feel insecure with that! That is part of the reason for reference Bibles.
Usually that is a euphemism for a Bible that brackets the text with
explanations for the readers' supposed benefit. If we are left to
ourselves, we may not discover the only proper and orthodox meaning of the
text, so the editors and annotators will supply it for us in a
footnote! The result is like one of those quizzes in the newspaper, where
the answers are typed in smaller print or upside down at the bottom of the
page. If you scratch your head in confusion reading the Bible, you have
only to glance at Scofield's note at the foot of the page, and all will be
It is interesting that the gospel
writers themselves were not above the same practice! Luke tends to tell
you what the parable is going to be about even before he tells it! ("This
parable he told to some who trusted in their own righteousness and
despised others..."), while Matthew and Mark have Jesus approached after
ward by the disciples who ask for private explanations, which of course
are those of the early church or the evangelists themselves. Why didn't
Jesus accommodate this nervous anxiety about the meaning of his words?
Perhaps it is because he was less concerned with people learning some
orthodox truth from him than he was about their religious imaginations
being challenged and stretched! Maybe the parables were at least in some
cases more like Rorschach blots, catalysts to make the hearer come up with
his or her own insight! By their very nature, there can be not only no
orthodox interpretation of the parables, but also no orthodoxy
based on them.
Now on to the parable of the workers in
the vineyard. Here is one of those parables in which Jesus traps the
reader! He describes a situation that calls forth from you some attitude
toward God that you would rather not admit you have. But he tricks the
truth out of you and forces you to face it. Isn't it so that as you read
this parable you fully share the indignation of the worker who had sweated
and slaved all day? Don't you think that the owner of the vineyard is
being a bit arbitrary? Jesus knew you would! Any way you look at it, the
story seems to be raising the question of whether God is being too
generous to some people who seem to have somehow skirted the ordinary
means of salvation the rest of us are responsible for, or think we are
responsible for. Wet backs who've swum across the River Styx, as Chuck
Garofalo once put it!
Most scholars think that Jesus told the
story to defend his practice of offering God's amnesty to even the worst
sinners late in the day, if they would only repent. God would be willing
to sweep a lifetime of profligacy under the rug and to place the reformed
prostitute on the level with the righteous Pharisee. Apparently the
objection was that this made things too easy. It made a mockery of a
righteous life! It was to encourage people to delay repentance since God
could be counted on to forgive them in the end anyway! Hearing the
teaching of Jesus on God's amnesty, some would think it bad news! They
would echo the plaint of the Psalmist, "All in vain I have kept my heart
clean and washed my hands in innocence!" (Psalm 73:13).
The injured reply of the vineyard owner
is two-fold. First he denies he has undercut the original arrangement he
made with the full-day worker. "Did I not agree with you for a denarius? I
am not cheating you!" You're getting just what you expected! In religious
terms this would mean: Haven't you felt the great satisfaction of knowing
God and of living by the wisdom of his covenant? Hasn't it paid off? Or
were the requirements of righteousness no more to you than some kind of
extraneous, arbitrary exercises you had to do to get your merit badge? It
sounds that way, if you think you were gypped! Is the only difference
between you, the religious person, and the non-religious person God
accepts anyway that he got a free ride and you had to pay?
Were you just jumping through the hoops? If so, friend, you have been
drastically missing the point all along! If religion to you is something
that has to be endured, then it is you who have cheated yourself,
Let me turn the words of 1 Corinthians
15 on their head: "If for the next life only we have hope, then we are the
most miserable of men!" Religious living has its sacrifices, but its
depths and joys are so great that to me it's pretty much a moot point
whether there is any life after death! And those who neglect faith for so
many years are simply missing out! It is they who are the losers,
not those of us who have washed our hands and purified our hearts, or
tried to. The vineyard work is itself a large part of the reward!
Does this sound like a rationalization
to you? Then, my friend, you are one of those like the complaining worker
who have simply endured religion and never tasted that the Lord is good.
The other part of the vineyard owner's answer is "Are you being stingy
because I'm being generous?" This statement raises another huge issue. I
think it was put perfectly by one of Joe Ball's professors at Harvard
Divinity School, Wilfred
Cantwell Smith, in his little book The Faith of Other Men. "If
one's chances of getting to Heaven ... are dependent upon other people's
not getting there, then one becomes walled up within the quite
intolerable position that the Christian has a vested interest in other
In Dostoevsky's The Brothers
Karamazov, Ivan tells Alyosha that if to believe in God he has to
accept that God's love is compatible with the suffering of the innocent,
then he is quite ready to hand back his ticket to heaven. Ivan doesn't
want to go to a heaven run by a God who is no better than that! By
contrast, the type of person represented by the complainer in Jesus'
parable is ready to hand back the ticket because God is being too good!
"What? You mean God is willing to accept them? No way; the
Some Christians have this reaction to
the doctrine of Universal Salvation. Suppose someone said that when you
get to heaven, you're going to have to get used to seeing Hitler there,
playing Rhineland melodies on his harp! Suppose Christ died to save the
whole human race -- and it worked! Suppose everyone is saved in the
end. You wouldn't like that, huh? Why not? Don't you believe in
God's grace? Do you after all think that it was your good works that got
you in good with God, and that Hitler's evil works should have excluded
"But I believed the gospel! He
didn't!" Then let me get this straight: are you saying that accepting
a particular religious message, even a true one, was after all a good work
that you did but Adolf didn't? So you deserve to be
there, but he doesn't? I've got news for you: no one
deserves to be there!
Or let my try another one on you: the
doctrine that all religions are true paths to God. What bothers you about
this idea? Suppose on the Day of Judgment, you make your way with a
singing band of your fellow Christians to the Gates of Heaven. There is
Saint Peter, or if you're a Protestant, Saint Paul, I guess. You're about
to get your wings, and suddenly here comes a parade of Buddhists, and
close on their heels, a bunch of Muslims. Can the Jews and the Hindus be
far behind? You are aghast! What? Are they going to be allowed in,
too? You walk right up to Saint Peter and say, "Hey, wait a minute!
You don't mean to tell me they're getting in?! I thought you had to
believe in Christ to be saved! Do you realize how much effort it took for
me to believe in the Nicene Creed? It was only last month that I was able
to swallow that business about the filioque!" If he's read this
parable lately, Saint Peter will be quick to reply, "Friend, I'm not
cheating you! Didn't we agree that faith in Christ would get you to
heaven? And now here you are! So what's your problem?"
"But.. but... what about ...them?"
Saint Peter says, "Friend, are you being
stingy because God is generous?"
Or in other words, does it somehow take
the fun out of salvation if the others aren't damned? Is Christ going to
be less glorified? I can't see how! Now I admit, I am speculating, though
these are my beliefs. But there is no orthodoxy required in this church,
not even a Liberal orthodoxy. You are free to think me wrong, as I may
be! There may be a hell! And I may be going there! Some of the
religions of the world may in fact prove to be pernicious errors! Let's
just hope Christianity is not one of them!
I'm not trying to catechize you. You
know I never am. But I have tried this morning to speed one of Jesus'
ancient parables on its way, to do its work again of making you think
about your beliefs and come to your own conclusions.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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