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The Workers in the Vineyard


Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 19:23-25

New 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 well.

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, not God!

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 men's damnation."

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 deal's off!"

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 him?

"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. 




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