There’s a parade of a sort in our gospel reading today too. A parade of laborers, hired by a landowner. The landowner goes out at all hours of the day, and s/he keeps finding more laborers to hire! The parade starts early in the morning, at 6am, and continues again at 9am, when more are hired, and at 12 noon, and once more at 3pm. The laborers continue to be hired, and file into the vineyard to work. And finally, once more, even at 5pm, only an hour before quitting time the landowner finds more laborers in the marketplace. What are you doing here, the landowners says, incredulous?! Why are you standing here idle all day? They say, Because no one has hired us. Wow, this is heartbreaking to the landowner. So he hires them too – quick, you get to work – go into the vineyard! And they parade into the fields.
This may seem a little strange to us, hiring so late in the day. You don’t see that out on the streets of Chicago, I don’t think. The marketplace is more regulated than that. It’s not worth it to punch in with only an hour left in the work day – why don’t you come in first thing in the morning, we’ll get a fresh start! That’s what we’re used to.
So this parade of laborers continues throughout the day, and when it’s 6:00, time to blow the whistle and cash it in, the owner of the vineyard has the manager line up the laborers. But s/he doesn’t line them up the way they were hired, but the owner specifically tells the manager to reverse the order. Those hired at 5pm, the last hired, come first – and the first hired, are last. Now, the rest of the laborers will see what the wage of the one-hour laborers is, and of course, they get a full daily wage, a denarius. So, when those hired first at 6am came to get their pay, last, and they receive the usual daily wage – Immediately they begin to grumble! “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.”
This just seems wrong to us! You can’t run a business like this! We know exactly how the 6am hires’ feel! Don’t you know the basics of incentive and reward, Mr & Mrs Vineyard Owner? We’ve worked so much longer and harder, we have sunburns, blisters and pulled muscles. We’ve kept your vineyard operating, while you were in the marketplace. Not only do you pay us last – but you pay us the same! We deserve better!”
Every sophomore in Econ 101 knows that this is bad business. Of course they grumble – what were you thinking!?. In the world we know, time plus effort equals production, and production equals pay. Those who are in the most demand, the hardest workers with the highest skills, deserve the first and greatest reward.
A parishioner once told me, “I admit there are some parts of Jesus' teachings that don't seem fair. I understand that they tell about God's grace and forgiveness and all, but frankly, I don't like them!”
And that’s how we all feel, hearing this parable, I’d venture to say. It's unsettling! We don't pretend to be flawless – but what about accountability and justice? Doesn't this Parable send a message that you can do whatever you please, do as little as you like, or nothing at all, and God will still reward you in the end?
This is precisely what made Jonah so upset. Jonah sitting under the shade bush, pouting, because, as a dutiful servant all his life – why should the Ninevites, that mega-city, an urban jungle, a 3 days walk across, a people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals – why should they be pardoned at the last minute?!
In the parade of people in our lives, in the parades of work and family, as we follow the crowd, we come to expect better, when we do what is right and good. You work 12 hours, you should get paid 12 times as much as the guy who works one hour.
But here I must remind us that, this is a parable. The Parables of Jesus are explicitly about, what the kingdom of heaven, or realm of God – is like. Not that they don’t understand ‘the world as it is’. They do. Jesus cleverly crafts parables from the everyday stuff of life. Which is the rub! Parables take the world, the way it is – laborers should be paid by the hour – and show us the way the world is – in God’s kingdom – where we all receive according to our needs, not on the basis of our merit. And so Jesus reorders the parade line, into a kind of circle, where there is complete transparency and all are equal – whether we, Jonah’s, like it or not!
When the workers grumbled, the landowner replies: Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
By the end of the parable, we come to understand that although the world has taught us to be jealous and envious, of what others have by comparison, insuring that we can never possibly be satisfied – Jesus, without saying it, shows us that true justice, and living in harmony and peace with our neighbor, means we must emulate, the landowner. Generosity will multiply to the benefit of the many, just as envy will, slowly but surely, lead us to grumbling, and fighting, and the death of our very souls.
As the People’s Climate March continues to parade around the streets of Manhattan, at this very hour – what will be the result? Later today, when we see it on the news, or on Facebook or Twitter, the idea is to show us that a whole new way of producing and consuming our energy is possible. The world as we know it, is not working, and literally, the world won’t work, or be very livable, if we continue to burn energy, the same way we’ve always done it.
In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, we find an outrageous surprise: that, in the economy of God’s grace, those who are hired at the very end, at 5pm, those whom no one else wants, are the closest to God’s heart. They are the first recipients of God’s generosity. In the economy of grace the last are placed first in line.
This is how God wakes us up and changes our perspective, and shows us the realm and kingdom of God living right now among us, which sees from the perspective of the least of these, the lost, and the rejected – and we are changed. And when we are, we can recognize that, a march for justice, is also a joyous Parade and celebration!
The generosity of the landowner will at first create, grumbling, but also the opening for joy, because, when all receive according to their needs, not on the basis of our merit, when Generosity is transparent, and loving and creates an economy of equality – it changes the route of our parade, from following envy and the death of our souls, to following the one who gives us life.