Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
September 22, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
To be perfectly honest about it, some of Jesus’ parables leave me saying: Huh? Sometimes the point he is apparently trying to make just doesn’t make any sense. Today’s Gospel lesson about the workers in the vineyard is certainly one of those parables, and we’ll get to it in a minute; but it certainly isn’t the only one. I mean, if you had 100 sheep and one got lost, would it really make any sense for you to leave the ninety-nine remaining sheep alone, exposing them to mortal dangers from ravenous beasts, poachers, and Lord only knows what other dangers while you went to look for the one who wandered off, one who represents only 1% of your flock, 1% of your wealth? That’s like leaving $990 sitting out in the open to go chasing after one $10 bill that blew away. You might get your $10 back and end up $990 poorer. Would you do that? I wouldn’t.
And just why shouldn’t the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son be resentful of the largesse his father lavishes on that nogoodnik of a brother of his who was off squandering his inheritance on booze and wild women. I mean, why should he get the fatted calf and a big party when Daddy never did that for you, the good son who stayed home and lived a sober, responsible life. Wouldn’t you be resentful? I’m sure I would be.
Than there are those laborers in the vineyard from today’s lesson. Some of them worked a full day, toiling under the scorching Mediterranean sun, hour after hour, probably without rest breaks, probably without adequate water and sanitation facilities, and probably under a slave driver of an overseen who constantly berated them for not working faster. After all, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers were still a couple of millennia in the future at that point. For all this, they got paid one day’s wage--and if farm labor wager then were anything like they are now (and I’m sure they were even worse), that wasn’t much.
Then there were those Johnny-come-latelys, the ones who were hired later and who worked considerably less than a full day. Some of them only worked a couple of hours. They spent the rest of the day sitting in the shade, maybe on a hill where there was a nice breeze, shooting the bull with their buddies, taking a nice nap perhaps, or even wandering off to the local watering hole for some liquid refreshment, if you get my drift. Then they sign on late in the day, after the worst of the heat has passed, after most of the work has been done. They work for a while, sure; but nowhere near as long as those who started at sunup and worked until sundown. They deserved some pay, sure. We wouldn’t begrudge them an hourly wage for the hours they actually worked. But then the boss man goes and gives them a full day’s wage, the same as he gave those who worked all day! What’s up with that?! What a rip off! Where’s the justice in that? It just seems wrong, pure and simple.
And yet. And yet in each one of these examples (and there could be many more) Jesus comes down on what seems to us to be the wrong side. He says: in the Kingdom you do go after the one lost sheep. You do kill the fatted calf to celebrate the return of one who was lost. And you do pay the Johnny-come-latelys the same as you pay those who worked all day. What in heaven’s name is going on here?
What’s going on here, I think, is that we approach these stories from the world’s point of view. From that point of view, people are supposed to get what they deserve. We get what we earn. If we’re foolish enough to be the one sheep who wanders off, well so much the worse for us. If we’re the sober, responsible brother we’ve earned Daddy’s generosity, and our profligate sibling has not. If we’ve worked all day in the field, we’ve earned and deserve more than those who only worked a short time. For us, it’s all about reward and punishment. Justice means getting what we earn, whether a reward for being responsible or unpleasant consequences for being irresponsible. And we, I suspect, always unconsciously associate ourselves with the deserving ones in these parables--the sheep who don’t wander, the brother who stays home, the workers who work all day. That’s how it is with us.
But you see, with God it’s different. That’s what Jesus’ parables are telling us. God doesn’t see the world the same way we do. That much seems pretty clear from the parables we’ve looked at this morning. In the Kingdom, you do go running after the one lost sheep. You do kill the fatted calf for the returning prodigal. And you do pay the Johnny-come-latelys the same amount as you pay those who labored all day. Why?
Well, because with God it isn’t about what we’ve earned. It’s about who we are. And who we are is children of God. To God, each and every one of us is precious, precious enough to for God to take terrible risks to save us. Precious enough for God to forgive our wayward ways. And precious enough to give us what we need, not what we have earned. To focus on the parable we actually read this morning, why would God pay those who worked only a couple of house the same as he paid those who worked all day? Well, I think, because their needs were no less than those who worked all day. They still had to feed and house and clothe themselves and perhaps their families. They needed something to drink and shelter from the storm as much as the all day workers. What matters to God is not our deserts but our needs. And God is always there to meet those needs.
The other thing that’s going on here is that, unlike us, God does not in the first instance identify with the sheep who didn’t wander, the brother who stayed home and worked soberly, or the laborers who worked all day. We do because we like to think of ourselves as sensible, responsible, and hard-working. We may in fact be all those things. They aren’t bad things. They are indeed good things. But Jesus’ parables are telling us that they aren’t what matters about us to God. With God it’s different. God rushes to identify not with those whom the world honors but precisely those whom the world does not. Jesus’ entire ministry makes no sense unless we understand this fundamental fact. What matters to God is not what we’ve earned but who we are as children of God and what we need. What matters to God is not how much we’ve earned but how much we are suffering. And the parables tell us that that’s how we should look at things too.
You see, God doesn’t ask if the mother on welfare with several children has led a chaste and moral life. God asks, what does she need, and tells us to do the same. God doesn’t ask if a country’s rulers are good guys or bad buys. God asks, what do the people of the country need, and tells us to do the same. God doesn’t ask, is a person gay or straight. God asks, is this person in need of God’s grace and asks us to do the same.
And now that I’ve mentioned grace, we can see that that really is what it’s all about, can’t we? These parables are about God’s magnanimous, extravagant, abundant, overflowing, irrepressible grace. Grace poured out in endless supply. Grace given most of all when it isn’t deserved. And my friends, that is very, very good news indeed. Because if we got only the grace we deserved, we’d all be condemned. We’d be condemned for living lives of luxury while most of the world lives in want. We’d be condemned for our complacent self-satisfaction that sees the log in our neighbor’s eye but does not see the mite in our own. And in these days especially I have to say that we’d be condemned for tolerating a national leadership that is hell bent on using aggressive violence in a way not seen in the world since 1939. So you see, what sounds like nonsense in these parables is really the best news we’ve ever heard. God, whom we might also call Spirit, or the Sacred—God, who is Ultimate Reality, who is in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s wonderful phrase the beyond in our midst, the something more in everything that is, this God whom we come here to worship doesn’t make us earn grace. Doesn’t love us only when we earn love. Doesn’t seek us out only when are good. Doesn’t pay us what we deserve. God give us grace even when we do not merit it. God seeks us, calls us, even pursues even, or better especially, when we sin and when we try our hardest to hide from God’s presence. God gives us what we truly do not deserve, God’s amazing grace. It’s not that way with us. We don’t treat each other that way. But with God it’s different.
That’s the good news, the very, very good news. But let us not forget in these troubled days that this grace that saves us, the makes us whole, that unites us with God both in this life and in the next also makes demands on us. If the creating, sustaining, redeeming power behind the universe that we call God treats us that way, mustn’t we also at least try to treat each other that way? Mustn’t we ask not what other people, other nations, deserve but what they need? Mustn’t we do more to share the blessings we have as Americans with the rest of the world, without making the rest of the world earn it, without sitting here in smug self-satisfaction thinking that we have earned and deserve those blessings? To the world’s way of thinking maybe we have. But with God it’s different. God doesn’t care if we’ve earned them. God wants us to share them the way God share’s God’s grace on the deserving and the (in the world’s eyes) undeserving alike. Our God is a God of peace. God does not use force in the world. Aren’t we called then to be people of peace, to resist the use of force against innocent populations? It is a critical question these days. The world’s way is the way of violence. But with God it’s different. We are called to that different way, the way of grace and peace. It isn’t easy. The world presses its values and its demands on us every day. We need God’s grace if we are to resist those pressures and pursue other values. Fortunately, Jesus’ parables tell us that that grace is always there, always available, always offered to us. If we will prayerfully and humbly accept that grace, it will see us through as we try to live a more faithful witness to God’s different ways. Thanks be to God. Amen.