There is a reason that Jesus’ preferred teaching method is the parable. He is describing something – the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven – that defies description. How do you paint a picture of something that no one has ever seen? Jesus starts with scenes his audience would be familiar with: the pastoral images of shepherds and vineyards, the patterns and customs of the small village. The stories are often allegories, where each character is a stand-in for someone or something else. And though it begins with the familiar, there is always, always a twist, a subversion of what is expected.
Our parable this morning is a perfect example. It begins with a vineyard in need of work. If it helps to picture things into our context, imagine a landscaper pulling up to Home Depot on Windy Hill. Those who successfully scramble to get on the truck first agree to the usual daily wage. The boss apparently sees the need for more workers, because he goes back every three hours, promising to pay these new workers “whatever is right”. His last trip takes him through the parking lot with just an hour left of work; and yet, he still picks up more workers. We can all imagine who would be left at the end of the day: the weak, the aged, those who slept late…in other words, those who are not fit to work.
So far, so good. Jesus has set up the expectation that those who worked the full twelve hours will be paid more than those who worked a mere hour. And then comes the twist: the landscaper decides to pay each worker the same amount. Whether they worked twelve hours, nine hours, six hours, three hours, or one hour, they are all paid the same. And the result is a very polite labor riot.
How we react to the story depends on who we see ourselves being in the story. If we’re the full-day workers, we hate it. If we spent the whole day hanging around the parking lot, then we love it. And that makes us pretty similar to the original audience.
For that first century community listening in on Jesus’ story, the allegory is a little more pointed. The landowner is God. And the workers represent the faithful. The challenge is that those who show up first are the Pharisees, those self-righteous keepers and defenders of the orthodoxy of faith and practice. They’ve been at this faith thing long before the latecomers even bothered to try and show up and Jesus’ table: tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, Gentiles. And yet, they, too, are ushered into the kingdom.
Can you hear how radical, how subversive, how dangerous Jesus’ message is? Can we begin to understand why he was seen as such a threat to the religious (and political) status quo of his day, and why crucifixion started becoming a viable option for those who had so much at stake in the way things were? After all, not only does he try to level the religious playing field; he even flaunts it, healing on the Sabbath and forgiving sins. This is not a man to be handled gently, lest his followers get the wrong idea.
At the very root of it all is Jesus’ clear condemnation of the idea that heaven is some kind of meritocracy – that those who are most worthy, those who work the hardest, who scramble to get in the truck first will be the ones who will be ushered into God’s perfect presence. It’s hogwash. It just isn’t true. And I don’t know about you, but I find that idea kind of threatening.
If we go back to the Protestant Reformation, back to the roots of our Presbyterian branching off of the ancient Church, we find important things happening to challenge the theological and ecclesial status quo. The Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, confronted the very idea that salvation was something to be earned. The concept of indulgences was particularly offensive, where people were able to purchase their loved one’s way out of Purgatory and into Heaven. Salvation was not a financial transaction for the wealthy alone, nor was it a means to bilk the poor to enrich the enthroned. Salvation, the Reformers said, was through faith alone. In God’s economy of salvation, the leper and the Pharisee were potentially on equal footing. Only God knew the truth that lay within.
It wasn’t long before Protestants developed our own version of deserving God’s reward through a theological loophole. It wasn’t that you earned your way into heaven, but your works were the clearest demonstration of your faith. The Protestant Work Ethic became one manifestation of this: your dedication was an outward sign of your inward faith.
And if we are honest, most of us have some version of this approach to faith: it doesn’t matter what you believe; if you’re a good person and you do good things, then you’ll find your way into heaven. Even if we would never admit it in public, most of us expect some kind of eternal reward for all of our good deeds in life.
But there’s a problem with this: heaven is not a meritocracy.
You see, that’s the problem with this Jesus character. He seems to be uncomfortable with our comfort. The surprise ending of the parable is the whole point of the parable. There is no VIP section in Heaven, no reserved seating in the kingdom of God. There’s no preferred rewards club. Whether you were born into faith or came into it later in life is irrelevant. And there is no way to tell just by looking at someone or their reputation. It doesn’t matter if they are a pastor or an elder or a deacon or a member or a visitor. It doesn’t matter if you are a well-behaved child or a noisy teen. There is no seniority in God’s faculty.
I don’t know about you, but I can get to a level of comfort with this concept if we confine ourselves to talking just about heaven. I am willing to accept that there are no first class harps or exit row clouds. I can believe that heaven will be full of surprises – in fact, that there might not even be any harps or clouds. I can live with that.
But the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God does not just exist “there”, wherever “there” might be. It’s here – at least, it’s supposed to be.
Throughout his teaching ministry, Jesus goes to great pains to point out to his audiences that “heaven” is not just a theoretical concept. “Heaven” is what those who would follow him seek to create wherever they are. The parables are not just helpful teaching tools. They are meant to give us an image of what the world might really look like if people of faith followed through on what we say we believe.
So, how are we doing?
Look: I know that this isn’t what we expect. Religion is most effective – maybe not most faithful, but most effective – when there is a clear incentive to behave, when we know that our good works lead to our reward. So when you take that away, what are we left with? Or does it just bring us to the point where we just want to be left alone?
Friends, the good news that undergirds all of this is what it always is: the love of God we know in Christ is unconditional. God’s mercy has no strings attached. In Jesus’ economic model, there’s no quid pro quo. And what I hope that leads us to find is freedom – freedom to chance, freedom to risk, freedom to be faithful! There’s no need to prove ourselves. There is only the invitation to pick a few grapes and get ready for the celebration, because all the heavy lifting has already been done.
I find it hard to connect to Jesus’ pastoral parables. I am a city boy, through and through. The closest I’ve come to any of this was the time Elizabeth and I spent in the olive orchards of Palestine when we lived in a small, rural Palestinian village.
Every October, the village would shut down for the olive harvest. School is closed, and whole families head out to their ancestral lands to strip the trees of olives, taking the fruits of their labors to the press, where it is turned into miraculous oil. Elizabeth and I had no land, but were invited by several families to join them for a day among the trees.
What we learned is that the olive harvest is a time for more than just picking fruit from trees. It is a celebration. There is work to be done, but there is also fun to be had. We sang, we ate, we napped. Children grabbed the olives knocked to the ground by older siblings up high in the branches. The elderly sat on the ground, sorting through and picking out the sticks and leaves. Everyone has a role.
For my own part, I brought zero experience to the work, and did my best to follow directions. I am pretty sure my labor paled in comparison to those for whom this was a yearly exercise. And yet, when it came time for lunch, I was given my full share.
The work itself was its own celebration, but it also anticipated the times we would gather around tables with these same families, dipping fresh baked bread into the oil that was the work of our labors.
Friends, I want each of us to consider our place in the vineyard.
At Oglethorpe, we are launching a program for April and May called Engage. Engage is a short-term study on Evangelism. Now: knowing Presbyterians like I do, and how excited we get about the word “evangelism”, so I’m pretty sure the program sells itself. But just in case, let me put it this way:
Evangelism is a word that has been twisted – and not the kind of twist we might find in the parables. It has become associated with those who arrive to the vineyard early in the morning to lord it over those who are still stuck back at the Home Depot at the end of the day. What it should be, instead, is an invitation to a work that not only prepares for the celebration, but is also its own form of rejoicing.
With Engage, groups will be gathering at different times throughout the week. At the end of those two months, it is very unlikely that you will have baskets full of grapes. What is far more likely is that you will experience the joy of the fields, leading you to invite others out there with you. You may have no idea what you’re doing, but there’s nothing like a nap under the trees.
Are we ready?