BIBLE READINGS: Exodus 16:2-15 Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus said that God's Kingdom is like a man who had a vineyard which needed harvesting. The man goes out into the marketplace early in the morning and hires some workers, agreeing to pay them one denarius a day. They go to work in his vineyard.
Mid-morning, he looks over his vineyard and sees that more workers will be needed if the job is to be done, so he goes back into the marketplace where he encounters some men still standing around whom no one has hired. Even though a third of the day is over, he asks them to go to work for him, telling them that he will pay them what's right.
At noon, when he goes back downtown, he sees some men standing around on the street corner, and invites them to come to work in his vineyard, telling them that he will pay them what's right.
At three in the afternoon, he's back downtown where he spies a couple of young men with nothing to do and, even though the sun is beginning to move toward the far west.... he hires them, promising to pay them what's right.
Finally, at five p.m., he goes back to town one more time. Now, there's almost no one left loitering on the street corner. After all, the day is almost over. But there are two slackers, leaning up against the wall of the unemployment office sharing a bottle of cheep booze. Even though it's only one hour before quitting time, he hires them as well.
If you're keeping score, by the end of the day we have different groups of workers in the vineyard who have been there for twelve hours, for nine hours, for six, three, and only one hour.
Now, they will be paid. If you will recall, a wage was agreed upon only for those who got there first. A denarius (one silver coin – the commonly accepted amount for a full days wage). But this employer pays those who got there last, first. To everyone's amazement, he pays those who have only worked one hour a denarius. So that means that those who have worked for twelve hours, sweating in the vines all day long, will probably get....twelve denarii. Right?
No, they get what they agreed to work for, one denarius. There are murmurings of injustice. Is this any way to run a vineyard? No, they are told, the injustice is only apparent. You agreed to work for a denarius. You have been given a denarius.
Now Matthew, in his introduction to this parable (19:31), suggests that this parable has something to do with Jesus' statement that "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last." But such an interpretation may not get at the true scandal of this little story, the bite.
I don't think we'll get at the scandal of this story by focusing on Matthew's "the first shall be last and the last shall be first." That acts as if the scandal of the story of the workers in the vineyard is that everybody despite when each arrived, got a denarius.
That's not really what gets us about this story. After all, a denarius a day is not all that great a wage to begin with. While nobody knows the precise value of a denarius, we do know that it took about a denarius a day to support a laborer and his family at the level of bare subsistence. A denarius a day is not that generous. It's not as if this employer is throwing around money.
The story has little to say about wages anyway. It is mainly concerned with the comings and goings of the owner of the vineyard. He goes out in the early morning and hires workers for the day and that ought to be it. But to our surprise, barely three hours later, he's back again. And then again at noon. And then again and again. We wonder why that owner of the vineyard was so bound, and determined to hire everybody off the streets whom he could lay his hands on. Were his grapes already overripe? Did he know it was going to rain and the harvest might be ruined? Did he have a soft spot in his heart for the unemployed?
We don't know. The story doesn't say. All that it says, and with great detail, is that this particular master expended a great deal of effort going back and forth from his vineyard to town, picking up anybody off the street who would consent to go work for "what's right."
Well, what's right? For us, justice is a matter of giving people what they are worth. Let's see, you worked longer so you should get more. You stayed in school all the way through your BA, and your Ph.D. You should get more. You have a higher IQ so it's only right that you should get more. That's justice for us.
But in the story, justice is determined, not by "what is right" (after all, the owner did pay what he agreed to pay, he just paid it to everyone). No, it is the owner's repeated, relentless desire for laborers, for workers in the vineyard. It isn't that a denarius is all that generous. The generosity is in the owner's repeated, unrelenting call to come into his vineyard. The generosity is not in what is earned, but in the invitation. He just wouldn't quit going back and forth into town. He just wouldn't stop calling, wouldn't stop hiring, inviting, seeking, offering.
Here is a kingdom which is not structured on justice, what we deserve, what's fair, what's earned. We may structure our kingdoms that way, or at least we attempt to do so. But that's the way we do business. The way God does business is another matter. The statue of "Justice" often seen near courthouses is a blindfolded woman with scales. Blind, dispassionate, impartial. That's what we call right. But God's right is not our right. Persistent, intrusive invitation, not dispassionate justice, is the way God's kingdom is structured.
The grace in this story is in the owner's frequent trips into town, not in the denarius. The owner is the one who won't be happy until everyone is at work in the vineyard, the giver of a banquet who won't be happy until everyone moves to the music.
If all we want is justice from God, that's all we'll get. Take your denarius and go, says the master. Big deal.
But, through the master's resourceful, intrusive, never-ceasing mercy, we may hope for more than justice, more than just what's right. We may get the Master, constantly, persistently, relentlessly pursuing us and everyone else until the midnight hour, unhappy until everyone is there.
It's a story (you can think of others) about a God who refused to leave us alone, refused to leave things with just what's right, a God who came out and pursued us, sought us, found us, sometimes early, sometimes late. Your relationship to God is based not on "what you deserve," (who would want that from God?) but on the invitation.
The good news is, he's looking for you. Eleventh-hour workers are as sought by him as those who have been here all day. And, if you have been here since early morning, the bad news in the good news is that the Master invites, welcomes everyone, even those whom we have despised, thinking that we deserve more than they. Our worth in this vineyard is determined, not by what's right - justice, but by the invitation - who's called.
Our Shepherd has yet other sheep to be invited into this fold. And our hope is that this God who has pursued us so in life, shall not stop pursuing us even in death, so that whether in life, in death, come early, come late, we are invited. The invitation is based, not on how long or hard we've worked, but on the mercy, the pursuing, never-ending mercy. The good news is, he's out looking for you.