We know three things about the disciple whose name was Simon Peter. He made a living catching fish. He was so impulsive he often spoke before he thought. And he had a bargaining streak that sometimes confused the difference between love and arithmetic. He asked his Teacher one day, “How many times do you think I ought to forgive people?” Then he waited a minute before exploding his own little firecracker of generosity: “How about seven times?” And having used the Jewish number that stood for perfection, he waited for the appluase to break out. After all, he had just established the outer limit of mercy. The math of forgiveness could surely go no higher than that. Well, you’ve all heard the answer Jesus gave him — that you don’t forgive by the numbers — so you hope Peter has the good sense to be embarrassed and hold his tongue for a while. But it usually takes more than one goof to change a character trait, so on a different day his bookkeeper mind goes to work again. “So how much reward will there be,” he asked the Teacher, “for people like me who have given up everything to become one of your followers?”
The question makes perfectly good sense in Peter’s fishing business, but in that topsy-turvey world Jesus called the kingdom of heaven it misses the point, so he answers Peter with a bizarre little story about a business man so eccentric he would quickly go broke in what we like to call the “real world.” It’s a story so foreign to our sense of fairness that a woman hearing it one day in Sunday School said to the teacher, “If this is how the kingdom of God works, I’m not interested” — and walked out. She was living proof of what a famous New York preacher used to say about this story, “If this one doesn’t rub you the wrong way, you don’t have all your fur.” I wish we had a record of how Peter and his friends reacted to the story, and exactly how Jesus explained it for them, but we don’t, so we are left to to make whatever sense of it we can. Let’s try that, together.
In the Scripture reading a few minutes ago you heard the story’s perfectly reasonable opening sentence: “There was once a landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard, and after agreeing to pay them the usual day’s wages he sent them off to work.” Something like that must have happened thousands of times in ancient Israel, and our story runs along sensibly for a few more sentences before it suddenly loses touch with normal logic. Three hours after the first workers are hired, the landowner goes down to the marketplace again and sees still more men standing idle. “Go join the others in my vineyard,” he says, “and I will pay you a fair wage.”
We can still assume that the story is a slice of life and that the landowner had simply underestimated the number of men he needed, but it begins to tax credibility when he goes out again at noon, and then again at three in the afternoon to make the same arrangements. Stranger still, only an hour before quitting time he goes back to find yet another group gathered down at the labor pool. “Why are you standing around like this all day with nothing to do?”They answer, “Because no one has hired us.” So he tells them, “Go and join the others in my vineyard.
Now, if this were a true story instead of a story made up to make a point, we would expect to hear at least a little bargaining. The guys hired in the middle of the afternoon, and especially the ones hired an hour before quitting time, would surely want to know whether they would make enough money to justify their walking over to the vineyard. But this is one of those pieces of sacred fiction we call a parable, with a plot that’s being manipulated for maximum shock value, so nobody asks the normal questions and there is no friction among the workers until the day is done and they all line up to be paid. Even then there wouldn’t be any complaints if the owner had just had the good sense to pay the men in the order in which they were hired.
But this employer is not a Harvard MBA, so he now makes mistake No. 1 in defiance of common sense: he pays the last workers first. These “part-timers”who had barely broken a sweat before the whistle blew and it was Miller Time, got paid first. And that wouldn’t have been quite so bad except for Mistake No. 2: right out in the open he put the money in their hands where everybody could see it, instead of wrapping it up or using a little sack so no one would know exactly what anyone else had gotten. This, after all, remains one of life’s touchy topics. A woman wrote an article several years ago in the New York Times Magazine in which she describes how Americans hang all their dirty laundry on the line, from tell-all biographies to raunchy talk shows. Nothing private anymore, she says — with one notable exception: how much money we make, and how much we have in the bank. It’s considered wise to keep quiet about such things.
But in our peculiar story the landowner deliberately courts disaster by calling up the latecomers first and making no secret of the money he hands them. The early morning crew stand watching as the men who worked one hour are given a full day’s salary. Their faces would have said, “What on earth is this crazy man doing to pay that much for an hour’s work?” And then, with sudden wild hope, they would have done the math in their heads and thought, “Well, if he pays them that well, we’re surely going to get eight or ten times as much!” So they hold out hands shaking with anticipation as they reach the boss — only to find themselves looking at exactly the same pay they had been promised.
No wonder we are told that that when they saw what was in their hands they “grumbled.” In their angry surprise they must have thought, “If this is meant to be some kind of joke somebody needs to call the guys in the white coats,” but what they actually say is, “Sir, these latecomers have done only an hour’s work, and you’ve put them on the same level with us , who’ve sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun.” And then this bizarre capitalist whom Jesus has created says, “Gentlemen, you’re not cheated. You bargained with me for a day’s pay, and you have it. Why be jealous because I’m generous to men who stood all day waiting for work and worrying because no man had hired them.”
In a real life situation, which this story only pretends to be, those men would probably have said, “Well, you certainly have a right to do what you want with your money. It’s just the principle of the thing.” I realized a long time ago, by listening to myself and my friends, that “principle” — virtuous principle — has an odd way of popping up most often when it serves us. Somebody gets promoted who came in after we did, and all of a sudden we are victims of wounded seniority — “principle” has been violated. If we happen to get promoted the next year over someone who is senior to us, the word “principle” goes into a deep coma.
Of course, those daylong workers have common sense on their side. Nothing like this is going to work in the world of business, which has its own wise and workable laws won from long experience. But then the storyteller knew that as well as they did, and he never intended to say in this cockeyed story that the kingdom of economics is like this, or even ought to be like this. He says the kingdom of heaven is like this, that there’s a kind of divine madness in that kingdom which works only among those who are so gladly a part of it that they can never envy, for whatever reason, the happiness of others.
It’s very likely that this story appears in Matthew’s gospel because of the way some in the mostly Jewish early church reacted when the Apostle Paul invited Gentiles to be part of it — Johnny-Come-Latelies to the kingdom. A Jewish Christian could say, “Hey, we’ve been the people of God for thousands of years, we heard his call and went to work in His vineyard at first light — suffered for it at times, too — and now these Gentiles have come late in the day expecting the same status and benefits as the rest of us. It’s just not right.” You see, it’s sad but true that .as long as people have talked about God, some of them have wanted to monopolize God’s grace.
Remember that great Jewish parable about a prophet by the name of Jonah, and how reluctantly he went off to preach to the people of Nineveh? How he hated to go because his country held a monopoly on God’s grace, and he was afraid God might actually forgive those wicked foreigners if they said they were sorry? How he sat down under a little bush and pouted, brought God to trial in the court of his mind, and charged Him with being indiscriminate with his mercy? It’s too bad this charming tale has suffered so much from bad treatment. It’s not at all about whether a man could actually survive the suffocating darkness and deadly stomach acids of a great fish. That’s just part of the irony and humor that keep you reading this clever piece of sacred fiction. What’s it’s really about is wounded seniority on the part of a prophet who has been at work in God’s vineyard since early morning, thank you, and who can’t stand the thought of welcoming latecomers. When the God of this charming Hebrew story peeks at Jonah sulking under his bush, and says, “What’s the matter?” Jonah says, “I’ll tell you what’s the matter. It’s you, and that amazing grace of yours — treating people better than they deserve the minute they show signs of being sorry.”
Of course, wee all want the surprise of grace for ourselves, those special times when we know we’ve gotten so much more than we deserve, but it sometimes upsets our sense of justice when others are treated the same way. Here’s a sad little real life illustration of how envy can rob us of happiness. The circus came to town on a Monday evening and a small boy stood outside watching people go where he couldn’t because he hadn’t enough money. The ticketseller sees him, and being a kind man, says: “Aren’t you coming in?” The boy says, “I’d like to, sir, but I don’t have money for a ticket.” The man says, “I’ll tell you what. Come back tomorrow after school and I’ll give you a ticket and let you in free.” The boy runs home so excited he can hardly eat dinner for telling his parents over and over, “The circus man is going to let me in free tomorrow.” He dreams about it that night, and classes next day go by in a blur. He passes notes to nearby desks: “I’m getting to see the circus free this afternoon.”
When the bell rings, his teacher holds him up for a few minutes to remind him of the rule against passing notes during class. When she finally lets him go he bolts for the door and runs all the way to the circus grounds, where the ticketseller doesn’t notice him at first because six other boys, classmates hoping they might get the same break, are standing off to one side with longing written all over their faces. The gatekeeper looks at them and says, “OK kids,, we’ve got plenty of room, everybody in free!” Our young friend stands back, not moving. The tickettaker says, “What’s the matter? I told you I’d let you in free.” Long pause. “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to go,” and he left. He had been one of the Elect for a while, for 24 happy hours had had the joy of knowing he would get to see the circus — but if just anybody can get that favor, well, he’ll pass, thank you, and off he goes to curl up with his wounded pride. If it’s hard for you to believe that even a child would self-destruct like that because grace was extended to others, I would ask you to remember that there are churches, and even whole countries, for whom it’s an intolerable thought that they may not be God’s only favorite.
The men hired early in our quaint parable had the pleasure of knowing all day long that they would go home that night with a full day’s pay. What upset them was the unfairness of giving those latecomers the same amount. And down through the centuries comes the quiet voice: “Don’t begrudge my generosity or be jealous because I am kind.” As one of our best preachers said of this story: “If life were totally a matter of strict fairness, it would scarcely be tolerable. Who wants to receive back from others — our roommates, husbands or wives, parents or siblings — exactly what we gave them? Is not life made tolerable, and sometimes joyous, by the fact that those closest to us overlook our tart words, ignore what is said in times of fatigue and bad moods, set aside the deeds that have hurt them? Is this not what love and compassion are all about? Why, then, do we not see ourselves as the ones who have gotten more than we deserve?”
There’s another thing to consider from this story, that mercy may have something to do with motive. The men who finally got a chance near day’s end to work in the vineyard had been kept idle by circumstances beyond their control, so the landowner decides to pay them as if they had been able all day to do what they yearned to do. If you and I have been prevented by circumstance from doing all the good we would like, then mercy based on motive may be the best news we could hear. Would it be practical in the world of business? Not without an omniscient employer to read the secrets of the heart, and we don’t have many of those. This tale of irrational generosity is not meant to describe what most of us do, but what people do who live in the kingdom of heaven.
And the good surprise is that even in unlikely places people sometimes bring their generosity into the world’s vineyard and fill us with new hope. One day, with this sermon on my mind, I happened to see a story on the evening news about a small plant in West Virginia where nine men were laid off work. Within minutes, 11 senior workers decided to cut their own work and pay in half so their dismissed colleagues could stay. One ofd them, without sounding the least bit syrupy, said: “We thought there wasn’t anything else we could do.” And I thought, ‘My gosh, there’s the very spirit of the story I’ve just been reading. Not in the church, where it’s said to be a requirement of our friendships, but in the the business world where no one demands it. And then the thought occurred to me that if the owners of that little business had said the next day, “We’ve decided to cut our own take-home pay a little to be part of what you’re doing,” the miracle we call grace would have been complete.
Unexpected, perhaps, but that’s how grace often comes into our lives. Here’s a homespun parallel. One morning, years ago, as Billie and I drove to a church convention in Florida we stopped for breakfast in a small country cafe. We ordered what we call a “trip breakfast” — eggs, bacon, juice and pancakes — instead of our usual home fare of healthy cereal and fruit. When the food arrived I saw this pile of gray lumpy stuff in one corner of my plate. The neurons were not yet firing at full speed and I wasn’t sure what I had in front of me, so I asked the waitress what it was. With a smile that was better than her grammar she said, “Why, sir, them’s grits.” “But I didn’t order those,” I said. With an even warmer smile she reassured me: “Sir, you don’t order grits. They just come.”
So does God’s grace sometimes. Be glad for it…..and never be jealous when it comes to someone else.
Make us thankful, our Lord, for those moments in our lives
that are touched by grace, and keep us from envy when
it happens to others. Amen.