Today’s parable in the Gospel of Matthew has been understood in various frames and interpretations over the course of history. For some it was proof that works or good deeds were required for an individual to be a member of the family of God. For other it was proof of the exact opposite: a belief that our membership in God’s family lays not in what we do but in the freely given gift of God. Some believed it was referring to ages long past up until their current time. They believed the morning workers referred to Adam, Eve and our primordial ancestors, the nine o’clock workers to be Noah and his family, the noon workers to be Abraham, Sarah and their family, the three o’clock workers to be Moses and the early Israelites being led to freedom and finally the five o’clock workers to be Christ and the followers who came after him. And yet others felt this parable revealed the opportunity for individuals to adopt the Christian faith regardless of their age in life; whether they were infants, youth, adults, elderly or even on their deathbed - they were still offered full inclusion in the Church. I should note this was a very needed pastoral understanding of the parable during periods of Christianity when some felt those of certain ages or backgrounds should never be allowed to enter the Christian community. Needless to say, there is no shortage of ways to understand and explain this parable.
However, I think we might be missing another angle within this parable. In order to find it we need to understand the setting of the story. We are told the owner of the vineyard goes out looking for employees to help bring in his crop. It would seem this vineyard is of decent size but not large enough to have its own permanent working crew, instead simply a hired manager. The owner hires some workers, first thing in the morning, for the day and promises them a set amount of payment. Throughout the day the owner continues to hire additional help without the promise of a set amount, simply guaranteeing a fair wage. One has to wonder at this point, what is a fair wage in the eyes of the owner? The owner does this a total of four times hiring additional sets of employees. We can gather that the owner is quite invested in his vineyard, why does he not simply have the hired manger do all the work? The end of the day finally comes and most of us already know the ending. However, imagine this is the first time you are hearing it. You would no doubt be expecting payments to go down in a certain way with varying amounts, most likely first given to those who have toiled in the heat of the day the longest. Instead the owner gives payment to those who were hired last-first and he gives them the amount of payment promised to the early morning employees. If you did not know what to expect you would be sitting there, saying, “Oh yes, and those morning employees will be getting a great wage!” And instead then they are handed the same amount as those hired last. Quickly grumbling starts up and the owner looks the employees in the eye and says, “I haven’t been unfair, I gave what I promised. Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?”
The last line is what I think we most often pass right over when we hear this parable. “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” There is a reason why we typically ignore it. We want life to be fair! We want our hard work to be valued and esteemed by those around us. We want to be proud of where we have gotten “on our own” and we feel others should not be given any shortcuts. We have been raised in a culture that seems to leave us feeling quite ok if many go without, as long as we get what is rightfully ours.
Today, I want to ask you to step into the role of the vineyard owner. For a moment quit trying to interpret this parable through the lens of God or salvation and instead look at in a plain and simple way. You own a vineyard and you need some workers to come and help you out. You aren’t a rich vineyard owner, as matter of fact you just get by most days. However, you know that people are worth their labor and so you promise a wage that your resources allow. During the course of the day, you realize you need more help! After all life isn’t easy and neither is harvesting crops. Multiple times you go out and find a few more people to help you. One of those time you get a little full of yourself and question a group, “Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?” To which they respond, “Because you haven’t hired us!” You remember that you are fortunate to have a vineyard and jobs don’t “grow” nearly as quickly as grapes and so you invite them to come and help out. Throughout the day you promise the new employees that you will give them what is fair.
Now, the end of the day has almost arrived. You look over the great harvest that has been brought in. You consider the amount you will make in the market when you sell it as wine. You begin to reflect on all these people you have hired. People who were earnest to work, who came running to your vineyard to help out when you promised a fair wage and the “wheels in your head begin” to turn. You remember the amount you promised to give to those who came on first thing, it wasn’t much but it will allow them to have food and drink and to provide for their children back home who are expectantly waiting for them. You then look at those who came on later in the day, they also have children at home, they require the same amount of food and drink to survive and so you do the unthinkable. You pay everyone the same wage so that everyone can go home with dignity, worth and enough to survive another day.
Perhaps, this parable is asking us to consider giving as the owner of the vineyard does? It isn’t easy and it is contrary too much of what we have been taught. We know that people won’t always like us if we are willing to give of our time, love and money to others so willingly and without begrudging or deciding who is worth more or less. However, just maybe God is asking us to sit back and look at those around us and realize that in every face there is a priceless story, a person of value, an individual who is worth no less than any other. Perhaps God is calling you and me to love in such a way that not a single person departs our presence without the means to go on for another day. It isn’t just about money; it’s about care, patience, hospitality, understanding, offering a listening ear and simply being there for anyone who needs us no matter the time of day they show up or leave. It’s about running our own vineyard, our life, in such a way that love and equality guide us rather than what is fair or status quo or expected of us. It’s about daring to give when other would want you to withhold or moderate or determine another’s value and worth.
This parable is about you and I. It is about our calling as human beings to break free from social norms that dictate who is of value and who is not. Are you willing to live life like the vineyard owner? Are you ready to see everyone as God’s child worthy of your time and care? Are you willing to guide your life and make your own decisions, as the landowner did, or do you easily allow others to dictate how you should run your life? Yes, some will say, ‘What are you doing?!” Some of these will be the very same people who you have helped before and now they become jealous that your love extends to others, not just them. And all you can do is respond by saying, “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” Generosity scares some; it is unexpected and does its own thing. Dare to be generous, dare to love equally. You could change humanity and that is the truth.