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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Parishioners love to tease their pastors- about drinking wine. In fact, for the past five years, I have received the same birthday card from five different faithful members who must believe that I bear a resemblance to the clergyman portrayed on the card. A priest is pictured driving alone and stopped for speeding by a police officer who has spied an empty wine bottle on the floor of the car. He says, “Father, have you been drinking?” “No, Officer.” The clergyman answers, “Just water.” His fingers crossed. The trooper questions further, “Then why do I smell wine?” The priest looks at the bottle and utters, “Good Lord! He’s done it again!” Have a spirited birthday! I guess there is nobody else appropriate to give the card to than your pastor.
Of course, there are Biblical warnings of drinking to excess. The author of the book of Proverbs writes, “In the end wine bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.” But it’s hard not to overlook St. Paul’s counsel in his first letter to the young pastor Timothy. “Drink no longer water only, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent illnesses.” Jesus himself uses playful images of wine and vineyards. In the gospels, he likens his own teaching to new effervescent wine being poured into old wine skins. As I often state at weddings, it should be no great surprise that Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding turning water into wine. In the ancient world, a marriage feast was a celebration of love, romance and happiness, and wine was its symbol of joy.
But it’s not simply the wine which is cherished. In the Old Testament, Israel, God’s beloved people, is referred to as God’s vineyard. It is a term of endearment and symbol of stability and permanence. It was God’s desire for a peaceable community working together. Wine, after all, is not the produce of a wandering people. Since it takes years for the roots to take hold and cultivate, wine is a symbol of a settled nation. And a loving God has a special connection to the grapes and to the wine it produces. As we meditate on this parable, it is important that we begin with this appreciation of both wine and the vineyard. For without it, you will only see what the disgruntled workers witnessed.
Let us begin with Jesus’ simple introduction. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” I didn’t realize it, but seven years ago, when our family was assigned to Bratislava, Slovakia, we were moving to one of the oldest wine regions in Central Europe. Roman soldiers had cultivated grapes in the region along the Danube River 1600 years ago. Even today, vineyards can be seen along the sprawling highways at the edge of the Bratislava. We visited vineyards and wine cellars regularly, and the thing I learned is that a vineyard is more than a single day of work. Wine production is only one aspect. Throughout the year, the vines needed to be tended, fences rebuilt and old vines torn away and burned. The harvesting day, however, was critical for grapes. As the landowner, you waited until the last day before the frost when the clusters of grapes were truly ripe. At that point, you went out to find all the workers you could hire.
In Jesus’ parable, God is just such a landowner. He is benevolent and generous. He is not keeping the work to himself and his family. He is inviting others to be a part of his kingdom. The landowner goes out to where the day laborers gathered in the marketplace to invite them to work. Mind you, the landowner’s invitation means so much more to those who wait for labor than those of us who are regularly and gainfully employed. For the day laborer, the invitation to work provides the opportunity to feed a family and keep a warm, dry roof over your head. That invitation is the possibility of having a future. It is where the day laborers find their sense of value. It is in working.
My friends, that is how important God’s invitation to you as well. He comes inviting you to be a part of his divine and holy mission. Regardless of the time of day, you are invited. It is in God’s kingdom where you discover your own value and where you will labor with other. And the wage, at the end of the day? It is heavenly. Yes, the just wage at the end of the day for the kingdom of heaven is eternal life. So really, should the length of time spent toiling in the vineyard, one’s participation in the Church, or embracing the Christian faith, have any real bearing on the gift of eternity?
Of course not. Well, that is what we say as good Christian workers on Sunday morning, but that is not how we always feel at the end of the day- the rest of the days of the week. Or when a new member enters the church with untested ideas, or when we read of an 11th hour confession faith by a prisoner on death row. Certainly, that is how the good laborers who had worked in the vineyard from the early morning felt. It’s is just not how the world works. The laborers were treated fairly, but it didn’t feel just. They expected a just wage- according to the ways of the world. Instead, the landowner’s generosity made them feel angry.
Now let us take a step back for a moment and ponder again the passion and generosity of the landowner from those hired later in the day. It really was quite extraordinary that the landlord himself went out to find the day laborers. That was normally the task of the landowner’s manager. But that is how we are to see God’s absurd behavior. He went out himself into the marketplace to find who has been left behind. And who do we think the landowner should meet in the late afternoon? Can you guess what kind of people are the last to find jobs? Nothing in scripture suggests that the men were the lazy or irresponsible. The landowner asked them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” And they answered simply, “Because no one hired us.” Yes, most likely, they were simply the unwanted, the weak, the sick, and the disabled. Perhaps they were the elderly or migrants, the recovering criminals and those with bad reputations. And yet, at the end of the day, in front of those who worked through the heat of the midday sun, the landowner paid them all the same wage.
It’s troubling for some Christians, that our God who is loving and merciful and gracious, is inclined to show special generosity to the poor and outcast. No wonder the hard working, law abiding, respectable people like us get so anxious about this parable. It’s not that we prefer justice to grace on matters of eternity. Of course, we believe that the gift of eternal life is a free gift for all. But we also prefer a God who is orderly and just on the day to day matters. We wouldn’t say it publicly, but in issues of society and family, we resent the landowner’s kindness and generosity because it denies the driven and talented, early workers of their sense of privilege and superiority.
The surprise in this parable, however, is that Jesus is not speaking to the poor and outcast, nor the migrants and refugees. Jesus is actually speaking directly to you and me, the Type A personalities, who have been nurtured on the saying, “The early bird gets the worm.” Jesus is challenging us to question whether in the things of this world we shouldn’t try to be more like the landowner, and demonstrate generosity and mercy.
What would your primary relationships with family and friends be like if they were simply colored by the laws of justice? Yes, what would your life be like if it was satisfied in counting up every slight injury done to you by your partner, regardless of the years of gentle support? What would your life be like if you spent your energy keeping track of every time your child or parent disappoints you? Is strict justice what you really want of those you love and care for? And truthfully, is it how you want them to remember you?
We know that God cares about justice and fairness. The law, the prophets, and Jesus’ own life and ministry testify to that. But in the end, we also trust that purpose of true justice is only to make things better. It is love that saves. It is a love shared between people, between brother and sisters, a love shared between parents and children, the rich and poor, a love shared between the last and the first, that ultimately saves. That is why God himself goes out to the market place to find the lost, the forgotten and neglected. It is to bring to those who have not known love in this world into his glorious promise. That is what he inviting you to do as well.
My friends, the parable teaches us that we can do better. We can choose to model our lives on the life of the landowner- instead of the ways of the world. You and I must make that choice every day. It will change the way you look at life. Instead of obsessing about the failings of a colleague, and forgetting all the helpful things he has done for you over the years, you can choose to be generous instead of just. Instead of being distracted by that one driver who has cut you, and overlooking all the countless reasonable drivers, you can choose to be generous instead of just. Instead of revisiting the old grudges of the past, and overlooking of the myriad of kind gestures shown to you each day, you can choose to be generous instead of just. Or when you try to avoid seeing the countless homeless men on the streets and count the times you have been taken, you can choose to be generous instead of just. It is hard. Frankly, it is easier to be just and count the costs than to choose grace. But that is not God’s way.
For five years I watched hard working men and women tending to the vineyards of Central Europe. I saw them in the winter time pulling down the old vines. I saw them in the springtime grafting new branches. I saw them in the late summer harvesting the fruit. And in the autumn, we tasted the new wine. All the workers were needed at just the right time- doing just the right task.
I discovered many biblical insights into God and wine in those five years in Bratislava. And one truth stands out this day. The day laborers were never to be confused with the owners of the vineyards. The laborers merely benefited from the work. My friends, the kingdom of heaven is like that. God, the author and giver of life, seeks us all out and all are rewarded. All are given the dignity of work, and all are to be rewarded with life and hope. They are rewarded with a future as a gift of his generous and loving heart. They were rewarded justly and equally for a great effort or a little labor even at the 11th hour. That is God’s nature. So who are we to be envious of his generosity? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ. Jesus. Amen.