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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.
The Corona Virus is not supposed to be a funny matter. But over the last six months, it has provided us with a bit of humor. There are the little jokes that elementary school children have hear from their fathers and then try to tell. “Why do they call it the novel coronavirus? Because, it’s a long story, or What types of jokes are allowed during quarantine? Inside jokes. Or,: What do you tell yourself when you wake up late for work and realize you have a fever? Self, I so late.
Or there’s the humor you catch on the radio. “Today’s Weather: Room Temperature.” Or, “Is, anyone else’s car getting three weeks to the gallon?” And for those -bound parents struggling to work and teach and have discovered wine to be the solution for all of their Covid 19’s troubles, it is said, “Never in my life would I have imagined that my hands would be consuming more alcohol than my mouth.” Yes, for better or worse, in the time of the Corona Virus, wine has become associated with misery. And yet who knows, the wine produced in 2020, could still be very good- even if the year hasn’t been.
By contrast, wine in the ancient world was always associated with joy, and it wasn’t simply the beverage that was cherished. In scripture, the nation of Israel was referred to as God’s vineyard. It was a term of endearment and symbol of stability and permanence. Wine, after all, was not the product of a wandering people. Since it takes years for the roots to take hold and cultivate, wine was a symbol of a settled, steady nation. And a loving God had a special connection to the grapes and to the wine it produced.
Let us begin now 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 eleven years ago, when our family was assigned to live and work in 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 one characteristic that was routinely emphasized was that managing a vineyard is constant work in every season. Wine production, you see, 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 came 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 is 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 working in God’s kingdom where you discover your own value and where you will labor with others. 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.
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 and loving behavior. God himself goes out 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 offering them good news. No, 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.
My friends, the parable teaches us that you and I 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 off, 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 tents on the streets and count the times you have been taken, you can choose to be generous instead of just- just as God has been merciful you. 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.
2020 may not go down as the best year in your life. As someone commented about falling back from Daylight Saving Time on November 1st. “I’m not turning back my clock an hour this year, because, seriously, none of us needs and extra hour of 2020.” But the wine produced this year doesn’t necessarily have to be bad.
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. What is the task God has for you? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ. Jesus. Amen.