The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
24 September 2023
Did you hear that? The day-laborers who were standing around looking at the tops of their feet all day were paid the same wage as the workers who had been slogging away all day in the vineyard! I ask you: is that fair?
But this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about something so unfair, is it?
Remember the one about the father who welcomed his spendthrift son – the one who had been living among swine, the one who spent all of his inheritance? And what does the father do for the responsible, hard-working son? Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Parables are a distinctive form of story intended to grab you, the hearer, and pull you in and make you wonder, ask yourself what is going on, and what “other thing” is that we’re meant to grapple with. Parables contain the aspect of riddles in the same sense that a Zen koan is meant to provoke deeper contemplation in order to help the hearer derive alternative wisdom that goes beyond a purely logical way of thinking.
The Greeks roots of the word parable are “para” and “ballein” — to throw alongside. So, there is one story being presented, but there is something thrown alongside the main narrative: a provocation to consider our assumptions differently. Dom Crossan claims that parables like this one are “challenges [that] attempt to raise the consciousness of listeners by luring and leading them into thinking for themselves.”
So, what do YOU think is going on here? What is Jesus provoking YOU to consider?
Perhaps those first listeners were in the same landless peasant class as the parable’s day laborers, and they focused on what happened at the end of the day: the landowner give a small coin to each person who ultimately worked in the vineyard, whether they worked for ten hours or only one hour. To that audience, perhaps, it seemed unfair or maybe envious of those who worked a short day.
But this is a parable of the kingdom, the reign of God that we pray for each Sunday! Does that mean that the realm of God is inherently unfair? (Maybe in our eyes.) Here are two important hints in interpreting this parable: it opens with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” (Matthew’s way of saying “the kingdom of God is like”), so right away we see Jesus saying that this is an alternative ethos creating an unconventional vision that stands in opposition to Rome’s imperial vision, and a subversive twist on the rabbinic tradition of his day. And he brackets the end of the parable by saying, “the last will be first and the first will be last,” which implies radical reversal. Who is the first in this parable? Who is the last?
That’s important for us to consider as well, because most of us come to this reading with deep American cultural expectations and assumptions from English Common Law around the rights of property and compensation. Using that lens, of course this parable seems unfair. But it’s a parable that begins with “the kingdom is like…” and ends with the last being first and vice versa. It sets OUR assumptions on their head.
Historically, this parable has been explained in different ways. Luther and Calvin saw this as a way of proclaiming that God’s grace (extended to the late-in-the-day laborers) is far more important than the good works of the early morning workers. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” asks the landowner/God, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” So, do YOU think this parable is about salvation?
Another way to look at the parable is through the lens of Matthew’s audience, which was both Jewish and gentile. Perhaps the laborers who arrived in the vineyard to work all day represented observant Jews, who had achieved salvation through centuries of following the Torah. And the latecomers to the party are the gentile followers of Jesus, who are admitted even though they show up late. In this interpretation, we are still seeing the landowner as God, spreading grace (unearned gifts) to anyone she wishes.
I was talking about this parable last week with Diana Butler Bass, who will be in the pulpit next Sunday, and her take was that it calls forth a new socioeconomic norm. What Diana said is similar to Dorothy Day (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement), who wrote that Jesus “spoke of a living wage, not equal pay for equal work, in the parable of those who came at the first and the eleventh hour.” So, perhaps the parable envisions an alternative socioeconomic order.
I wonder if we all have an assumption that there isn’t really enough to go around and so the landowner’s actions are unfair. But what if there is actually plenty instead of scarcity? What if there IS enough?
Many years ago, I was in Senegal on a pilgrimage to explore the roots of Americans whose ancestors had been stolen from that land. It was eye-opening for me is myriad ways, but one of the lessons that struck me most was seeing what little kids did with some candy bars that I gave them. We’re talking about a few fun-size snickers bars. If we were in a group of American kids, I imagine that the children who got the candy bar would eat it themselves or squirrel it away to eat later. But that isn’t what happened in this Senegalese village. No, what I saw amazed me. The kids who received the candy bars carefully divided them so that each person would get some. There was no consideration that there was not enough to go around, rather these young Africans taught me a profound lesson that there is always enough…so long as we are willing to share. Even though they had little, they knew how to take what they had and instead of seeing it from the perspective of scarcity, they saw abundance.
Do you ever have a sense of scarcity — like there isn’t quite enough? Enough money, enough security, enough time, enough health, enough love? Sometimes I do, and I have to catch myself and try to steer a different course.
I think our culture breeds that fear-filled scarcity mindset, and advertising doesn’t help at all. We Americans are driven to earn more, spend more, consume more, want more. And I think the root of that is the fear that there isn’t enough for us. If you look back at our Unison Prayer and Sung Response, that’s why I had us sing, “Dayenu!” God has provided enough, but we have to be spiritually mature enough to recognize that there is enough and to share it.
As a congregation, we have plenty to go around. I say that not just because we have people among us who have considerable professional accomplishments or because the average household income in Fort Collins is $96,300. We may not have extravagant excess, but as a congregation we have enough.
A pastor at another church said of his parishioners, “As they earned more, there seemed to be more scarcity in their life. There was never enough time or money.” And as he began to talk about re-examining the way they perceived scarcity and abundance, and the purpose behind giving, the church had a real turnaround. They began to think about what they COULD do and what tools they needed to make that happen. They began to think in terms of abundance and what God had made available to the members of the congregation.
Still, I sometimes hear a lot more in our church about scarcity than I do about abundance. I’m not talking about extravagance, but rather simple things in our mission and ministry that are reasonable to do. What I sometimes experience is an attitude of “We can’t do that because it would cost too much” or “We can’t waste money on THAT” (even though THAT might be just the thing gives other members of the community a sense of life and spiritual connection). Having an overdeveloped sense of scarcity is hamstringing this congregation in achieving all we are called to be. It isn’t faithful, and we need some course correction.
What do you think of our Share the Plate program that gives half of what we receive as undesignated offering to a community partner? Do you think that is foolishly extravagant or do you think that is our congregation expressing our faith in God’s abundance?
How do scarcity and abundance play out in your own life, whether you are a teenager with an allowance, a young adult working for minimum wage, a retiree living on a small, fixed income, or a physician, a lawyer, an engineer, a professor, or a clergy person? Do you fundamentally think you have access to “enough” and give thanks to God for that, or do you think more in terms of not having enough? Where do those attitudes come from?
When I speak of abundance, I’m not talking about the New Age idea of “manifesting” wealth because you have dreamt that into being. I’m talking about seeing our lives in global perspective… that we have been given plenty.
God has provided for the world abundantly. God has provided for US abundantly. It’s a matter of those who have more being willing to see what they have abundance to share. Not just as what they “deserved” or “earned,” like a daylong laborer. And once we have a mindset of abundance and possibility rather than scarcity and fear, we need to act in a way that reflects God’s attitude of grace and abundance.
The wonder of parables is that there are many ways to interpret them. I hope that you have been provoked to wonder, to think, and to dream by Jesus through this parable. The kingdom of heaven on earth is like a group of people, young, old, and in-between; queer, straight, trans or cisgender, Black, Asian-American, Latina, white; rich, poor, and everywhere in between. It is seeing them following Jesus, employing what has been entrusted to them, working for justice, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, enjoying the fruits of their labor, finding meaning in the Spirit, and working to ensure that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.