Leviticus 19:1-14, Matthew 20:1-16
July 29, 2012
This is a great parable. And again, a parable is a simple story, a story that Jesus made up, (which is amazing!) and a story that drew people in because it was taken from their lives and experiences. This is the parable often called “the parable of the workers in the vineyard.”
As I understand it, this story would have been very familiar to those people. Because in their world, this was how many people made their living. There was a certain place in town where they could go in the morning, if they needed work. And a person who owned land and needed workers would go to that place, find the men there, and say “Ok I need 5 guys to work my fields.”
That’s how it worked. And I was surprised to learn that still happens today. One time when I was with my parents in Arizona, we were driving by a shopping center, and there was a group of men standing there near one of the corners. And when I asked about it, my Dad said that they were men hoping to get work for the day. People who needed workers would know to come there and hire them – just like in this parable! And I thought of this story when he said that!
That “arrangement” was common in Jesus’ time, and the people listening to this story would have seen it as part of their everyday lives. Not only would they have observed this, but it’s likely that many of them would have been part of that “system.” They themselves would have would have been in the marketplace seeking work, just like the men in this parable. So you can just imagine how they would have been instantly drawn into this story!
But something was wrong here. The way Jesus told this story, it didn’t make sense. In fact, Jesus often put a “twist” in his stories, a twist that’s oftens lost on us. But that twist was often the thing that helped him make his point. In this case, it came when it came time for the master to pay his workers. And to the listeners, this doesn’t seem fair. The men who worked all day were given the same wage as those who had just worked a short time. That doesn’t seem fair to us either, does it! But in fact, that was the point of the parable. Jesus was trying to tell the people that what’s fair in God’s eyes is not necessarily what’s fair in ours.
Sometimes we miss the importance of that – even if we do get the message! Again, sometimes we just take this in as a nice “Bible Story.” And we read it with our “Bible Voice.” But this would have been a hard thing for those people to hear. They were with these men in the story. Had they been the ones who worked all day, and they had seen the “short timers” get paid a day’s wages, they too would have expected to be paid even more. And in the end, they too would have been upset about this! And if you think about it, we’re with them, aren’t we? This doesn’t seem fair! We’d be pretty upset if this happened to us!
Well, that “twist” in this parable gives Jesus the opening to teach the people that God does think differently than we do. “What’s fair in God’s eyes” is not necessarily what’s fair in ours. And the reason for that is that what’s valuable in this world is not what’s valuable in God’s kingdom. And what’s important in this world is not what’s important to God.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Lets think for a moment about things the world values. And the thing is, the world values things. All day long we are inundated by advertisements. And their sole purpose is to entice us to buy all kinds of things. Have you noticed the billboards along the highway? They’re now becoming electronic. They’re now essentially giant video screens! People used to have to go up there and peel off the old ad and paste on a new one. (Or however that worked.) Not any more! Now they can switch them instantly! So now we get even more advertisements. We can see one of them from our parking lot here. I’m wondering how long it will be before they allow them to be animated! We’ll essentially be able to watch TV as we drive! (And we thought cell phones were distracting to drivers!!!)
Another thing the world seems to value is security. “Plan for the future!” you hear the ads say. But I cringe to think of the number of people in this world who have made no such plans! I’ve been saying this for a while now, and believe me I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve been saying that the “retirement crisis,” that’s looming on the horizon, will make the housing crisis of a few years ago look like nothing!
Well, we could go on and on about the things the world values. But I want to get us back to the thought that what the world values is not what God values. Because what God values is people. God knows – because he made us – that what’s truly important in this life is the relationships we have, and how we treat one another. That’s always more important than things! But what he also knows, and what Jesus tried to teach us, is that it’s too easy to forget that.
Tony Campolo once wrote a book entitled, “Who Switched the Price Tags.” And in it, he likened our world to a department store which somebody broke into, but didn’t steal anything. Instead, as a prank, they switched around all the price tags. So imagine people coming in the next day and finding TVs priced at $2.00 and steak knives for $1500.00. iPads were now going for $1.50 and chewing gum was $300, and so on. (I want to be there on that day!) Actually all that could now be done electronically! Someone would just have to break in and reprogram the computer that reads all those bar codes! (Hmmm…)
Well, Tony says life in this country is like that. Things are given a high value, and people are not. “Somebody switched the price tags!” What the world values is not what God values! And remember, Jesus is not saying here that there’s anything wrong with those “things.” What he was telling the people was that God places a much higher value on other things. It’s a matter of priorities. In one of his most famous speeches, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says “Seek ye first the kingdom of God…” He’s not saying we aren’t to have “things.” In fact, I think things are just not all that impressive to him. He owns everything! Just remember the end of that statement, “and all these things will be added unto you.”
God wants us to be happy and fulfilled in this life. He loves us! But he wants us to know that the source of our happiness is not the things. The source of our happiness is relying on him! Do you see what I mean? And the thing is, what we value has everything to do with what we put first in our lives.
Well, I hope you see that all of this has everything to do with “what’s fair in God’s eyes.” And Jesus wants us to see that the master in this story has de-emphasized the wages that were paid to these workers. Instead, h has emphasized the value of the people themselves! And I believe Jesus is calling his listeners and us to do the same. And I know that’s hard! We all have within us an innate sense of justice. We all have that feeling within us that it’s right for those who deserve consequences to get consequences. That makes sense to us. That’s fair. And any departure from that is unfair! We echo the words of the psalmist who cried out, “Why, O Lord, do the evildoers prevail, and the righteous suffer?!”
We need to make the hard choice of looking past the shortcomings of others and treating people, not based on “fairness,” but on grace. Because grace is God’s standard of fairness! And yes, I know that’s hard for us to fathom!
Maybe it will help us to get this if we realize that we are like the workers in this story, not just the listeners. Like the workers in the vineyard, some of us have been part of God’s kingdom for many years, while others have come to the kingdom only recently. Some may have drifted away and come back. Some aren’t sure the value of it even now. But God gives us his grace, no matter where we are in that time line! And he calls us to give others the same grace!
So the bottom line is, as God’s people, we need to strive to think like God. And I don’t know about you, but that sounds hard to me! Because, as we’re hearing today, what’s fair in God’s eyes, is not what we’re used to! This parable tells us that. And it all sounds wonderful! But it’s hard to live! And we need to remember that with us, it may not be possible, but with God all things are possible.
So then, be people of grace! Love people first. What’s fair in God’s eyes is different than what’s fair in ours. So, try to think like God. You are his ambassadors. You are keepers of his Grace!
Eternal God, help us to seek first your kingdom. Help us to see the great value in our relationship with you and with each other. Help us to see that your amazing grace is sufficient for all of our shortcomings. Help us to be sure of your infinite love for us. We give you all praise, and glory, and honor, and we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.