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The Laborers in the Vinyard

The Laborers in the Vineyard  –  January 7th , 2018 

Grace Communion Orlando                     Steve Schantz

Scripture reading:  Matt 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus used parables to convey deep truths about the Kingdom of God, God’s character and nature, and his love and understanding of people created in His image. While His stories were simple, they reveal a richness and depth of meaning that escaped many listeners. Yet each parable says something eternity-revealing and they spur us into action.   In our world that is shaped by competition and earning, Jesus’ parables of grace seem to be upside down, bizarre, and other-worldly. Often the grace of God is celebrated by those who are vulnerable without it, and at the same time it frustrates those who suggest that they can make it all on their own. So let’s listen and learn, continuing from verse 5 to the end of the parable.

Matt 20:5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (NRSV)

Jesus begins most of his parables with for the Kingdom of Heaven is like(Or, the Kingdom of God is like).  Today we begin a New Year’s series on the Parables of Jesus which highlights our call to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven now.  When Jesus used the expression Kingdom of God, he was not referencing a place, a zip code, or a website.  The Kingdom of Heaven is centered on this person, its King.  And it is relational in nature in that whenever we engage Jesus in our lives, believing Him, praying to him, serving Him, trusting Him, relying on Him, worshipping Him, following Him — we are entering the Kingdom of God.  Secondly, the Kingdom of Heaven is visibly small now, and yet will one day be completely evident and as visible as it is real, and great!

When Orville and Wilbur flew their Wright Flyer 120 feet at 8 miles per hour on the beach at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, it was a ground breaking event to say the least.  They accomplished something that people had been dreaming about for hundreds of years!

A hundred years later we fly in an Airbus A380.   This jetliner is a double-decker, with beds on board, wet bars, and fellowship gathering areas. A bit different from the Flyer, yet in one important way, the same.

The aerodynamic principles that got the Wright brothers off the ground are at work for the Airbus as well –where 555 people fly trans-continentally at 600 mph.  There is a parallel truth here for us as believers, whether we are at the Wright Brothers stage in our spiritual lives, as “babes in Christ”, or at the Airbus stage, having grown in maturity by the power of the Holy Spirit leading us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And at the right time, the Kingdom itself will expand beyond the limitations of time and space when it is visible in its fullness. For each phase of our lives in Christ, and every point in between, what is happening now in you and I will eventually find its perfection in eternity.  And whether we are called early in life, or late in life, it is by God’s grace, and His labor of love grow us up together, sanctifying us.  We are privileged to participate in His Kingdom work now as laborers in His harvest while He adds to the harvest.

Understanding this parable can be clearer to us when we grasp the setting as Jesus spoke it to his disciples.  That setting actually begins at the end of chapter 19.  Jesus has been talking to them about the cost of discipleship, and in his conversation we hear an often quoted comment: “it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven….”  This prompts Simon Peter to ask a question in response at the end of chapter 19:27, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?” (NRSV)

And really, for the most part they had left everything!   They walked away from their business, reprioritized some of their family, cultural, and personal interests.  Peter probably says out loud what the rest of them are thinking… “What’s in it for us?” 

We tend to think of discipleship as something we add to our life.  One popular line of thinking pitches following Christ as an accessory to the successful life in the West, a value added decision, something which makes our lives bigger, giving us greater purpose, meaning, and status in our culture.   While some aspects of this view are true, that view can miss important pieces of what Jesus calls his followers into as disciples.  But there’s also strong line of thought that believes discipleship is really about subtraction, not addition. 

 Meister Eckhart, a mystic theologian from the 1300’s, taught that discipleship involves subtraction – removing things.  Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, was once asked once by a student who had just read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “Dr. Jung what has your pilgrimage been like in life?”  He answered: “My pilgrimage has been like going down a thousand ladders until I finally came to a place where I could reach out my hand and touch a clod of earth, which is what I am.”   This may sound a bit depressing to us, but then so may Jesus’ words in Matt 16:25 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

Richard Rohr, contemporary Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, talks about this connection between freedom and letting go of our rights and expectations- this subtraction principle.  He says “At that moment, Jung and anyone like him, anyone who is really like this, that person who has really let go, that person is finally really free!”  Freedom comes at that point.   Where we tend to think of freedom as coming only when we have enough, freedom comes when we let go of that worldview.  When we let go of the idea that we deserve things, or that we can be in control of life, or that we should always be healthy, or that our relationships should always go well without a hick-up.  If we get to the place when we can let those things go there is a kind of freedom there.  This doesn’t excuse us from responsibility, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t still have those things going on in our lives, but we hold them in a different way – we hold them lightly.

From Rohr’s blog site article A Clod of Earth, he writes: “The word “human” comes from the Latin humus, which means earth. Being human means acknowledging that we’re made from the earth and will return to the earth. For a few years we dance around on the stage of life and have the chance to reflect a little bit of God’s glory. We are earth that has come to consciousness. If we discover this power in ourselves and know that we are God’s creatures, that we come from God and return to God, that’s enough. As a human, I’m just a tiny moment of consciousness, a small part of creation, a particle that reflects only a fragment of God’s glory. And yet that’s enough…It’s really that simple. If we have not experienced that connection, knowing that we are indeed a fragment of the Great Flame, we will most certainly need to accumulate more and more outer things as substitutes for self-worth. This, of course, is the great spiritual illusion. We needn’t acquire what we already have. Our value comes from our inherent participation in God.               

In the movie The Family Man from 2000 starring Nicholas Cage & Tea Leoni, Cage plays Jack Campbell, a successful, single Wall Street executive living in NYC.  And then one morning in a kind of Christmas Carol dream he wakes up and discovers that he is married with a middle class family trying to find their way through the daily grind to make ends meet.   In one seen in the movie Jack wanders into a men’s suit shop while the family is mall shopping to buy shoes for their little girl, a new $25 pair of Mary Janes.  Jack is quickly approached by a salesman who finds the perfect fit and look for him.  He strikes a pose in the suit, and senses that it actually changes the way he sees himself.  This suit will make him a new man!  His wife and daughter walk in and admire these intended new threads on him until she picks up the price tag and reads – $2,400!  Laughing, she beckons Jack to leave the store for a waffle cone in the food court, something he enjoys and can afford. But Jack insists that he will have this suit, and that it makes the drudgery in the rest of his sacrificial blue collar life as a husband, father, laborer, and dog owner make sense.  In protest he says he will have this new suit, that he deserves this suit, and that it is time for him to have his Mary Janes.

    Ever felt that way?  Ever asked that question “Where are my Mary Janes?”  In parenthood as in this case, many sacrifices are made aren’t they parents and grandparents? But in the larger scope of following Christ, we sometimes ask the same question Peter posed…“What’s in it for me?” 

As Jesus challenged his disciples through this parable, he is also asking us to consider how we approach our calling.   What is my understanding, my definition of discipleship?  What does it mean to follow Christ to me?   Do I look at it primarily from how many value added items will Jesus bring into my life?  Do I think mostly of the necessity of sacrifices to be made?  Is my discipleship a combination of both sacrifice and fulfillment, a mixture that becomes a joyful Journey of Trust?  Somewhere in between all of these?

Peter’s question leads into Jesus’ parable of The Laborer’s in the Vineyard, and we to are confronted with the need to evaluate what labor in God’s vineyard is like.  What are the dynamics of its wages, what we get out of it.

This self-focused concern is now met in the parable as we are confronted with the largess of a landowner like no other.  This Landowner is not limited by our fallen sense of fairness or timing as he enlists His laborers.  For those who are listening, this parable now takes a turn which is disruptive to our senses — it seems to contradict our understanding of fairness.  Really, does it seem fair to you that those workers who had worked all day in the scorching heat received the same pay as those who only worked only the last hour?  If you owned a vineyard in the Napa Valley during harvest season, and you paid your workers the way this Landowner did, the United Farm Workers of America union would file a lawsuit against you before sunset!  So setting the question of fairness aside for a moment, let’s look at a couple of things that don’t seem so controversial.

In His parables Jesus takes common things; people, places, and events which make sense in their familiar setting, and then he introduces themes and elements which don’t make sense unless they are seen from a heavenly perspective.  Let’s note that in this parable of the Kingdom of Heaven no one is standing idly about!  It is a theme which runs through the entire parable.  The land owner goes out early in the morning, (Verse 1), and then at 9:00 in the morning, (Verse 3), and then again at Noon and then 3:00 p.m. (Verse 5), and then at 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon, (verse 6).  This parable introduces a response by the hired laborers to the Landowner’s invitation.  Laborers who are given this assurance him: ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’  (:4)

The Householder, however, is never found standing idle, and wherever He can find those who are willing to work diligently in His vineyard, He hires them.  At various hours of life’s day we can begin to work for Him, and demanding the longest day of service we can render, he promised us wages.”   – (Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, p.220)

He sends anyone who will into his field!  Why?  As Jesus says in another place, “the fields are already white for the harvest!”   And, “I work and my Father works”…No one is standing around idle, and the landowner is constantly bringing new laborers into his field.   There is no idleness, no standing about.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a very active place, and the harvest is worth it!  

And so our concept of labor is also challenged in this parable. Sixty-Nine year old Joaquin Garcia hadn’t shown up for work at his civil service job in Spain for 6 years. Garcia’s job was to supervise the construction of a wastewater treatment plant. When asked about his absence, he said that he was bullied and was moved to a job where there was no work to do. He said he didn’t want to report the lack of work because he feared he would lose his job and be unable to find another one. Instead, he dedicated his time to reading philosophy. The Mayor of the town discovered this when he went to Joaquin’s office to present him a certificate for 20 years of faithful service and couldn’t find him!  The man across the hall said, “I haven’t seen him for years!”

The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where the work that is going on is more important than when each laborer started or finished.  What God is doing is so engaging, that we are not to measure out time or engage in wage comparability studies with our fellow laborers.  It involves realigning our whole comparative value system.

In this world if you as an employee enjoy 70-80 percent of what you are hired to do, you can count your blessings!   But I think what God has in mind for us is 100 % and contentment in our calling to follow Christ.  How many times have we heard the story of a people who have an interest, a skill, a love, but for the sake of earning a living they have had to train and work in a different kind of labor?  Perhaps you are in that situation right now.

Kevin Peterson grew up the son of a church Pastor.  He graduated with a double degree in Art and Psychology.   When he took the art class as an elective in college, he wasn’t really thinking about making a living as an artist. But when he was in the art lab 8 hours went by without him even noticing!  He was in his zone, his sweet spot while he painted.  But others reminded him how difficult it is to make a living as an artist, so Kevin used his Psych degree to get a job as a probation officer in Austin Texas taking on what for him became a very tedious job for several years.  During that time his life went off the tracks and he found himself in a dark place – a bad place.  So he came home to what his parents named ‘the healing room’.  And while re-evaluating his life and priorities, he thought “Hey, if I’ve got to start my life over again I’m going to do what I want to do – I’m going to paint.”  So half the room was where he slept and the other half was where he painted.  And he was pretty good right from the beginning!   In 2016 Kevin got an email inquiry from someone purporting to be representing the Red Hot Chili Peppers Rock band. They had seen one of his paintings and they wanted to know if they could use it for the cover of their new album The Getaway. At first Kevin thought he was being pranked, but the conversation became real, and they purchased the right to publish his painting!

Eleven years after his dark place experience, Kevin said to his Father: “Dad you know the great thing about what I do?  I never have to retire from it.”  

So we come to another crossroad in our perception of working as a laborer in God’s vineyard. Do I feel my calling has come too late in life by age, or too late in life by experience, or too late in life because of burned bridges, or missed opportunities?  Have I tried to make sense of my life without trusting in God’s guidance and grace?  Am I enjoying following Jesus into the harvest with the gifts He has given me so much that I lose track of what time it is!  Or do I spend too many hours of my day in the harvest field worrying about “What’s in it for me?”

Psalm 92:12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord, they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 They still bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green…  (RSV)

I love this Psalm because it reminds us that no matter how old we are we can still be green and sappy!   It’s never too late to find our place in the Lord’s vineyard.  The Kingdom of Heaven is where we find our stride in whatever work our minds, hearts, hands, and feet find to do.  God intends that we experience a “sweet spot” as part of the priesthood of all believers which involves using the gifts He provides for us.  He desires that we feel connected to Him and connected to each other in ways that magnify His purpose, bring us joy, and bring Him glory! Someday, because of the nature of the Kingdom, and because we are united to Christ, our joining him in His work and our being His work will be fully manifest.   Today, when we engage by faith in His Kingdom work it is more a privilege for us than it is a problem to us.

Finally let us note that because of God’s generosity, everyone in this parable has enough.  He enlarges our concept of fairness to embrace “enoughness”.  God changes the conversation from what’s fair to what’s enough.  God changes the conversation from envy to generosity!  Matt 20:15….Or are you envious because I am generous?   The first century disciples were challenged to trust the one who would generously provide for their needs, and so are we.  Are you experiencing ‘enoughness’ in your life right now?  Who or what do you envy in this world?  Why?  What part of being a child of God called according to His purpose as a laborer in this hour of the day is not enough for you?  The Apostle Paul left these instructions for the young evangelist Timothy:  “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (I Tim 1:17)

God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment – especially His Kingdom work!   That’s God’s definition of enough.  Listen to those masters of theological truth (the Beatles!), from their 1964 album A Hard Day’s Night.  Remember these lyrics?  “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I been workin’ like a dog..”

…Cos I don’t care too much for money, and money can’t buy me love
I’ll give you all I got to give if you say you’ll love me too
I may not have a lot to give but what I got I’ll give to you
I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love…

The one who invites us to join him in the harvest has already told us – and shown us – that He loves us.  It’s a love that can’t be bought, and His love is the bond of a kingdom that draws us into the field as laborers so we can learn how to give him all we have to give in every hour of the day – at any age in life – in every circumstance of our lives – until the full harvest has been brought in.  And we can trust Him to take care of what we really need, and that will be enough.

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