The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Some of Jesus' words and teaching can best be described as 'enigmatic'. The word generally means puzzling or perplexing or mysterious. In our use of language it has a soft rather than hard connotation. The smile on the face of the Mona Lisa is often described as being enigmatic, for example. This parable is enigmatic – at least on the surface. Only on the surface. The parable is not a figment of Jesus' creative and literary imagination. It was reality in his time. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September. Within a very short time the autumn rains arrived. If the harvest was not gathered in before the rains arrived, it was ruined. There was a very small window between the ripening and the ruining. For perhaps a few days any available labour was welcome even if only for part of the day. If a vineyard owner saw the rains coming in the distance, he would be desperate to get other labourers to work for the last possible hour of harvesting.
The men standing in the market place were not lazy or idle. This was not a dole queue. It was a work queue. Men without regular employment went to the market place every morning, some with their tools, and waited for someone to employ them for the day. It was a zero hour contract arrangement. Some might stand all day in the hope of half a shift or even a couple of hours work before nightfall. That happens much in the south and east of England today where immigrant labourers stand outside large fruit and vegetable farms seeking employment even if its just for a day or two. Many are young people, some are foreign students working for the summer in this country. In the parable the men are casual labourers without any permanency of position. Even slaves and servants had homes in which to stay and food to eat. Casual labourers were self-employed without any securities at all. They were poorly paid and if they did not have a day's work their children would be short of food. In this country in 2015 some people are offered jobs at £2 50 an hour. We are not so different from what appears a harsh culture and environment in the time of Jesus. The working day then began at 6 00am and ended at 6 00pm. The last working hour was from 5 o'clock to 6 o'clock. Harvesting grain crops in this country today might be mechanised and sophisticated with huge GPS controlled combine harvesters – but – if rains are due in and fields have not been harvested, farmers telephone one another and ask for each other's help. Even for a few hours they will gather in fields with their machinery and together harvest the remaining grain in before it is wasted. Last minute co-operation has been and remains part of farming life. The parable reflects reality in Jesus' time.
We live in a time of gross disparity in earnings. Do you think it is right that the First Minister of Scotland should earn more than the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Do you think it is right that Wayne Rooney should earn £300,000 per week for playing football? That is more than either Nicola Sturgeon or David Cameron earn in a year. It is more than Barack Obama, Angela Merkel or Xi Jinping (President of China) get.
There is also the issue of emergency. Hotel rooms in the Newcastle area this week-end are full and guests are paying £120 per night – 3 and 4 times the normal cost – because Scotland and South Africa were playing each other in the Rugby World Cup. At the Edinburgh Festival time hotel rooms are much more expensive due to demand. Alistair Dickie told me once how his company was subcontracted to BMC and they did regular work for them. One Friday afternoon, Alistair got a phone call from a manager saying that some of BMC's drawings were wrong and they urgently needed them corrected. Alistair said that he and his colleagues would work over the week-end to replace the incorrect drawings – and then he added “But it will cost you”. They could name their price. The need was critical. They had the skills. But the paradox of the parable of the workers in the vineyard is that those who worked the least were paid the same as those who worked the longest. There were no trade unions in those days. There would surely have been a strike if there had been. Some will remember the days of crippling job demarcation and wage differentiation. Even I remember as a sixteen year old summer labourer taking bags of cement from a lorry and being tapped on the shoulder by an older man who told me 'That's a man's job, son'. I was not allowed to do it. Workers always grumble about their pay and the grumble about other people's pay also. So in the parable the workers who had worked all day grumbled because the men who had worked only one hour were given the same day's pay. They did not see the positive side of this that some of their fellow labourers were treated generously. They were filled with resentment that they did not get more than they had agreed to work for and because they had worked all day for the same amount.
Why did the vineyard owner do this? Did it ever happen? Was Jesus telling something he knew that had occurred? Or was this Jesus telling a story with an ending that no-one had ever experienced? There must have been some good and generous employers within Judaism at the time. The Old Testament clearly teaches justice and concern for the poorer members of the community. The owner may have been someone like Boaz who redeemed Ruth, for example. He did not exact the last ear of corn for himself but left some for the poor people to glean after the harvest was taken. This farmer knew that men needed a day's wages. It was little enough. He had humanity and compassion and a just heart and mind. But he also wanted the men to work as hard as they could for the time they were there. As an incentive he offered them a full day's wages if they would work really hard to complete the harvesting. It was a job and finish bonus.
But of course this parable is not about the rights of workers. So what was Jesus really communicating? In Matthew's Gospel Jesus was talking after he had confronted the rich young ruler and he was answering the disciples' questions about that incident. Peter had said 'We have left everything to follow you, what then will there be for us?' Jesus promised his followers eternal glory and a multiplication of anything they thought they had lost by following him. And who would say that that did not come spectacularly true? But Jesus cautioned his disciples saying 'But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first'. And then he told this enigmatic parable. He was warning his disciples not to get above themselves or seek any special status. They were privileged to have been with him from day one but that did not mean that they should expect any pre-eminence over others who became his followers as years went on. It is a human trait to resent newcomers in our midst, especially if they are young. That's true in the Church also. Some long time members may be inclined to think that the church belongs to them rather than to the Lord.
This was also a warning to the Jews. They knew they were the Chosen People but they had lost the vision of universal witness and service to God and humanity. In the time of Jesus they had become self-obsessed, introverted, selfish and exclusive. Even Jewish Christians did not always leave their Judaism behind. Paul, we know, had to challenge Peter about favouring Jewish converts over gentile. Deacons were ordained to stop unequal distribution of food between Jewish and gentile Christians. Spiritual pride is endemic within the Christian Churches also. The Roman Catholic Church thinks that it is the one true Church still. The Greek Orthodox Church thinks it is the only original Christian Church since it was there from the beginning. Reformed Protestants thought they were in the right and truth above others. The Church of Scotland is 455 years old. But that gives it no automatic right to continue. Its daughter churches in Africa and Asia are growing and expanding a thousand fold. In Scotland new last minute evangelical congregations are springing up which are livelier and more attractive to young people. This church has witnessed to God for 107 years. But that gives us no guarantee for the future.
The landowner in the parable is of course God. He is represented as kind and compassionate and greater than ordinary justice. If a person serves God all his or her life or comes to faith late in life or makes a death bed confession they are treated equally in God's sight. The issue here is attitude. Do you serve the Lord with joy and a sense of privilege? Or are you a resentful worker in the vineyard angry that you could have done other things in your life if you had not been a Christian or a Church-goer? For Jesus if you are called to follow him from your earliest years that is something special. It is not something to moan about. Even the prophet Jeremiah resented being called to be mouthpiece for the Living God when he was only nineteen. Our Brian used to joke that in this congregation he was an embryo.
The farmer was compassionate because he saw the waste of good labourers and did his best to give them something to do with their knowledge and skills. The parable reflects the human condition, the right and need to work and the issue of fair pay. God has something for you to do. Do not feel unfulfilled. Do not let the days go by in idleness. Young or older, there's always something you can do for the Lord. You may even be in the afternoon or evening of your life – you have still a lot to give. You can still make a difference.
The nature of God, says Jesus, is surprisingly generous. And God wants our generous response in return. The basic issue in our relationship with God is not one of earning or deserving or what is just. It is grace. Christianity is much misunderstood and often misrepresented. It is about relationship and not law. Forgiveness not condemnation. None of us deserve to be Christians. We are so by the love of God for us. It is trustworthy, sure and never failing. We are called to be like God in the way we treat one another. We are not to be like the grumblers who resented a generous pay settlement for others. We are to rejoice in the love of God for everyone who enjoys his favour. Some decent good living all their lives people can be resentful of others who at some point in their lives had lost their way, done wrong, messed up and had come through that to a deep and personal sense of the forgiving love of God. They are the workers who started at 6 00am. Those who have gone through the process of sinfulness to forgiveness are the workers who started later in the day. No-one is left out in this parable. Everyone gains. The day labourers, those left unemployed, the owner whose harvest is gathered in. It is a great parable of God's providence and salvation and grace.