One of the great goals – and challenges — of the Christian life is the invitation to view the world as Jesus did.
At one point in the New Testament, the apostle Paul encourages his readers to let the same mind that was in Christ be in them – an invitation that continues to resonate across the centuries. We are called to view the world, and each other, and existence, and even ourselves, from the same perspective, with the same mind, through the eyes of Christ.
And one of the greatest tools that we are offered in order to accomplish this complex — and ever incomplete challenge — is to ponder the stories that he told to his followers.
Such as today’s story from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.
It is a story that draws us in, but offers an unexpected twist at the end which cannot help but cause us to pause and ponder the nature of God, of how God invites us to view each other, and even of how we are supposed to view and understand God’s grace.
The story is quite straightforward – a vineyard owner sets out early in the morning to hire a group of workers to help him to tend the vineyard. As the day progresses, he invites more individuals to participate in the work, until the end of the day when he gathers them together to offer them their wages.
But then the twist. The landowner first pays those who were hired late in the day – that is, those who had worked for the very shortest period of time – but they are paid a full day’s wages. A day’s wages was what they needed to feed themselves and their families — and they received what they needed.
Those who had been hired earlier in the day, and as such those who had clearly worked far longer and far harder than the late-in-the-day workers were quietly happy to see this happen, and to witness this act of unexpected generosity on the part of the landowner, since they would have expected to be even more richly remunerated for their efforts. If those who had not done much still received a full day’s wages, how much more would they who had worked so much harder receive?
But such was not the case. Rather, those who had been hired first were paid exactly the same as those who had been latest to the vineyard.
Which did not seem fair.
As we read in verse 10 and 11 – “Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’”
They certainly had a point. It did not seem fair, it did not seem just, it did not seem like a decent way to be treated.
But they also missed the point – because, after all, what they received was exactly what they deserved to receive, that being a day’s wages for a day’s work. Their anticipation of receiving more than a day’s wages was rooted entirely in their perceptions of the landowner’s generosity towards those who had not put in as much effort and time.
Which is intriguing, if not ironic – because generosity provoked grumbling – and they really did not have anything to grumble about. They had worked a full day, and were paid for a full day’s work. Both they and their families would be provided for, since what they received was entirely sufficient.
The parable is clearly a story about grace – about a grace that is sufficient and fair for those who have worked hard, and generous even to those who have not done anything to deserve it.
Of course, the real question is where we – as readers – find ourselves in this story.
And it is this question that helps us to begin to see things as Christ was challenging his followers to see things.
In order to do so, it is necessary for us to ponder where we are “entering” the story, or from which perspective we are reading them. So much depends on the interpretive lens, or the perspective from which we read these stories.
And so it is with today’s reading.
Consider, after all, how any one of us would feel if we had been the workers who had been busy all day long. We have worked hard, we have given of our time and energy…and yet, when all is said and done, even those who have done very little to deserve what is being offered end up receiving the same as what we do.
Who are the offensive, the selfish, the guilty, the disreputable to be loved and held in the grace of God? Does that seem fair?
It can be good for us to remember that this story, when it was first told, likely was shaped by dynamics between the Jewish and Gentile believers in the early Christian community. On one hand there were the longstanding faithful, those who had given their lives to covenantal obedience to God, whose actions and attitudes had been shaped and disciplined by the rituals and practices of faith. Some still followed elaborate and difficult rules about how to live, what to eat, how to demonstrate and be faithful to their covenantal obligations.
But then, along came a bunch of Gentiles, who acted as if they were not bound by such rules, who seemed to think that they did not have to abide by the rules and regulations, and yet who also claimed to be a part of the community of faith, and recipients of the grace, the mercy and the forgiveness that had been revealed in Jesus.
And lest we judge them too harshly, it can be good for us to realize that this dynamic – of the longstanding and hardworking faithful looking at others through somewhat infuriated, if not entirely disdainful eyes — is not an old or outdated phenomenon, however.
It’s like a bunch of people who how up for church and enjoy all the benefits without doing any of the hard work. And those who put in the time, who pay the bills, who work hard behind the scenes, sometimes wonder why those who like showing up when all of the work is done don’t seem to realize that a whole lot of hard work goes into keeping it all going. And so we make up statistics — about 80% of the work being done by 20% of the people, or recite the old complaints get made about this or that committee not having enough volunteers because no one wants to commit to the hard work, or voice the usual laments about Christmas and Easter Christians, or grumble about those who only arrived in the vineyard late in the day getting to celebrate the generosity and grace of the landowner…well, you see the point.
There is a message in this old story for people like us who consider ourselves to be hardworkers in the vineyard who sometimes wonder if that person – or those people – should receive the same measure of grace.
But consider, as well, if we read the story through a different lens.
That is, what if we read the story as one of the later workers, as one of the johnny-come-latelies to the party, as those who know, full well, that we really have not done much to deserve the love, the grace and the mercy of God? How do we read this story if we know, deep within us, that the generosity of God is being extended to us, perhaps in spite of the lives that we are living, the behaviours that shape us, the attitudes that we harbor, the actions that we continue to exhibit?
How do we read this story as those who know that we have wasted a lot of time, or who know that we really aren’t all that saintly, or who know that it is a bit “rich” for us to celebrate God’s love and grace when we have ignored God’s call? How do we read this story when we know, deep within us, that celebrating or claiming or depending on being recipients of God’s love and grace is something that we do not, in fact, completely deserve?
And how do we deal with the fact that accepting such grace can sometimes make us feel a bit guilty? The story offers no description about the late-in-the-day-workers felt when they saw how much they were being given? Did it make them feel grateful? Or awkward? Or maybe a bit of both?
There is a message in this old story for people like us who know that we are perhaps not quite as deserving of grace as we know that we should be.
But consider, then, if we read the story from a third and final perspective – that being the perspective of the landowner.
For many of us, this might be the most unusual and uncomfortable perspective of all – after all, when we read these stories, we tend to assign various identities to the characters in them. And, more often than not, if there is a master, or landowner, or sower, or king in the stories, we assume that Jesus intended for us to see that character as God. Which is not necessarily incorrect – but neither is it absolutely necessary.
And if we read the story through this lens, it cannot help but shape the way that we view others. After all, what is interesting for us to notice is that the landowner’s generosity was, in fact, an act of care for all equally – and not only for those who deserved the care that the landowner was able to provide. All of the workers needed a day’s wage in order to care for themselves and for their families. So rather than give less to those who were not quite as deserving, and more to those who had worked the hardest, the landowner simply treated people equally – and in that equality, all received what they actually needed.
So what if we were to treat others in the same way? Not to love or care for those who deserve our compassion more than we love or care for those who don’t, not to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving, but rather to seek to use whatever we have to meet the needs of all, equally?
What if we treat those who deserve our love, and those who do not, with the same degree of compassion – not based on whether they deserve such love or not, but rather because they need to be loved just as much as every worker in that ancient vineyard needed to come home that night with a full day’s wages?
Such is the nature of grace – it is care, compassion, love that is offered not because of, but in fact in spite of whether those who receive it have done anything to deserve it.
And this is the way that Christ invites us to view the world, and those with whom we interact each day. To love our neighbours as we love ourselves – and to love our enemies in the same way. To respond to those who do us good, and to those who do us wrong, with an equal measure of patience, forgiveness and kindness. To treat the deserving and the undeserving with equal generosity.
To be perfectly honestly, to live in such a way may be the most difficult thing that any of us will ever seek to do.
Jesus knew that, which is why he told these stories, and why these stories are so powerful, so challenging, so provocative. Because grace is powerful, grace is challenging, grace is provocative. But it is the way to the kingdom of heaven.
And the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…
So maybe, just maybe, if we actually want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like, well maybe, just maybe, Jesus is asking us to stop figuring out if we are the early or the late workers, and instead to try to be more like that generous, gracious landowner…