Sermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, Memorial Church of Harvard University, Sept. 20, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Friends, there is no way around it. Our parable for today is a strange story. The opening scene is typical for one of Jesus’s parables, and it is consistent with ancient farming practices of the day. The owner of a vineyard goes to the agora (the marketplace) early in the morning to hire some day laborers. The vineyard owner and the laborers agree on a denarius as the wage for their work that day.
The vineyard owner returns to the agora later that day to hire some more laborers. He promises to pay them what is right, but there is no mention of the denari. Presumably, he hires them not because he needs them. He is experienced at his job and knew the number of laborers he needed originally. He turns to them because they are there.
The vineyard owner returns a third time. He simply tells the remaining laborers to go into the vineyard and offers no promises of wages. We are told nothing else about last picked laborers.
When the end of the day arrives, the manager of the vineyard pays the laborers beginning with the last hired. When the last hired are given a denari, those hired first are watching. They assume the owner will pay them more. It’s only fair. Yet, when they too receive a denari, they grumble about receiving the same amount. Didn’t they work longer hours and in hostile conditions? They frame their complaint as a question of justice. And to be reasonable, their case seems fair and well argued.
The vineyard owner’s response is twofold. First, he points out that it is his right to do what he wants with what belongs to him. Thus, he insists he paid a fair wage to the first hired and the laborers agree. Then, the owner asks a kicker of a question, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Now, we may want to dismiss the grumbling laborers as ungrateful or selfish or, to borrow a biblical phrase, hard of heart. But, deep down if we are honest with ourselves we know their reaction is what most of us would have felt. Because what happens to them simply does not add up. It’s not fair. They might even argue it’s not just.
This parable violates what we have been taught about what is right and what is wrong. It upturns our society’s enduring myth that you get what you earn. God shows no partiality among people. Instead, God extends the invitation to the vineyard as wide as possible. Those who are the first in the world’s eyes are not the first in God’s eyes. Those who see themselves as the lowliest of all are the ones God will exalt on the last day.
Theologians, biblical scholars, and preachers have wrestled with this parable’s meaning over the years. Ancient theologians often read this parable as an allegory for God and salvation. Some interpretated that the laborers hired at different times of the day were different generations of Israel. First was Adam, next Moses, then Abraham, and then the Gentiles. Others interpreted the early workers as Christ’s original disciples and latecomers as recent converts. Later some theologians proposed this parable was about the often-aired debate in Christianity of faith and service. What mattered for your salvation, your belief in God or your acts of good works and charity?
There is a reason Jesus deployed allegories as a teaching tool in parables again and again. We may never fully understand who God is and how much God loves us. Yet, parables can engage what Walter Brueggemann calls our “moral imagination” to catch a glimpse of the holy, to expand our limited comprehension of the divine, and perhaps blur the edges of our definition of God and God’s grace.
Yet what if this parable was not just something to be considered allegorically. What might it say about the ancient world, and perhaps even our lives? Jesus is speaking about real day laborers and the economic terrors of their lives. We don’t know how exactly how much a denari is, but our best calculations on the value of a denari at this moment in Palestine is quite poor. A denari could support one person, but not a family. And by all accounts, the lives and livelihoods of day laborers were often hard and short.
And, when the last hired laborers are asked why they are not working the answer is that no one hired us. It is not because they are lazy. They are the ones who get picked last for jobs. And who are the last picks? People who are weak, elderly, disabled, with criminal records.
Our society is designed to separate us, according to class, ability, race, gender, and all manner of other identities. As reproductive activist and pastor Kentina Washington-Leapheart shares, “As a culture nowadays, we also don’t demonstrate much patience for the last picks. Not the early bird? No worms for you. On the bottom rung? Stay right there as I climb over you. Last hired? First fired.
The grumbling laborers in Jesus’ parable offer the familiar refrain of those born into and thriving within privilege: if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you too can be successful. Unfortunately, very little is ever said about the fact that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length, quality, or level of durability — if you even have bootstraps at all.”
Yet perhaps if we took the time to get to know the last picked laborers this parable would hit home more deeply. We would see them as flesh-and blood humans instead of nameless, faceless people. What if we knew if they had to take two trains and a bus to get to the agora, their citizenship status precluded them from applying for steady employment for fear of deportation, their bodies are frail, going to work is a life or death decision. This is not an exaggeration in this age of COVID-19. The last being first and the first being last becomes more than just a lofty ideal. This strange and uncomfortable concept can be the kindling for equity.
These workers want justice, and honestly who can blame them. They feel cheated because they calculated their wages in accord with what the manager paid those who worked less. And that’s what justice does. It counts and measures and calculates. Justice can be seen as a matter of the law. In legalistic terms, justice seeks to guarantee that all people receive equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal standing. Which is why justice is so important to us. We know God cares about justice. The law, prophets, and Jesus’ own life and ministry testify to that.
But the vineyard owner acted not with justice in mind, but rather with love expressed through generosity. And when it feels like these two – justice and love – clash, it can get ugly. Love, however, is not the opposite of justice – far from it! Love and generosity help us to understand that that ultimately God does not see justice is not about either or, right or wrong, you or me. Rather, I believe love draws justice beyond the realm of law into the realm of relationship. When we try to draw a line in the sand to separate ourselves from others, God draws a circle around us.
Now this message of leading with love and generosity might feel out of step with where we find ourselves today. It is too difficult, too vulnerable to lead with generosity and love when hatred and oppression reign. This feels particularly true this morning with recent news about the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Many of us feel vulnerable and scared. At such a time, leading with generosity or love might seem weak. However, if you have been overwhelmed by grace or mercy you have been given in your life, you know the tremendous amount of strength that reveals. If we are going to try to find new ways of being, now seems to the moment.
So, my question for us this morning is why not be more generous and more loving with one another? What do we have to lose? As Audre Lord so astutely observed, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” Perhaps leading with generosity is not in spite of our commitment to justice, it is because of it. Because know that our wellbeing is intrinsically tethered to the wellbeing all. As the nation mourns the loss of the Notorious RBG, who devoted her life to justice, we might also let her point us to the imperatives of loving action, when she said, “Fight for the thing that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead other to join you.”