God, Jesus says, is like a certain landowner who goes to the marketplace to hire day laborers. For the sake of clarity, let’s delete the middleman, the Landowner, and go straight to God.
Early in the morning, a little before 6 am, God goes to the marketplace and hires laborers to work in the vineyard.
Together, God and the laborers agree on the wage: a denarius. It is not an overly generous wage, but it is a fair wage—enough to support a family for a day.
Then, curiously, just three hours later, at 9 am, God returns to the marketplace and hires more workers. In this case, there is no negotiating the wage. Instead, God promises to pay these hires “whatever is right.” These, also, are sent into the vineyard to work.
Ever more curiously (for landowners really don’t do business this way), God repeats this exercise three more times. God goes to the marketplace again at 12 noon and again at 3 pm, each time gathering more workers and sending them into the Vineyard.
And, finally at 5pm, most curious of us for this is the eleventh hour—an hour before the sunsets, an hour before quitting time—God, goes back to the marketplace and hires yet more workers. These, also, are sent into the Vineyard to work.
Now, day laborers do not start working in the field the minute they are hired. I do not know how far the marketplace is from God’s Vineyard, but I’m guessing this lot of laborers does not start working until 5:20 pm or maybe even 5:40 pm … which means forty minutes of work at best.
At 6 pm, as the sun is setting and darkness is falling, God calls the laborers in from the vineyard and, one by one, beginning with the last hired (beginning with those hired just an hour ago) begins to hand them each their pay.
Picture this in your mind’s eye. Those who have worked barely an hour—their clothing unsoiled and their hands and fingernails still clean—are paid in full view of the other workers. And, get this, each one is handed a full day’s wage: a whole denarius. Wow! This is huge!
Those who have worked 12 hours, and who are watching these transactions, start to get excited. “If the guy who worked a single hour gets paid a whole denarius—blimey!—that must mean we’re going to get way more than that!”
When they are not, when those who have slaved and sweated, bent and lifted under the Mediterranean sun for 12 hours, are handed a single denarius, they grow confused and angry. Their sense of fair play is violated. Shouldn’t wages fit the work? Doesn’t justice require proportional recompense? What kind of a messed up system is this?
The truth is that our world could not work the way this landowner works. Could not and will not. It would be a disaster. Our economies, our systems of justice would fall into chaos and disarray.
But this story Jesus tells, this parable, is not about this world or our human systems of reward and punishment, of commerce or justice. The parable is not a prescription for Old South Church’s compensation plan, nor for the compensation plans at MIT, Herb Chambers or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The parable is about God …
Allow me to get personal here. You see, I am among those who have been laboring in God’s vineyard all day … pretty much my entire life. I heard and heeded the invitation early on, and I have labored in the Vineyard ever since.
I am here to tell you (and to remind God, in case God has forgotten) that, like those hired at the crack of dawn, I’ve been at this Vineyard-work for decades. I have sweated it out doing ministry in prisons and jails and ghettos. I’ve climbed the stairs of rat infested tenements, stepping over trash, picking my way over strung-out men, while trying to avoid contact with discarded needles. I have been to more nursing homes, psychiatric wards and hospital rooms, more morgues and police stations for God than I can remember. I clasp the grimy hands of homeless men and women on Boylston Street and try, and try, and try to love them as God loves them … despite how very hard that is.
And, not least, I did not choose to get an MBA with all its shining and glorious prospects. No, I have a Master of D i v i n i t y (ooooh). Which is actually very, very cool, but neither a good business plan nor a get-rich scheme.
So, here is the parable’s hard news. At the end of the day, at the end of my life, says Jesus, it is possible that Adolf Hitler, and Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin and Nancy Taylor will receive the same reward.
Hear me out. My assertion hinges on this possibility: that upon death … we find ourselves in the presence of God and God issues one more invitation … an 11th hour invitation.
When Adolf Hitler died, when Saddam Huessin and Idi Amin died God reached out to them one more time, at the 11th hour … And there, in the very presence of God, in the embrace of Divine Love they melt. In the presence of Divine Love even those, cruel and icy hearts melt and each in turn comprehends, viscerally comprehends, the enormity of their crimes. In the presence of God, they are overwhelmed with understanding, horror and self-loathing, with confession and repentance, and they are transformed. In the blink of an eye, they are changed … they are made new!
Awash in love and warmed by God, they accept God’s invitation. And, with that, God says: “Come in. Come home. Not because you earned it—Adolph and Sadaam and Idi—but because it is mine to give.”
Meanwhile, as this is happening—as these wretched and evil men are being transformed and are being ushered into God’s Vineyard—I am in the back of the line … and I am watching this. Me: the one who has been laboring in God’s Vineyard my whole life. Trying, failing to be sure, but trying to be good. Trying to order my life on the Christian virtues of generosity, mercy, forgiveness.
Trying to love my enemies and live with peace among all people. Me: I’ve been laboring in the Vineyard not for twelve seconds, or twelve hours, or twelve years, but twelve times twelve years!
Okay, maybe not that long, but you get the idea.
And here is what Jesus says: I can expect exactly what they get, what those who came late to God get. Like them I get no more and no less, than a ticket into heaven, a ticket into the heart of God, into everlasting life.
The parable proclaims that I am no more precious to God, no more worthy of God’s time and attention and love, than they.
Why? How? Because divine love isn’t earned. It is God’s to give.
But the truth is, I’m not in the back of the line. Not even close. Maybe I’m behind Adolf and Idi Amin. But behind me, is the great train of those who entered the Vineyard long before I did …the shiniest saints of all … those with whom I share the same reward… there’s Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, James and John, Martha and Mary, Francis and Augustine, Sojourner and Frederick, Samuel and Phillis, Dietrich and Theresa, Desmond and Nelson
Compared to them, I am nothing—I am a Christian feather-weight. But if this parable speaks truth: I get the same reward as they.
Here is why I love you—you Christians, you, who are here to worship God. Here is what makes you different. Here is what defines you:
I love you—I really do love you—because you are willing to subject yourselves to such stories as this one. You are willing to entertain the realm of God, where the systems of reward and punishment, quid pro quo, first and last, best and least, superior and inferior, the employed and the idle, are all messed up…
I love you because you are willing to entertain God’s alternative calculus: God’s mind-bending, logic-offending, sequence-upsetting alternative calculus.
Why? How? Because in the realm of God, we’re not in charge. God is.
The parable is not about you or me or life on this earth. The parable is about God.