Today, I remember my grandfather, Winfield Dow Edgerton Jr. He was an unfailingly kind and decent man, an OB/GYN whose private practice was in huge demand. He was someone who started and staffed a first of its kind free women’s health clinic, drawing women from three states who could not otherwise afford care. He was someone who used his own resources to outfit that free clinic with everything his private practice had. He was always smiling and would wink at you like a traffic light, and he is a saint as I understand it. He died six years ago next month. Will you pray with me?
The parables of Jesus are everyday stories, stories that open up to reveal multiple meanings. They invite us to find ourselves within the story, to identify with someone from the story. Do I identify with the wandering child returning home or the anxious parent who has been worried sick? The parables invite us to live inside of the story, and to take the risk of having our minds changed by doing so. In today’s parable I have no trouble figuring out who I identify with. I walk into the living story of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard and I am one of the early risers.
I like to have a good plan. I want to be clear about what steps are needed to succeed and how each step advances the plan. When the time comes to follow through with a plan I want to be where I need to be with plenty of time to spare, I want to embark with conviction and assurance, seeking feedback along the way. I mean this is how I plan dinner parties. When I walk into the living story of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, I am one of the early risers. I’m one of the people who gets to the marketplace first thing in the morning, standing up straight, looking lively. I’ve got a plan and I’m following through. And when the owner of the vineyard walks into the marketplace, I’m not surprised I get hired, why wouldn’t I? Me and the rest of the early risers walk into the landowner’s vineyard and set out to do a full day of work for a full day’s wages.
For me, working hard just makes the day flow past like clouds in the wind, and working in that vineyard six o clock in the morning turns into nine o clock like that. And when I look up from my work what do I see but that the owner of the vineyard has come back and he’s got even more workers with him. I could see why he’s got more workers, the vineyard is huge. I’m in the middle of the rows of vines and I can’t see the end or the beginning, so it’s no surprise that the owner is hiring as many workers as he can. I mean, the owner won’t get a full day’s work out of them but heaven knows there is enough to do. This vineyard is not like any place I’d ever worked before.
So we all get to work, the last to arrive beside the first, and the work once again makes the hours slip away. The noon day’s heat comes and the owner comes back with more workers. Hours pass, it’s three o’clock the owner is back with yet more workers. There are a lot of people working this vineyard now, every kind of person you could imagine, but I guess it makes sense. I’ve been working all day and still can’t see the end of the vineyard. How big is this place anyway? We get back to work, the last alongside the first and the sun’s leaning turns into a full on slouch. It is dipping down near the rows of vines. I still can’t see the end and the hour is five o’clock in the afternoon and I look up and what do I see but that the owner of the vineyard is back and he’s got even more workers with him.
But these last ones who are straggling behind him in tow, I can’t tell why the owner would hire them. These are the types who get looked over and looked past. The ones who spent the last night sleeping something off. The ones who couldn’t drag themselves out of bed in the morning. The ones who were over the hill or from the wrong side of town. As those who arrived last take their place beside those of us who were first, I can’t help myself. I ask one of the new arrivals, it’s really none of my business, but what did the owner say he was going to pay you? You’re only going to be working a couple hours, after all. “Well”, one replies, “he said he would pay us whatever is right, who knows what that’s going to mean.” You see, that’s why I make sure to be early, to be ready, I’m working a full day, so I know what I’m getting paid.
Wave after wave of humanity work in this vineyard that stretches out like an ocean on a clear day, people who would not normally mix, bend, and stoop to the work they were called to do by the vineyard owner. The last to arrive work beside those like me who are growing weary from the day’s long trek until at last the sun sinks down below the horizon, below the vines that stretch into the distance, the vast and unknown vineyard that even after working all day I haven’t seen the end of. But, at last, it is quitting time. It’s time to get paid.
And the owner lines everybody up to get paid. The ones who showed up last were supposed to go to the head of the line, and those who had been first were supposed to go all the way to the back of the line. An odd arrangement, but everything about this vineyard is odd, and everybody goes to their right place and, with no small satisfaction I walk all the way to the back of the line, proud that I have been one of the hardest workers. The line is long and there are many people to be paid and I’m at the very back but that’s okay, waiting will give me a chance to take a good look around at this vineyard, I mean I’ve been working all day and all I’ve ever seen is more and more and more vines. How big is this vineyard anyway? Who could own something like this?
My reverie is broken because the people who just got paid, the ones who had only worked an hour or two, they’re hurrying past me and they look excited. More than excited they all look elated, person after person was overjoyed so I grab someone by the arm as they’re going past and ask, “What’s going on? What’s everybody so excited about?” “Well, the owner said he would pay whatever was right but I wasn’t expecting this.” The person is clutching their pay tight in a fist and I can see from what is poking out from their hands that whatever it is it’s a lot, it’s like a full day’s wages for just an hour of work, and off they run through the vineyard clutching their pay to their chest with a look on their face like they had an amazing secret they were just bursting to tell everyone about.
Person after person leaves. The ones who worked two hours, the ones who worked half a day, they are all overjoyed and the line is getting shorter. Well, now I’m starting to get excited, it seems like this vineyard owner is being very generous with his pay. And I’m at the back of the line and I finally get to the owner and I stand up straight and make sure my calluses are showing, as if to say, remember me? I was your first guy. I’ve been here all day.
And the owner hands me my pay and I can see that it’s, that it’s, that it’s exactly the same as everybody else was getting. It’s exactly the same as that first person got who worked like an hour and here I am, the last one and I’m getting paid the same as them? And I lay into the guy, fair is fair right? I bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat and you’re making me equal to them? To those losers no one with any good sense would hire? I’m getting ready to really give him a piece of my mind when he says—“Please, you have to move on. I have to pay the people who were here before you.” Oh no, no no, no. I’ve been here all day. I was here first. This is the end of the line. But the owner just says, “I have to pay everyone. It’s only right.” And I turn around and I can see that the line of those who had been working in the vineyard stretches far back behind me. And right behind me in line I see my grandfather. My grandfather who spent his life in kindness and generosity and healing. He is standing waiting patiently to be paid. He was always so patient, and he’s got that smile on his face as he steps before the owner of the vineyard to be paid. And he is paid just the same as me, even though I know he did so much more, and he walks off beyond the vines giving me that wink like a traffic light. And behind him is standing Medgar Evers who fought for equality for black people wielding weapons of peace and he steps before the owner of the vineyard and is paid just the same as me, and behind him are standing Bill W and Doctor Bob who started Alcoholics Anonymous and who showed countless hopeless people that they did not deserve to die and did not need to die and they step before the owner of the vineyard and they’re paid just the same as me, and behind them is Phillis Wheatley, and behind her John Calvin and behind him Hildegaard of Bingen and the line stretches farther than I can see. Saints beyond counting out into the vineyard that stretches beyond what my imagination can encompass, beyond nation and past the sea, beyond my lifetime behind and before, eons on each side. What is this vineyard, who could make something like this, who have I been working for? And then, only then, only then do I turn and see the face of the owner of the vineyard and it is blazing like the sun except the light pierces my soul instead of my eyes, and I open my hand to look, to see what I have been paid for my work. And what I hold in my hand is not what I was expecting. It’s not what I had earned. It’s not anything I ever imagined. And I clutch it to my chest like a treasure and go running through the vineyard back into the world, with a look on my face like I have an amazing secret I’m just bursting to tell everyone about.