A couple of Sundays have passed since Ginger preached on the parable about the workers who get hired at various times during the day and then all get paid the same at quitting time (Matthew 20:1-16). It’s a bothersome parable on its own terms, made even more difficult when heard in American congregations filled with those who have been trained to raise up our so-called “self-made” heroes. The bullet points in the World Geography textbook from which I am asked to teach spell it out (without irony):
• The political system of the United States has been vital to the economic success of the country.
• The government established in 1789 reflected a shared belief in individual equality, opportunity, and freedom.
• These ideals supported an economic system based on capitalism, or free enterprise.
• One of the notions behind free enterprise is the belief that any hardworking individual can find opportunity and success in the United States.
The issue in the story, however, is not a question of effort or work ethic, but of opportunity. “Why do you stand here idle all day?” the master asked. “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. Had he been willing to take them all on the first trip, they all would have been willing to go.
But that’s not my point.
Some time during the week prior to her sermon, Ginger asked me what I thought about the parable. My initial response was to say our attitude about the story depends on where we find ourselves in it. If we think we are the ones who were hired first and worked longest, then the story feels unfair. If we see ourselves as those fortunate to get hired at all, grace abounds. The Saturday after her sermon, I sat in the hall of our Durham Performing Arts Center to hear one of my songwriting heroes, Steve Earle. In recent years, he has become an articulate spokesperson for progressive causes, an ant- death penalty advocate, and a disseminator of grace. His road to the present state has taken him through several failed marriages, a heroin addiction, and a stint in federal prison. As I listened to him speak and sing, I thought, “This is a guy who knows what it feels like to get found late in the day.”
A week after his concert, my Saturday was filled with our church’s involvement in the North Carolina Pride Festival and Parade. For almost thirty years, Durham has hosted our state’s gay and lesbian pride festival on Duke’s East Campus. For the last four years, my involvement has been on two fronts: leading the music for the inter-denominational Communion service and carrying the banner for our church in the parade. A couple of years ago, we decided we would have a short hymn sing before Communion, which takes place in an outdoor gazebo in the middle of food booths and other vendors. That first year, I chose songs I knew and loved. As we started singing “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” people began to gather and sing along. Some of them began to weep. I had, unwittingly, tapped into something deep. These were the songs of their childhood, of their faith before they came out and were told they no longer belonged. As we sang, they were able to reclaim what had been taken away from them in some sense. What once was lost became found.
Not all of them are old songs. One I particularly is listed as “For the Fruit of All Creation” in our hymnal. The final verse, which is my favorite of most any hymn says:
for the harvests of the Spirit
thanks be to God
for the good we all inherit
thanks be to God
for the wonders that astound us
for the truth that still confounds us
most of all that love has found us
thanks be to God
The parade route was heavily lined with well-wishers this year (and a few protestors), thanks to the North Carolina legislature’s decision to put a constitutional amendment to ban equal marriage or any kind of same-gender civil union on the primary ballot next May. As we walked and waved, people waved back and, when they saw we were a church group, said, “Thank you.” That scene played over and over. Somewhere along the route I, the straight white guy, heard the parable with new ears.
Yes, I was on to something when I said how we heard the story depended on where we saw ourselves in it. But I had missed one perspective. From the time I was first introduced to parables, the default setting, when it came to reading, was to assume the king or master or father in the story was God. What if that were not necessarily so? What if, instead of seeing ourselves as workers, we were the one hiring? What if we bring about the realm of God by going back to make sure everyone goes to work in the vineyard?
If God’s realm is one where parents forgive before their long-lost sons even ask forgiveness, where shepherds leave the whole flock to search out the lone lost sheep, where someone will spend the whole grocery budget to celebrate finding one coin in the couch cushions – and it is, then as the Body of Christ we are those called to keep going back, to keep hiring anyone who will work, to make sure everyone has enough, and to remind everyone that there is more enough love and grace to go around – especially those who were taught they did not belong. Isaiah proclaimed:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
In this story called life, we are cast as those called to incarnate the love of Christ to the whole wide world.
How can we afford to do otherwise?
This is a beautiful reading of the parable, one that had never occurred to me before. Thank you!
You are such a storyteller, teacher, and a comfort. Thank you.