Proper 20, Year A
September 24, 2017
There is an old saying that you can never step into the same river twice. I think the parables of Jesus are a lot like that. At least, perhaps, they should be. These are stories that are meant to disarm, and disorganize us. They are meant to create discomfort as we hear the lessons embedded within them. The challenge arises when we hear stories, like the parables, over and over and over. It can be easy to think we are stepping into the same river once again and not realize the different ways we can hear these same stories.
For those of us who, perhaps, grew up around the church this parable of the laborers in the vineyard is one we may have heard many, many times. The vineyard keeper goes out, hires workers five different times and at the end of the day pays them all the same wage. And it is perhaps easy to envision ourselves either into the shoes of the first laborer, the one who at the end is looking for more because, c’mon he worked longer! Or perhaps envisioning ourselves into the last, who has been gifted and blessed by the generosity of the landowner. For me, it was always easy to envision myself into one of those two roles. It was safe, easy. Until I encountered the parable this week.
As I listened to it again and thought about it, I began to sense I was being invited to live into a different character in the story—the landowner, and his radical generosity.
You see, the landowner is a bit of a strange character. He starts out pretty normal. He’s got a grape vineyard he needs to have harvested. So what do you do need to have something harvested? Well, you hire people to harvest it. So he did what any other first century landowner would do. He headed down to the local marketplace and hired some workers early in the morning. These day workers would gather there waiting for their opportunity. It was a very normal thing to do. But then things start getting a little less normal.
Nine o’clock comes and our landowner heads out again and hires more workers, negotiating with them to pay them what is right. So, perhaps we could dismiss this slightly odd behavior. Perhaps he just didn’t realize how many grapes his vineyard had produced this year. Maybe he needed a few more people? But then he goes out again at noon, and again at three, and then again at five o’clock, only one hour before the workday is supposed to end. Why on earth would he keep going out?
I think the answer to that is revealed at least in part in what comes next in the story—the payment of our workers. For, if you remember, our landowner had agreed to pay what was right. Notice the difference here between what is right and what is fair. I think the expectation of pretty much everyone working in the fields that day was that they would be paid fairly. So those who worked an eight or nine-hour day would be paid more than those who worked a one-hour day. But that’s not what happens.
Instead the landowner enacts a moment of radical generosity when he pays each person what is right. What is going to allow them to feed their family, to shelter their family, and to see to their needs. He ensures that each worker has what is right. But this story of radical generosity is not just one of financial generosity, it is one of time as well.
Because, you see, surely this landowner was a busy person. He has a fairly large vineyard to care for. He probably had a lot of balls in the air, a lot going on, a lot he needed to tend to. Yet what does he do? He steps out into the marketplace again, and again, and again. Giving of his time, that he might those who need his assistance.
Time is a valuable resource and for our landowner it is an opportunity for radical generosity. Because, you see, generosity is not just something that comes out of our checking account. Generosity is something that comes from our whole selves, our full being. When we live out lives of radical generosity we give of our whole selves that all might be made right.
Now the point of a parable is, of course to pose a question and to leave us wondering. So I wonder, where is God calling each of us to live lives of radical generosity? I wonder what radical generosity would look like for you today? I wonder what radical generosity would look like for all of us?