A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs, Assistant Priest.
Jesus must have known that you don’t argue with grapes. When they’re ready, they’re ready. Now. The sugar is right, the tannins are right. Laborers need to be available at a moment’s notice to bring in the harvest quickly –often as early as 3:00 a.m. to get started while it’s still reasonably cool. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard depicts a landowner who knew the pressure of time and the race against nature to make good wine. But this landowner is a little unusual. That’s because this is a parable.
“The Kingdom of God is like…” When you hear those six words it’s time to fasten your seatbelts.
As you probably know, most of Jesus’ parables drew upon themes that were common to his audience—things they identified with, like family relationships, herding sheep, farming. But there was always a twist—otherwise it wasn’t a parable. He wouldn’t say “The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who has sheep, now everyone go home.“ and leave it at that. The parable by definition challenges the status quo, not confirms it. Parables challenge the audience’s expectation of what they already know about sheep herding, or fishing. Or vineyards. Or economics. Or fairness. Or community.
The beauty and the curse of parables is that they can be interpreted in so many ways. One of the early takes on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard posits the laborers as different communities of the people of God: Those who came earliest to work were a metaphor for the Jews, and those who came later were the Gentiles. The conflict, then, was over who had greater rights to the Kingdom of God, and the challenge lay in understanding that the Gentiles’ claim was equal to the that of the Jews.
Another interpretation is economic; the parable proposes that the Landowner/God employs an economic model that turns current models –of payment proportional to work–on their ear. In other words, God’s economy is not the same as ours: God is generous, which is not necessarily the same as fair. And we are left to wrestle with how to live into that idea.
I have no argument with either of these interpretations. Each is a product of its historical/political/cultural context, and context is crucial to how we interrogate and are challenged by what we read.
The context in which we read the parable of the laborers today is the context of this particular day in history, in this church, in this service. Today we find the Gospel neatly in conversation with the passage from Exodus about the Israelites’ whining and God’s response of manna in the wilderness. This story isn’t just about food. It’s about the people’s relationship with God–about the enoughness of God. It’s about God’s call to look beyond the tyranny of fear of scarcity toward the promised land of a liberating trust in God’s abiding love. God says, “I am enough. YOU are enough—you are my children.”
Now when we look at the parable of the laborers, we see that they, like the Israelites, have a complaint, and it is summed up in three words: “It’s not fair!” It’s not fair that THEY get more than we do! WE worked harder! They aren’t equal to us! Notice the exact phrasing: “You have made them equal to us…” Not, “you have paid them equally”, but “you have MADE them equal…” Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference, but perhaps it points us to an interpretation that isn’t purely economic. What if the challenge of this parable, like the story of the manna, isn’t just an issue osubsistence? ? Perhaps Jesus has taken the concept of enoughness and expanded it? The people of Israel were reassured of God’s provision to them, and that was enough for the people at that point in their journey and history. But then Jesus seeks to take that concept and tweak it—to take it to a new level. In his parable he’s not just calling his hearers to think about themselves in relationship to God, but also around themselves, into their relationship with others.
The key to this lies in the final words of the passage: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“The Kingdom of heaven is like…”
When I was a kid I used to love to ponder the old question, “Who came first, the chicken or the egg?” I loved watching in my head as the paradox went around and around…, in a loop of causation that never ended, the images ever-filling and ever-emptying, one always dependent on the other.
“The last will be first and the first will be last.”
I used to think about these words just like the chicken and the egg. If the first is last and the last is first, then when the first becomes last then it has to be first again, and the first has to be last…” And around and around it goes. It was great fun for a distractible kid.
What is the Kingdom of Heaven like?
The Kingdom of Heaven is like…a landowner who provides enough—a daily wage—for his laborers, and challenges them to see one another in a less competitive and more mutually dependent relationship. A relationship where envy and fear of scarcity give way to trust.
“You have made them equal to us…” Well yes. That’s the point, and the challenge of the parable. All children of God, and all with gifts to offer one another in the work that needs to be done in the world.
The laborers know better than to argue with the grapes. But they also have to learn that they need each other to get the whole crop in by nightfall. Some are better at cutting the grapes from the vine, while others have stronger backs to carry heavy baskets. The ones with fresh hands and feet can relieve those with blisters and aches. It takes all of them to complete the harvest. – together.
So to see this parable as a simple economic inversion is to rob it of some of its richness. It’s not just about payment for work. Yes, God is gracious and generous in ways that only God knows. But the generosity of God extends beyond substance and subsistence into relationship. We need to see, not simply a single static instance of inversion, but the dynamic movement of interdependence—of mutual strength and vulnerability that complement and nurture each other.
That’s what the Kingdom is like.
Our default position is to scoff at this as idealistic, unrealistic and naïve. One look at the headlines will suggest that the Kingdom that Jesus invites us into is a pipe dream. You would be forgiven for skepticism. Believe me, there are days when the idealist in me is sorely, sorely challenged.
But it’s really important not to let that negative mindset take control. We have to fight sometimes to see the Kingdom breaking through, but this parable tells us what to look for. And when you seek, you find.
I found Gould Farm is in western Massachusetts. When I visited the farm and began to learn more about it, that is when this parable came into new focus.
Gould Farm is not a new thing: One hundred years ago Will and Agnes Gould established a community of healing in the Berkshires; a place where people with emotional and psychiatric vulnerabilities could come and find healing in a setting that focused on work, therapy, kindness and community. The patients, called guests, do much of the work of the farm and its companion bakery and restaurant, guided by supervisors who depend on them in order to provide a livelihood for the community. Clinical staff work with the guests, and live on the farm as part of that community. Everyone cooperates in a nurturing cycle in which each person depends upon others and is likewise depended upon by others.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first, shall be last…shall be first…
And you know what the motto of Gould Farm is?
“We harvest hope.” Not grapes– Better. Healing and wholeness.
In his e-news epistle this week Father Mark wrote that the challenges of our time call for more than individual action; they require efforts of collective imagination—new visions of community. Gould Farm is one such community. It’s not a parable pipe dream—it’s a harvest of hope, and God knows it’s not the only one out there.
As a matter of fact, we can see it here this morning when we learn more about the work of Youth in Action, whose leader and members are here today with a new exhibit and information about an initiative that seeks to bring the community together around issues crucial to the well-being of our society and common life. I’m delighted to see this opportunity for new relationship, and I pray that it will be fruitful for the young people of our community, and for all of us.
The harvest is ready. Don’t argue with the Hope.