The story is told of a politician, a poet, and a farmer who discovered a bottle with a genie inside. One of them rubbed the bottle and freed the genie, who generously offered to grant one wish to each of the three.
The politician went first, and wished that he would be granted a peerage and daily access to the king’s throne room where he could work his agenda’s to his own benefit. His wish was immediately granted.
The poet came next, and wished that all the beautiful women in the world would suddenly fall at his feet in adoration. His wish was immediately granted.
The farmer came last. Of the three, he was poorest. Of the three, his needs were the greatest. The genie invited him to take his time and to think of the one thing that would give him the greatest pleasure in life.
At that, his face lit up and he said,
“That’s easy. I wish that my neighbor’s potato crop might fail.”
It’s the old temptation of measuring our success by another’s’ failure.
At dawn and throughout the day, the owner of a vineyard hires workers. They reach an agreement about wages; and the workers go out into the vineyard to do the work. About five o’clock, merely one hour before the end of the workday, the owner hires the last workers. To the surprise of all, he gives the last ones hired a full-day’s wage. Those hired first think they will receive more, and grumble when they are paid the agreed-upon wage.
They grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ The owner of the vineyard finally responds: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus is telling us about God’s generosity, and the chord that God’s generosity sometimes strikes in the heart of human beings. In the story Jesus illustrates how things are rolled out in the Kingdom. The generosity and sovereignty of the owner is laid bare for all to see, and therefore unmasks the selfishness that lives within the human heart. It is a story meant to awaken us to the competing reality that the Kingdom presents in the face of our measurement of the world.
I would say this is one of those parts of the Bible that might keep me up at night. As Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that keep me up at night.”
“‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”
I might go so far to say that the power of this story lay in this small detail; Jesus is not just offering a conjecture about the nature of the Kingdom of God. This directive of openly paying the last, first, closes the fire escapes of misunderstanding just how serious Jesus is in making his point. There can be no mistaking the trajectory that Jesus is introducing. This story reverse engineers human expectations.
The landowner could have alleviated so much drama among the laborers had he simply kept his generosity a secret; had he not created a situation that would lay bare the envy, jealousy, and misplaced entitlement lurking within this situation.
This story is representative of the one telling it – the life that Jesus lives among us lays bare those things that actually motivate our lives. In the presence of his light, in the presence of his example and how Jesus lived, we cannot help but find the corners of darkness that live within us. Beside Jesus, we are all unmasked.
God’s kingdom is about a generosity on a scale and of a kind that frustrates the assumptions with which we order our worlds. Often what we call generosity is actually about something we perceive that we have earned or that we deserve.
“Fair is fair.” “Me, My, and Mine.” “I should get what I deserve.”
Generosity in the Kingdom is something that is unhinged, unhooked, from the moral calculus so often attached to the efforts that we make in life.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
How would any of us answer that question – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
Jesus is telling a story about his Father in heaven by telling a story about a landowner that would be familiar to his followers. It is a story about God; and secondarily it is a story about how some of us, some of the time, react to the reality that God’s ways often are not our ways. And there is a warning.
If we remain steadfast in imagining that Kingdom values are reflections of our values – our rights our due, our just desserts, there is a good chance that we will find ourselves sour and bitter at some point on the journey; perhaps at the end.
It’s interesting, I don’t know about you, but more often than not when I read this story I inevitably think of myself as one of the aggrieved all-day laborers, automatically assuming that I have been wronged; looking over my shoulder at these late-comers. But what if one of the kernels of Good News in this parable is that Jesus knows that some will hear it and know that they are the ones who have come late to the vineyard?
What if we could read the story and see that we are indeed one of the latecomers – what good news. There is always still time. The landowner is generous beyond our simple imaginations of what is fair. How differently the story goes if we can remember a time when we hoped beyond hope for something, found ourselves lost and overlooked and forgotten, and then looked up to find that someone had remembered us. How differently the story reads if each one of us had spent the day waiting, and then been “found” at the last minute; and found in such a way that nothing really was ever lost.
What does it say about human nature that most of us probably, automatically, hear this story in such a way as to naturally sympathize with the aggrieved parties?
That is why we should give thanks that the story isn’t about us, whether we showed up late or early, worked a lot or worked a little. The larger trajectory of the story is about God, and counter-intuitive forces at work in the Kingdom that God brings, and how that trajectory has been at work throughout scripture.
There is always the human tendency to impose our way of thinking upon God; that desire, that assumption, that His ways are indeed our ways. Warnings against this form of idolatry, making a god in our image and likeness, is apparent through the entire biblical narrative. Isaiah speaks the warning most clearly, and we recite that warning at Morning Prayer in Canticle number 10 – Quaerite Dominum
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Jesus in his parable is certainly not abrogating the valid and necessary principles of justice. Rather he is giving us an opportunity to grasp that God’s nature is to be extravagantly generous, beyond the rational rules of exchange.
How do you find parables to suggest the possibility of love to someone who has never experienced a relationship beyond that of a business contract?
Jesus is reaching for parables and metaphors to explain something that is fundamentally counter-intuitive to how we live most of our lives.
Jesus himself is the best parable of the extravagantly generous God. He makes far too much wine at the Cana wedding; far too much bread for the hungry crowd; he tells a story about forgiving a debt far too large ever to be paid; and he tells us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven.
And as the ultimate revelation of extravagant affection, he willingly gives up his life for us on a cross. Paul refers to “Christ crucified” as foolishness to human wisdom (1 Cor 1:22-25). Where the world might reach for power to conquer minds and hearts – God reaches for love, God introduces generosity.
The good news of the gospel is that we share the extravagantly generous Spirit of Jesus. The most basic good news of the Christ is that God loves us beyond the categories of we consider generous.
St. Anselm – God is that than which nothing greater might be thought.
The real adventure of living begins when we too can act with extravagant generosity, beyond the rational rules of justice. God’s kingdom is meant to be a new order of grace. Isn’t there always something unexpected and wonderful about a gift of love, even a kind word, giving another the benefit of the doubt in our heart of hearts?
It is wages that are earned ; but God’s grace is far different than a wage. God’s grace is a gift, and a gift can only be received. What a tremendous invitation. What a tremendous invitation to be released from that sometimes determined, focused, and calculating energy that we spend on making sure that the world, that others, are measuring up to our expectations. That we are getting what we deem is our due.
How heavy that yardstick must be – how heavy – the yardstick that we carry and hold over others to determine just how worthy they are of our expectations; all the while we are standing beneath another means of measurement. The measure drawn in heaven. The measure taken by Christ, the only one worthy of determining the scales in which we all will eventually stand. There is a gift of freedom for each of us in the life, and in the mouth, of the one who may say,
“The last will be first and the first will be last.”
Here is another story about grace told by writer and pastor Denise Banderman.
In the spring of 2002, I left work early so I could have some uninterrupted study time before my final exam in a Ministry class at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri. When I got to class, everybody was doing their last-minute studying. The teacher came in and said he would review with us before the test. Most of his review came right from the study guide, but there were some things he was reviewing that I had never heard. When questioned about it, he said they were in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. We couldn’t argue with that.
Finally it was time to take the test. “Leave them face down on the desk until everyone has one, and I’ll tell you to start,” our professor, Dr. Tom Hufty, instructed.
When we turned them over, to my astonishment every answer on the test was filled in. My name was even written on the exam in red ink. The bottom of the last page said: “This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced grace.”
Dr. Hufty then went around the room and asked each student individually, “What is your grade? Do you deserve the grade you are receiving? How much did all your studying for this exam help you achieve your final grade?”
Then he said, “Some things you learn from lectures, some things you learn from research, but some things you can only learn from experience. You’ve just experienced grace. One hundred years from now, if you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, your name will be written down in a book, and you will have had nothing to do with writing it there. Someone wrote it, someone paid for it, other than you. That will be the ultimate grace experience.”