Tag Archives: laborers in the vineyard

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Santmire)

In Praise of Generosity Paul Santmire reflects on a kairos moment for Americans.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

In the liberal state of Massachusetts, a woman phoned into a radio talk show to ask that state’s governor a question: “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?” She was referring to the governor’s announced intention to provide a temporary, but safe place for some of the thousands of children who had been crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, in order to escape the constant violence of countries like Honduras.

Hers was a representative voice. Many Americans, some card-carrying Christians among them, are likewise distressed by the flood of immigrants crossing into the U.S. from the south.  Thankfully, church leaders of all stripes are standing up to speak in behalf of those children.  Whose voices will carry the day?

This may be a kairos moment for Americans in general and for American Christians in particular.  Kairos is one of the two Greek words for “time.” Kairos means “the right time” or an “urgent time”:  the time for the harvest, for example, or the time for the birth of a baby. In the 1980’s an ecumenical group of Christians in South Africa produced what they called “the Kairos Document,” a biblically based statement calling for the end of apartheid and all its violence. Thanks, in part, to their leadership, the South African people rose to the occasion, with a pervasive and passionate commitment to non-violent resistance. It was the beginning of the ending of the apartheid system.

The exodus of the children from Mexico into the U.S. may well be a kairos moment for our country, likewise, particularly for those who are committed to follow Jesus. All over the earth today, refugees are flooding into neighboring areas, desperately. Think not only of the U.S.-Mexico border, but of places like Syria and Gaza. But those are just today’s headlines.

Forces are also at work around the globe, driven by climate change, that will before too long produce countless millions of “environmental immigrants,” as well, people like those mostly poor families who live in Bangladesh, who will be driven from their ancestral lands by rising ocean waters.

Ours is indeed a kairos moment, not only politically, as in the case of the children’s exodus, but also ecologically, as in the case of threats to the very lives of millions of the poor of the earth in places like Bangladesh. How will Americans, particularly American Christians, respond to this kairos?

We could pout and then go sit in our gated communities or wherever, making sure not to listen to the daily news too much. We could complain the way that caller did to the Governor of Massachusetts. Call that the Jonah strategy. Jonah pouted when God didn’t destroy Nineveh, the way Jonah wanted God to do (Jon 4:1-5). So some Americans pout: Why should we have to pay attention to, not to speak of paying to help, all those political and environmental refugees?

But that’s not the way the God whom we know from the pages of the Bible wants things to be. God cares for all the children of this earth, including those living in alien places like Nineveh. God even cares about the animals of Nineveh! (Jon 4:11). Are we going to pout about the Ninevehs of this world? Maybe even buy a gun or two in order to feel more secure?

St. Paul was faced with this kind of choice. And he was ambivalent about it (Phil 1:22-24). Frankly, he said, he’d rather depart this stressful life and be with Jesus in the kingdom to come, where he could be at home, once and for all, and not have to face up to all the stresses and strains of his ministry:  prison, persecution, ship-wrecks, church members fighting with one another. But, notwithstanding the ambivalence, Paul knew who he was, one who had been called to take up his cross and follow Jesus. (Phil 1:21)

What does “dying with Christ” mean for those of us American Christians who live relatively comfortable, relatively secure and well fed, well cared-for lives? What is our kairos moment saying to us? How will we take to heart the plight of millions of political and environmental refugees today and in the years to come? What sacrifices are we prepared to make? How are we to take up our crosses, in this respect?

Are we ready to sacrifice time and resources so we can rally around our church leaders who are calling our whole society to love and care for the refugees at our borders, particularly the children among them? Are we ready to sacrifice our sometimes anxious sense of security, by welcoming refugees into our own communities and congregations? Are we ready to risk disapproval from our neighbors, by vociferously raising the issues posed by climate change or by passionately speaking out in behalf of those animals suffering the tortures of industrial farming?

But to do that, to be ready even to think about sacrificing ourselves, taking up our crosses, we’ve probably got to deal first with an inner agenda. And that may be the most difficult thing of all.

Many of us have borne the heat and burden of the day. We’ve been working long and hard, like our parents and maybe our grandparents before us (That our grandparents were poor immigrants from Germany or Sweden or Ireland is another matter; Worth thinking about, though). Why should we share our land and our resources and our economy and the fruits of our labors with all these latecomers flooding across our borders? Why should we have to change our way of life so that poor Bangladeshi children won’t be driven from their homes into even deeper poverty and social insecurity by rising waters?

Jesus has another take on these matters.  Those laborers who came to work in the vineyard at the end of the day were paid the same wages as those who had born the heat and burden of the day! (Mt 29:9)  That’s why those who worked all day of course grumbled, (Mt 20:10-11) like the woman talking to the Governor of Massachusetts. But Jesus has a simple answer to such inner discontent on the part of those who’ve worked so hard. God is a generous God! God cares for everybody! So we all are free to do the same!

Are we ready to make that inner change, to take the generosity of God to heart and to go and do likewise?  And to sing along the way, praising the generosity of God?  Singing with the Psalmist:  “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:8f). Isn’t the time—the Kairos—at hand now, for all of us to sing this song, praising the generosity of God, both in word and in deed?

For more information about “the crisis at the border” and advocacy opportunities in behalf of refugees, see the website of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service:  http://lirs.org/bordercrisis/

Originally written by Paul Satmire in 2014.

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Ormseth)

Acceptance in an Economy of Grace Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost invite our participation in God’s gracious care for all creation. In the words of the Psalmist, we “celebrate the fame of [God’s] abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of [God’s] righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:7-8). An additional verse makes it clear that this love is all-inclusive: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). So we hear that out of concern for the “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals,” God relents of a threat to punish all Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). And we are encouraged by the Apostle Paul to engage in the “fruitful labor” of a life lived “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” the one whom we know as the Lord, the Servant of all creation. And the Gospel provides more specific encouragement for engaging in this care.

Interpretations of the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard” typically emphasize the landowner’s generosity and “the free gift of grace associated with the kingdom’s coming.” The problem with this reading, suggests Bernard Brandon Scott, is that the supposed target of this teaching, the Pharisees, “would not have seen themselves as rejecting God’s generosity to sinners,” nor is it suggested anywhere that “those who have worked in the vineyard all day have not earned their wages,” which on close analysis turn out to be not generous, but only what an average a peasant could expect to earn (”the usual daily wage,” NRSV) (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 282-83).

What about these workers living on the margins?

The point of the parable lies elsewhere, Scott urges. Matthew reads the parable “as an example of the theme that the first shall be last and of the moral contrast between good and evil” (Ibid., p. 287). He leads his readers into the parable, we note, with a sketch of the end of time (“at the renewal of all things” . . . “and when everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life”) and a portrayal of the great reversal it brings about (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”). The parable also speaks of those who have left home. As Warren Carter notes in his illuminating commentary, day laborers like those invited by the landowner to work in the vineyard,

“. . . were a common sight in the agora, or marketplace (20:3) as they waited to be hired for work. They were a readily available pool of cheap labor for wealthier landowners and urban dwellers. Commonly uprooted from peasant farms taken over by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household, they looked for agricultural or urban work, usually day by day and at minimal rates. During planting and harvest, work was readily available, ‘for vintage and haying’ (Varro, On agric 1.17.2), but in between times it often was not. For these ‘expendables’ or involuntary marginals . . . life was unpredictable, marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them” (Matthew and the Margins, p.397).

We have seen their modern-day counterparts crowding the entrances to Home Depot parking lots. They are persons for whom the passage of the time of day could easily descend into hunger and a state of despair. Those not hired will end the day without resources to restore themselves for another day of anxious waiting to be hired; they will know themselves as persons without place or means to live. The question that has to be answered in the hearing of this parable is: “What is right?”—because those who are jobless at the day’s end have the same needs as those who are hired early in the morning. And what possibly could the hope for the renewal of all things mean for them?

Determining what is “right” is not so easy.

The narrative of the parable is structured according to the passage of time: from morning, to noon, then through the afternoon and into the evening. The landowner has promised that he will pay each of them “‘whatever is right.” And as each new cohort arrives to work in the vineyard, the question “what is right?” has to resonate more stridently with those who came earlier—and, of course, with the parable’s audience. The surprise at the end of the day is that all are paid the same, what those hired first agreed to, namely, a day’s living wage. Just so, those who came first want to know, what is right about equal pay for very unequal work? And hearers who identify “with the complaint of the first-hired,” opt “for a world in which justice is defined by a hierarchical relation between individuals (i.e., for a world in which the accounting should set matters aright.). To treat all the same is not just, because all are not alike, all have not earned the same.”

The issue is not justice but acceptance

But we have seen earlier what can happen when an accounting is expected to set matters aright. For example, in the parable of the king’s accounting we read last Sunday, an expectation of different treatment on the part of the servant elicited a demand from his fellow servants for an equally harsh punishment! It appears that it is indeed more difficult to say “what is right” than one at first thinks. But is it really a fair resolution that the landowner claims for himself: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Again the ground has shifted under the feet of the audience: there will be no resolution to the question “what is right.” As Scott explains, “The lack in the parable of any absolute standard of justice undermines any human standard for the kingdom.” What then is the standard? For the parable, value or worth (i.e., a place in the kingdom), Scott argues, is determined not by what is right but by acceptance. The householder’s urgent though unexplained need for laborers is the parable’s metaphor for grace. It is not wages or hierarchy that counts but the call to go into the vineyard. The householder’s generosity lies not in the wage but in the need (Scott, p. 297). And because nothing is said about it being either planting or harvest time, the need is not so much the landowner’s own need, but rather that of the laborers themselves. Those who hear the parable as a story of injustice (“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”) are sent away from the vineyard; they do not belong here with “the last.”

The vineyard is God’s vineyard—the world!

How then is this parable concerned with care of creation? Early, midday, afternoon, evening, the landowner persists through the cycle of the day. The workers are called, Scott notes, to service at “not simply any farm work but labor in a vineyard,” which has the strong metaphorical potential of the Song of the Vineyard (Is 5:1-7) and Jeremiah 12:10, the vineyard which “many shepherds have destroyed.” It is a richly significant place. And who is the householder? In Matthew’s casting, it is Jesus (Scott, p. 287). In our reading, it is Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And he calls these persons at the margins to participate in the “alternative economy of unlimited grace” which we envisioned in our comment on last Sunday’s readings, in which the gift of creation always creates the value to be enjoyed by those who participate in it. Here, too, is that “alternative economy” in which an “alternative egalitarian lifestyle” with its equal opportunity for meaningful work is regarded as the “right” thing, the good, Godlike thing, to do (Carter, p. 398). The workers were without place to work; but by the end of the day each of them has been restored to work in the creation and invited to enter into the joy of that “good thing.”

Can we offer work that is meaningful for people and that restores creation?

Among the strategies for developing a “culture of creation” (identified by Norman Wirzba in his Paradise of God) is the renewal of the meaning of work in relationship to the creation. Work that is severed from the rhythms of creation in places that are not familiar to us has an anonymous character, he suggests,

“that makes it impossible for workers to see practically how what they are doing might benefit or harm others, and vice versa. What we do, our productivity, serves a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to us, and so the affection and care that are the hallmarks of quality work, as well as the inspiration for a fulfilling and enjoyable work experience, are untapped. In a global economy, for the most part, we do not see the effects of what we do because they take place, oftentimes, thousands of miles away. Compensation serves as the substitute for the felt kindness and experienced blessing that otherwise would come from the close, affirming interaction among friends. . . More fundamental to work than its compensatory or its obligatory aspects is its ability to express gratitude and respect for innumerable benefits received. . . .Put positively, authentic or proper work and leisure reflect an attitude of attention to the orders and the needs of creation and a disposition to care for and preserve the rhythms and flow of life” (Wirzba, pp. 153-54).

The workers hired at the beginning of the day protested the seeming injustice of the landowner; they obviously thought mainly of their value in terms of the compensation they should earn, it seems. Those called later had the opportunity to learn about mercy, respect and gratitude from one who wanted to be not just an employer, but also one who would be a friend.

Can we root our work in the grace of creation?

Can members of a congregation learn to think differently about their work, and perhaps even to experience it differently? Possibly, if they can see themselves as people who have at least in spirit “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields,” for Jesus’ name’s sake. As Wirzba suggests, drawing on the mystical insight of Meister Eckhart, in “returning to our ‘ground ‘. . . we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head. It is to join with God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen 2:8-9).  It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality.” For those who came last to the vineyard, all this opens up as possibility for them—for them, and for those who hear, whenever the invitation of Jesus to work in God’s vineyard is presented.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com