The story is told of a Preacher who was attending a men’s breakfast in Ohio Farm County. He asked one of the older farmers to say grace that morning. After all were seated, the older farmer paused and then began “Lord, I hate buttermilk.” The Preacher opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going. Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the Preacher was getting worried. However without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on, “And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.” Just as the Preacher was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued, “But Lord, when you mix them all together and bake them up, I do love fresh biscuits. So Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are saying to us, help us to relax and wait until You are done mixing, and probably it will be something even better than biscuits. Amen.”
I think for most of us, at first glance we can agree with the preacher and think we don’t like where this is headed. Most of us can say with old farmer that this parable is one we don’t really care for. It is like the individual ingredients of the biscuits that don’t taste very good.
Bill Gates is credited with saying to a group of graduating seniors, “Life isn’t fair; get used to it.” And there is certainly some truth in that statement. What is your response to this parable? It doesn’t matter whether you even affirm that life isn’t fair-get used to it; it doesn’t seem right. You have the fellow who works for one hour and he gets as much as the fellow who has worked over 10 hours. Where is the justice or the fairness in that? How can Jesus be telling us that the kingdom of heaven is like this? Is this what God is really like; is He unfair? Is ‘life isn’t fair; get used to it’ one of the messages that Jesus is trying to teach us in this parable?
As always when we are looking at something particularly difficult to understand it is helpful to see the context. In the gospel reading today, Jesus is explaining something to his disciples by means of this parable. But to understand what it is that he is explaining we need to look at what has just happened. In the previous chapter, several minutes before Jesus tells this parable, a young wealthy fellow came to Jesus and asked him, “What good deed do I have to do in order to inherit or earn eternal life?” Give me one thing to do, one big thing. I’ll get it over with and then I won’t need to worry about religion for the rest of my life. I can live carefree because I will have taken care of what God wants of me. I will have finished my religious obligations.” Jesus answered in so many words, (I am paraphrasing) “It’s not like that, your whole life has to change; your heart has to change; your attitude towards others has to change; your attitude towards God has to change; you need to stop depending on your money—in fact, give all your money away and then come follow me; if you do then you will have an inheritance in heaven, you will inherit eternal life.”
That certainly wasn’t what the man was expecting to hear. This was too hard; it was way too hard—the man didn’t want to do that! He was willing to dedicate a bit of his life to God and religion—but Jesus wants the whole of his life! He did not want to give God all of his life. So he goes away; the Bible tells us he went away sadly. But then Peter, who has been standing there listening, points to himself and the other disciples and says, “Hey, what about us? What will we get? We left everything behind to follow you.”
We are still in the context of earning eternal life-Jesus is still answering that question the wealthy young man asked. He tells Peter and the rest of the disciples—everyone who left houses and family for Jesus’ sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But, then Jesus says, “Many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” Many who are first will be last and the last shall be first? The disciples must have looked very confused. So, to explain this saying, he tells the parable we heard today.
In the parable the wages that offered to the workman are a denarius—a day’s wage—what does the denarius represent in this story? Remember, go back to the wealthy young man—he asked what good deed do I need to do to earn eternal life? The denarius here represents eternal life. The Landowner is God. Working in the vineyard is following Jesus, doing God’s work in your life. Jesus told the young man and then his disciples, it is not a single deed—it is your whole life; it is what you value the most in your life—one has to give one’s whole life earn this wage. Some people begin early in their lives to follow Jesus. These are represented by those workers who the landowner got to work early in the day. Some start at noonday—they are middle aged. Some start following Jesus in the afternoon of their lives and some don’t start until their lives are almost over. The point is they all worked until the end. They may have started at different times, but they worked until the end of the day. So the first point of the parable is that to earn eternal life will cost you the rest of your life. It is like what Paul said in our epistle reading, “For me to life is Christ.” It is not a matter of one big deed. It is a matter of a change of life, turning to God and following Jesus. And now it is easy to see what Jesus meant here about the many who are first shall be last; some of the disciples who were following Jesus from the first, will not be the first into the eternal kingdom—as a matter of fact, the thief on the cross gets there before they do.
But how we inherit eternal life is only part of the point of the parable. Another main point is the attitude toward others when they start if they start later than we do. In this parable the workers who started early in the morning are angry at the landowner for giving the same wages to everyone. These are like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He didn’t want the Father to take back the younger son after he had squandered his inheritance and time on worldly pursuits. Yet the younger brother changed his life and wanted to come back and serve the Father. And the Father accepted him. This was a problem in the early church. Many of the Jewish Christians had a hard time accepting the non-Jews as fellow believers. These non-Jews had not been following God’s laws, or been God’s people and now they were God’s people and they had not done all the stuff they had done. It seemed wrong to them.
So the parable talks of how we inherit eternal life, and our attitudes toward others but there is still another part. That part is the generosity of the landowner. The kingdom of heaven is not founded upon fairness per se but on grace—that is, on God’s generosity. It is not a matter of ‘Life isn’t fair; get used to it.’ The fact is, none of us really want justice you see, none of us can truly earn eternal life; all of us really want, really need grace. We need God’s generosity! Just like the workers who started late received landowner’s generosity in the parable.
So like the biscuit when the parts are put together properly the parable makes sense and is good, in fact it is better than biscuits. But here at the end we still need to apply it. We have two examples from which to choose. There is the young man who decided not to follow Jesus and the disciples who gave up everything to follow him. Where are we? Are we following Jesus, working in the vineyard, working for eternal life or are we still hanging out in the market place, doing our own thing simply hoping things will turn out OK? May God help us to choose to follow Jesus.