A minister in a fundamental Baptist church decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday sermon about the hazards of fleshly pleasures. He placed four worms into four separate jars and set them on the altar rail in front him before he preached. The first worm was put into a container of alcohol. The second worm was put into a container of cigarette smoke. The third worm was put into a container of chocolate syrup. The fourth worm was put into a container of good clean soil. At the conclusion of the sermon, he picked up each jar and reported the following results: The first worm in alcohol . . . . . . Dead . The second worm in cigarette smoke . . . Dead . Third worm in chocolate syrup . . . . Dead. Fourth worm in good clean soil . . . Alive “So,” said the Minister to the congregation, “What can we learn from this demonstration?” After a some silence an elderly woman in the back raised her hand and said, “I know, I know, if you drink, smoke or eat chocolate, you won’t have worms!” That was not the point that the minister had in mind, was it? In the same way, the gospel lesson today is often misunderstood.
Bill Gates is credited with saying to a group of graduating seniors, “Life isn’t fair; get used to it.” And while there is certainly some truth in that statement is this the intent and point of this parable we heard Jesus say? At face value it seems that it is doesn’t it? What happens here just 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?
As I have said any number of times in the Bible the important principle for understanding is context, context, 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. Our Scripture reading did not give us that context. 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 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 and I am paraphrasing, “It’s not like that; you cannot do just one deed and be done; 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 have 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 doesn’t 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 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 were 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? How can I 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 tells the young man and then his disciples, it is not a single deed—it is your whole 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 people start later, that is, they are older. 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 not a matter of one big deed. It is not a matter of spending an hour or two in the vineyard and then leaving; going back to your life as it was. 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 and so does Stephen the first Christian martyr.
But how we inherit eternal life is only part of the point of the parable. Another point is when do we start, when can we start? 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 reacting rather like Jonah did when the people of Nineveh repented aren’t they? Jonah wants all those people punished for their evil ways but God was willing to accept them after they repented. This is the same message Jesus is teaching. One needs to have faith in him, to change our lives and follow him. We follow him because he is the way to life. This parable brings out that you can start now. The point is that it doesn’t really matter what you have been doing all your life or how much time you have wasted. It doesn’t matter if you have been a person selfishly just looking out for number one; or if you have just tried to get along not being particularly good or bad. It doesn’t matter if you have been dishonest in business or on your tax returns, if you have been an adulterer or even a murderer, that doesn’t matter. The message of the parable is not what you have done with your life so far. What matters is what will you do now? We don’t know how much time we have left in our lives. It may be that we are in the last part of our day, but that’s OK because we can still follow Jesus now and receive eternal life.
But how we inherit eternal life, and when we start to follow Jesus still doesn’t tell the whole story of this parable does it? Perhaps the most important point is the generosity of the landowner. The gift of eternal life is not founded upon fairness; it is not founded upon being earned. It is founded on God’s generosity; it is founded on his love for us.
This parable taken out of context is easy to misunderstand. But do understand this, it is not a picture of ‘Life isn’t fair; get used to it’ at all. It is a picture of God’s generosity; a picture of God’s great and mighty love for humanity; it is a picture of his love for us. Amen