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25 OT A ~ "Into the Vineyard" ~ Susan McGurgan


Early in the morning,

the owner of a vineyard

entered the marketplace

to hire some workers for the day.

This is a task that normally falls

to a steward or overseer

but today,

for some reason,

the landowner came in person.


Maybe he was unhappy

with the workers the steward hired yesterday.

Maybe he wanted to see them

face to face

before bringing workers onto his land.

Maybe he heard that any time,

any day,

any season,

the marketplace was filled

with desperate men and destitute women

searching for work

and he wanted to see this hard reality

for himself.


In the ancient world,

day laborers occupied a

hardscrabble,

dangerous,

desolate space.

Although technically free

they were more impoverished than slaves.

During planting and harvesting times,

they might piece together enough work

for a subsistence diet,

but in the off-season

they usually had to beg

or starve—

and no one much cared

which option they chose.


They had no protection,

no security,

no real hope of anything better.

Hunger

was their constant companion

and uncertainty

their only sure bet.


These were people thrown off the land

because of debt or unpaid taxes.

Or, perhaps they were maimed,

weakened by chronic illness,

haunted by past crimes,

tainted by whispered accusations.


They were women

without husbands or sons.

Sons

without fathers.

Men

without hope.

They were the ones

who fell through the cracks of society,

landing hard

on the lowest rung of the ladder.


They were the expendables,

useful only to stewards and landowners

searching for cheap, temporary labor.


As the owner approached,

they jostled for position and stood a little taller,

trying to look alert,

strong,

healthy—

hoping his choice would land on them

so they could buy bread for the evening.


The lucky ones,

the chosen ones,

trotted after him,

relief giving spring to their steps.


And the ones left behind

sagged in despair

as they resigned themselves

to another day of hunger and invisibility.


But then a miracle!


The landowner returned,

selected a few more workers,

and told them,

“You too go into my vineyard,

and I will give you what is just.”


And time after time,

throughout that strange day,

the landowner returned,

each time choosing a few more

to go into his vineyard.

Finally, at 5 in the afternoon,

just before the workday ended,

he returned once more.


Now,

anyone who has navigated the complicated

and often cruel landscape

of grade school playgrounds

or survived the childhood ritual of

“choosing teams”

can picture the workers who remained

unchosen

at the end of the day.


The oldest.

The weakest.

The scrawniest.

The guy who mutters to himself.

The ones who limp

or squint,

or scratch.

The women.

Those voted by their peers,

“Least Likely to Succeed.”

The players who are thoroughly defeated

before the game even begins.


Yet,

as the landowner approached,

he asked, “Why do you stand here idle all day?”

They answered simply,

“Because no one has hired us.”

And to their amazement,

he invited, “You too go into my vineyard

and I will give you what is just.”


Maybe they would get some bread,

or a chance to glean

the fallen, overripe grapes.

They knew they would not receive

a full day’s wage,

but just being chosen for work was

filling

for people who are so often empty.


To the surprise and shock of everyone

laboring in the vineyard that day,

the ones chosen last

were paid first.

The ones who worked for an hour

received wages for a full day.

The least of them

were treated as the best of them.


In the frustrated words of the early hires, “You have made them equal to us!”


Parables are funny things.

Some parables are beloved:

The Good Samaritan

The Lost Sheep

The Prodigal Son

The Mustard Seed.


Other parables,

perhaps like this one,

are well…

a little less beloved.


It’s a story that just seems…

unfair somehow.


After all,

some people worked all day

in the hot sun,

others for just a few minutes

when the sun was low,

and yet they all received

exactly the same wage.


I mean,

we know it’s about the Kingdom,

right?

But doesn’t hard work matter at all?

Shouldn’t reward be consistent with effort?

Is God saying that people who are faithful,

people who come early and stay late

don’t mean very much?

Why even try

If everyone gets the same prize in the end?


Our society snarks at “participation trophies”

and distains those who cut in line

and enjoy benefits they didn't earn.

We pride ourselves on having

a solid work ethic

and quietly--

or perhaps openly--

roll our eyes

and sigh impatiently

when seemingly able-bodied women

pay for food

with SNAP benefits.

It’s hard to let go of the idea that people

“get what they deserve” in life.

It's easy to imagine a heavenly kingdom

that looks remarkably like the society

we have constructed on earth.


At their heart,

parables are subversive little things.

They disrupt our sense of reality,

turn hierarchy on its ears

and patriarchy on its side.

They nag at us.

They invite us to question what is “right”

and “fair”

and “just.”


“You have made them equal to us!”

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

responds the owner.

Or literally, in the Greek:

“Is your eye evil because I am good?”


There are times

we should turn to Scripture,

not so much for answers,

but for better questions to ask--

not for rules and regulations to follow,

but to discover new lenses

through which to see the world.

Frederick Buechner, a writer and theologian,

once said about scripture,

“When you hear the question

that is your question,

then you have already begun to hear much.”

In other words,

when we wrestle with understanding,

our understanding begins to grow.

When we begin to question

our own bias and presumption—

we begin to transform.


This parable is Good News

for anyone who struggles to survive.

It is Good News

for anyone usually chosen last,

or not at all.

It is Good News for men

who gather in parking lots

hoping a contractor

will hire them to nail some dry wall today.

It is Good News

for every mom who goes to bed hungry

so that her daughter might be full.

This parable is Good News for players who feel

thoroughly defeated

before the game even begins.


“You have made them equal to us!”

For those used to being chosen first--

For those of us who always have

a day’s pay in our pockets

and food on the table--

For those who don’t know what it’s like

to be last in line,

last at the party,

last to receive,

last to be counted,

This overturning—

this inversion—

this disturbance of privilege

found in the parable

can feel like oppression.


“Are you envious because I am generous?”

“Is your eye evil, because I am good?”


But when we hear a question

that is our question,

we have already begun to “hear much.”

When we start to wonder

if we should reach for a new lens,

we are open to being transformed.

When we place ourselves,

not among the privileged,

but among the hungry,

begging for mercy,

we are ready to hear the invitation,

“You too, go into my vineyard.”

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