Jesus must have really enjoyed telling this one. You definitely would have wanted Jesus at your dinner party. Not only would you not have to worry about running out of wine, you could count on Him to tell great stories. This morning’s story is a doozy.
A vineyard owner goes out bright and early to hire some day workers. At 6am, he drives downtown and finds the early birds, showered and shaved and eager, coffee already in hand ready to work long and hard. After he strikes a deal with workers, they hop on the truck, drive back to the vineyard and get right to work.
At 9am the owner decides he wants to more workers. He goes back downtown and finds another crew. These guys are just finishing their Egg McMuffins, still wiping the sleep out of their eyes. Hop on board, the owner says, and off they go to the vineyard.
Lunchtime comes. While the early birds knock off for a sandwich after 6 hours of work, the owner drives back downtown. There he sees the really late sleepers, the people who had been up partying late the night before. They shake off their hangovers and rally for an afternoon’s work. It’s better than just sitting around all afternoon trying to forget about the night before.
The vineyard is a beehive of activity at this point – people working everywhere. Still, the owner is not satisfied – he wants more people working in his vineyard. So at 3 pm he gets back in his truck and drives back into town. The people left hanging around are real loafers. They aren’t expecting to work, probably don’t want to work. Still – something about the owner or the offer compels them to get in the truck and work the rest of the day.
At 5 o’clock, one hour before quitting time, the vineyard is packed with workers. Still, the owner just can’t sit still! So back in the truck he goes, back downtown. He finds the runts of the litter, the total slackers, the people who have been doing nothing all day long. They are the jobless losers of the world – nobody has hired them. Maybe they smell awful or are dressed badly or are notoriously lazy. There are probably good reasons other owners had passed them by. But not the vineyard owner. With one hour left to work, he says to them, “you go into the vineyard too.” This guy wants nobody left behind.
Then comes the punch line, the one that Jesus must have really enjoyed. When it comes time to get paid, everybody gets exactly the same pay! Of course this enrages the early birds. It’s not fair! We worked all day long in the scorching sun! I can just imagine the reaction of the listeners to the story, as Jesus comes to the punch line. Outrage! Wine spilling out of cups! A dessert plate knocked to the floor! Are you kidding me! That is so not fair!
Inevitably when you talk about the gospel of grace, someone will react with either hostility or caveat. You will often hear people say something like, “well, it’s not whether you talk the talk, but about whether you walk the walk.” To be clear, it’s much more pleasant for everyone involved when people are walking the walk. But walking the walk has nothing to do with the gospel of grace. The early birds walked the walk all day long in the hot sun from 6am on. The 5pm-ers slept all day, rode in on the truck in the cool of the evening, most likely stood around for 45 minutes until the closing bell. Very little, if any, walking was involved. Except to walk over to the line to get paid the exact same wage as those that walked the walk.
If you get angry at the unfairness of the situation, then you relate to the hard working early birds. It means that you probably see yourself as one who works hard, who tries his best. This might be a reasonable way to think about yourself in order to get through life, but theologically you are in all kinds of trouble. It means that at some level you think you can earn you way to heaven or that because of your goodness and effort you deserve some kind of reward or payment from God. All this kind of thinking you may smuggle in under the name of justice, but obviously you are thinking that you are the one who deserves justice. You, in the words of the story, “begrudge God’s generosity.”
The obvious difficulty with this thinking is that the Bible teaches that we are all sinners, born in sin and inclined toward evil. As our prayer book says, “there is no health in us” because we are “miserable offenders.” This is true for the early birds, the lunchtime workers, and the jobless losers. There is no distinction. We have no innate righteousness before God.
And if this kind of thinking doesn’t get you in enough hot water with God, it also makes you judgmental towards others. If you think that you are right and honorable and true in living up to your ideals, you can’t help but look down on others. Brennan Manning, in his great book The Ragamuffin Gospel, says “the trouble with our ideals is that if we live up to all of them, we become impossible to live with.”
The opposite perspective is that of the jobless losers. If you hear this story and are thrilled with the outcome, you immediately identify with the 11th hour slackers. This is a good thing theologically. Hardly anybody ever does though – including me. But as Tom Petty sings, “even the losers get lucky sometimes.” And apparently in the Kingdom of God, the losers get lucky all the time.
There is another perspective though that is most important in the story. It is the perspective of the most important character in the story – the vineyard owner. The owner of the Vineyard can’t sit still, not as long as there are people who want to come into his vineyard. He’s peripatetic. He doesn’t care if they are there at sunrise or noon or quitting time. We might make distinctions between people, but he doesn’t. He leaves his vineyard time and time and time again to make sure that everybody is included. He’s not content while there are those still left outside the gates. Ultimately, it is his walk that finally matters.
We read in Luke 19 that “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” The story that Jesus must have loved to tell is the story of himself. And it’s your story, my story. For we are the lost who need saving, 5pm-ers who may not even want to hop on His truck.
Maybe today you are lost in your own judgment and self-righteousness and you need saving. Maybe today you feel so lost in your sin that you believe that you included in the Kingdom of God. Maybe today you feel today that no one has picked you and you are still waiting, lost and ashamed and alone. Whatever your situation, today may be the day that you really realize that God has picked you! Because God made Jesus to be sin for our sake, that we might be the righteousness of God.
God Himself has already walked the walk. He left His throne to become one of us, so that we could come inside His gates. He is the Hound of Heaven, the Lover of Souls, the one has come to seek and save the lost. You could sit around and gripe about the unfairness of it all. But what’s the fun of that?