Parables, by their very nature, are intended to pack a punch. Jesus used this story form to surprise, to startle, and (at times) to unnerve his audience. We, like those who first heard today’s parable, wonder about the business savvy of the landowner. We wonder what his workforce will look like tomorrow – who in his right mind will show up for work at 9:00 in the morning if he can start at 3:00 in the afternoon and get the same pay? And while this is an obvious question, it takes us away from the main point the story teller wants us to consider, which is, “Why do you seek to put limits of the owner’s generosity?” and, in the story, the landowner represents God.
The parable speaks directly to an issue first encountered in the early Church and then revisited by every congregation and faith community thereafter: In God’s eyes those newest in the faith count every bit as much as those who have been around forever. So, for example, my service in the ordained ministry for twenty-four years gains me no greater reward than that merited by our newest acolytes. The person singing from the hymnal for the first time gains every bit as much as one who has spent a lifetime of singing in the choir. Your hours and hours of hard work polishing the brass count no more than the person who picks up a piece of trash in the parking lot and puts it in the garbage can. You see, God is generous; giving the same to those who work the least and to those work a little and to those who work a lot because even those who work a lot are richly rewarded by God well beyond anything they could ask or imagine.
But still the question remains, why work long and hard for God if you can kick back, relax, and receive the same amount of grace as if you had worked your tail off?
The answer can be found in how Jesus sets up the parable, and after all, it is his story. Notice that the contrast he puts forward is not between work and rest or labor and leisure, but rather between employment and idleness. Being idle is no treat, as Webster’s Dictionary suggests with these definitions:
1. Having no value, use or significance; worthless, useless (as in idle talk.
2. Baseless, unfounded (as in idle rumors.
3. Unemployed, not busy, inactive, not in use (as in idle machines.
4. Not filled with activity (as in idle hours).
5. Not inclined to work, lazy.
6. To move slowly or aimlessly, to loaf (as in idle along.
7. To waste or squander (as in to idle away one’s youth.
And while we all need our down time, the word idle does not convey much of anything positive. It is a state to be avoided at all costs. And for Jesus, it was the plight of those who had not been hired.
In our adult Sunday School class we have begun to look at specific developmental challenges we face in each decade of our life. We are using a book by Donald Capps who applies Erik Erikson’s theories to his approach. Erikson held that from roughly the age of seven to twelve (our school age years) we encounter a conflict he called Industry vs. Inferiority. It is a time when we begin to learn what we are good at and what we are not. This is the age when we become dissatisfied or disgruntled if we lack a sense of being useful, if we sense that we cannot make things and make them well. We want to be good at something – be it math or English or science or athletics or art or card tricks or whatever – and as we master something we gain recognition for what we produce. This affirmation becomes a vital component to help us move forward in our teenage years where develop a sense of identity, of who I am and what I can become. Without some sense of industry, we tend to abandon hope and assimilate a belief that we are doomed to a life of mediocrity at best.
While the conflict of Industry vs. Inferiority is always with us – as are the other seven conflicts Erikson identified – this one seems to reemerge in our forties – a time when our career path becomes solidified, our options closed, and our future set. Have we found the things we are good at doing? Are we doing them? Or are we stuck in a dead end job? In today’s world, with its stagnating economy, this seems to be the age when many people are let go and cannot find their way back into the workforce for meaningful employment. For folks out of work and for those stuck doing something they do want to be doing, life after forty can be a time of idleness, with all of its negative consequences, and it leads to a pervasive sense of inferiority.
Why would the labors in the parable go to work at the crack of dawn the next day when they can receive the same pay for a fraction of the effort? Because industry offers its own rewards and forced idleness is debilitating. There are many reasons why we work. What we are paid is just one of them and it doesn’t even factor in when we volunteer our time. What we crave in life are tasks which demand our best efforts that lead (as the prayer book puts it) to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.
God’s gift to each of us is grace beyond all merit. God gives it evenly to all. But those of us fortunate enough to go to work in the vineyard in the early morning find we are stretched in life-giving ways all the days of our life. We are blessed with a sense that we are good at something; knowing that what we do matters in the big picture of God’s Kingdom. Hopefully others recognize our contributions and affirm our efforts, but at the very least we can be self-affirming by taking pride in a job done well. You can see why this matters and why those idling in the marketplace suffer in ways those working in the vineyard do not.
In reflecting on today’s sermon I found myself thinking a lot about my brother-in-law in Ohio. After twenty-some years of service to the same company he found himself “downsized” three years ago. He has been aggressive in looking for new work, but Ohio’s economy is not exactly fertile ground for someone of age and experience. He has had several short-term consulting jobs, but none materialized into something more permanent. During this time he has found a new kind of ‘work’ – one that does not pay a thing, but certainly qualifies as industry. He has developed his interest and skill in photography and from time-to-time he posts his work on the internet. My brother-in-law has quite a remarkable camera eye and he tells me he is especially interested in textures and contrasts found in the everyday world.
What I learn from my brother-in-law is that unemployment and idleness are not the same thing. Unemployment is something over which we have little control. Most often idleness is a state of our choosing. There is always something to do in God’s world. There is work to be done, joy to be found, passion to be developed. And be it early in the morning, midday, or late in the afternoon, God invites you to the vineyard to get to work and to experience the blessings of an industrious life.