You, You and You
Don't you love Jesus' parables? Every time we hear or read a parable, it can seem a little different. But, when we look at the words on the page, nothing's changed. Same words, same parable. Then, when I let the parable's message turn over in my mind, I realize there's something important going on in my life right now, something's different from the last time I heard this parable. And the parable is speaking to what's going on right now. So, I shake my head in wonder, and thank the Lord for his guidance.
We sometimes try and reduce Jesus' parables to a single point, a moral, like Aesop's fables. Slow and steady wins the race; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This is shortsighted. The word of God is not simple; it is multidimensional. Paul teaches in the Letter to Hebrews the word of God is alive and active. It cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, piercing so deeply that it divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it discriminates among the purposes and thoughts of the heart. Jesus' parables are like this, living and active. A parable isn't a simple tale with the same lesson for all. And the parable may have different lessons for each of us as time unfolds. Scripture somehow knows our need and meets us at the point of our need. Today, Paul might use "interactive" to mean alive and active. Scripture is interactive in the sense that it enters in a dialogue with our spirit. A parable can touch each of us with what we need at that moment in time.
Let's illustrate this. We just read the parable of the generous vineyard owner. The workers who worked all day took offense at the owner for paying those who worked only an hour the same as they were paid. It concludes with, "So the last shall be first and the first last."
A good reading of this is to look at the story from the point of view of the vineyard owner. Those paid last grumbled that he wasn't being fair; they should have been paid more than those who only worked one hour. But God in his generosity not only keeps his promises, God, out of his love and abundance gives beyond expectation. We can rejoice in that this reading is true.
These are all good readings. But, they may not be what the Spirit wants to teach you today. Maybe you need a different lesson or word of encouragement. As you read with an open heart and open mind, the Scriptures may reveal to you what it is you need to focus on at this moment in your life.
Here's still another way to look at Jesus' vineyard parable. Let’s put ourselves into this biblical scene. Imagine you are out of work and the family needs to be fed. The hiring boss shows up at the town square with a truck at 6 AM. You’re there, you put on a serious, earnest look – you really are ready and eager to work. The boss says, “You. And you. And you.” He says it five times, but to five other people. Not you. Drat. Disappointed, you stand with the group and wait for the next crew to be picked. You wait, and then at 9 the same boss shows up in his truck. “I need three more.” You’re filled with hope. You try and look competent, ready to work. You press forward – careful not to elbow anyone else aside. “You, you and you.” He says to three others. They jump in the truck. Drat, passed over again! You persist. You wait in the hot sun again, hoping. The same thing happens at noon, and again at 3 o'clock. Each time you’re passed by. “How am I going to bring home dinner tonight?” you worry. But you do not leave. You persist.
Finally, at 5, just before the day ends, the truck appears again. No, he's not dropping off the other workers - he says to you and the other two still faithfully waiting, "Why are you standing about like this all day with nothing to do?" "Because no one has hired us," you answer. Miraculously, the boss says, "Go and join the others in the vineyard." "Oh, thank God," you think, "It's only an hour's work left at most, but I'll at least be able to bring home a can of tuna for the family." You jump in the truck and are driven to the vineyard - a beautiful field on a hillside, terraced and green overlooking the lake. It's a bumper crop and the vines are covered with plump grapes waiting to be picked for the press. You jump out and knowing you are late to the harvest field, dig into the work with energy and will. You're thrilled and happy for this work.
An hour later, at sunset, the boss summons his paymaster to distribute the day's pay, and you're the first one called. You look at what the paymaster hands you - and it's a full day's pay! You can't believe it! You can go home with head high, the family can eat - Success, Joy! As you start the walk home, you don't notice the griping going on behind you. You rejoice. You don't hear the first guys picked complaining to the boss, "We've been out here all day working in the hot sun and you paid us the same as those guys who only put in an hour. What gives! We deserve more."
Huh! So, let me ask you. First, what’s harder? Work all day for a generous boss who provides water, a good lunch, good working conditions, and, as agreed, pays you a full day's wage in cash at the end of the day? Or, stand around out in the dusty hot sun of the hiring square all day, disappointed and rejected four and five times, no job, no immediate prospects, worrying about your family, worrying about the shame of not being able to provide. But you continue to stand in faith, hoping and believing that something good will finally happen? Who really had it tough?
All of us at times in our life — for some of us, right now —we feel like the poor unemployed but willing worker, standing helpless in the sun. We've done what we were supposed to do. We've done our best. We've waited and waited. But still we stand there in the hot sun. "If God were truly just, fair, he would see me standing here and pick me up and out of this miserable state. He would notice me and call me. I'm ready to do the work. Others are being called. They are happy, their needs are met. I am abandoned."
How can we be blamed for complaining? Who can blame us for even questioning God? The pattern of this world is to expect results. If we don't see an immediate payoff, we walk away, disappointed. Our scripture readings teach us something different. In our reading from Exodus Israel was being tested, proven in the desert. By "test" we don't mean a final exam. God knew they weren't ready for a final. God was giving the Israelites an important quiz to show them - and us - what they still needed to learn. In this case they and we are taught, "Trust. Wait on the Lord. Wait uncomplainingly and with hopeful persistence."
Yet another lesson from the reading: Back to the vineyard. Remember the owner's servant, the overseer? The owner tells the overseer, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with those who came last and ending with the first.” Unusual request! Doesn't the owner understand people? Does the employee turn to his boss and say, "You know, maybe you're wrong. Let me distribute the pay my way."? Nope, no question from the paymaster. He knows the owner. He's been with the owner a long time, and knows him. He trusts his boss, loves working for him and unquestioningly, in perfect trust, does exactly as the owner asks. (Some of us who manage people or raise families wish more were like this.) The owner's obedient employee has perfect peace of mind. The lesson here? Sure, God loves for us to wrestle with him. But the struggle is not whether God is right, but with ourselves struggling to overcome our own desires and wants, our independence to do what we think right —and not what we know the Lord wants of us.
These Bible stories and parables teach us lesson after lesson about how to be at peace, how to live a happy and fulfilled life. Sure things may appear difficult at this moment. We need guidance and mercy to get us through it. We each have different circumstances, are suffering different woes, and each need different lessons. God's word gives us exactly the life lesson we need at the time we need it.
The Lord, through the Holy Spirit gave us a unique textbook for life here on earth. God's textbook is different from human textbooks. Human textbooks are geared to the student's level of readiness. We have math and science texts appropriate for grade school, middle school, high school and college. One text doesn't work for every grade. We teach at the student's level of preparedness. We don't expect the average fourth grader to learn quantum physics —it's hard enough for most graduate students. The Bible is unique. The text never changes; but every time we read it, we learn something new. The Bible doesn't change. The Bible changes us. This unchanging word of God meets us two ways. The Bible touches us with what we need at that moment. And, it touches and teaches us at whatever "grade" or instructional level we are ready for.
The Bible meets us at our point of need, and meets us at our point of readiness.
Let's develop those two thoughts. Meeting us at our point of readiness. Remember how often Jesus cautions or warns people he's healed, or demons he's booted out not to tell anyone about the healing, or who he is? Why? People weren't yet ready to understand who or what Jesus is and why he came. Or when Simon Peter says, "You are the Messiah, the Son of God!" Jesus tells him, "Blessed are you, because flesh and blood didn't reveal this to you, but my heavenly father." You can't encapsulate who Jesus is and what this means in a sound bite. Our understanding grows through a lifetime of learning and living and reflection and prayer. The Bible is our constant guide. We can't outgrow it.
The second thought; The Bible meets us at our point of need. As I have sampled this morning, there are many lessons in each parable. There are always many lessons. These lessons unfold as we grow spiritually, and also, somehow the message of each parable finds our troubled spot; the hole in our heart, the fear in our belly, our loneliness, our anxiety for a loved one suffering right now, our concern for a friend, our need for compassion for those devastated by earthquake or flood or terrifying winds. Those who've lost everything. Scripture gives us what we need now.
And here's the really good news. Nobody graduates from this school. No, really it's good news. We don't need to graduate. Life is not a competition. It isn't how much we've studied or learned, our spiritual credentials or our level of understanding. Everyone, everyone is paid the same wage. Our generous Lord so loves each of us, that whether we've worked in the vineyard for forty years or for an hour, God's love is poured out on us equally. There's no need for grades, there is no graduation. There is only love.
Maybe as part of our learning and development as humans, the Lord lets us occasionally be in extremis, in distress. Not as a punishment, but as teaching. Paul tells us in Romans," ... we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint." Suffering helps us develop patience, character, hope and strengthens our faith.
Maybe this message on suffering from the parable resonates particularly for someone here today. Someone is hurting. Hurting either for love and compassion for another who is suffering. Or someone else may be hurting because right now life seems to be one disappointment after another.
Look again at the worker hired at five o'clock. The worker was still there at the end of the day. He still stood, hopeful, waiting to be called. Sure he was hurting. But he stood there. He didn't go home and pull the covers over his head. He didn't give up and wander off. He waits on the Lord, he waits with a trusting and hopeful heart - even as the sun began to go down. He received his full reward.
And as a final reading of the vineyard parable, think of the worker called at noon. He suffered waiting all through the morning. He worked hard all afternoon - probably without getting a free lunch. And he rejoiced at his full day's pay. He didn't grumble when the last minute laborer got paid the same for his whole afternoon's work. Maybe his suffering through the morning helped him develop the character and compassion to rejoice that everyone was equally fully rewarded.
Jesus vineyard parable also teaches this universal lesson. Whether we are first chosen or whether we suffer long and are the last to be called, Jesus promise is the vineyard owner will pay each of us the same generous and full wage. Wait, wait on the Lord.