Christ Episcopal Church

Hear the Word. Eat the Bread. Change the World.

September 24, 2017

Years ago I read a novel called The Rector of Justin, by Louis Auchincloss. I remember absolutely nothing about the plot of the book or its characters. But somewhere in it is a discussion about what it actually means to be Christian, a disciple and follower of Christ, and I was so challenged by the following quotation that I wrote it out and kept it on my desk for years after:

{N}one of us is a Christian until he has accepted the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Until he is willing to share the kingdom of God equally with those who have toiled but a fraction of the day. Until he realizes it wouldn’t be the kingdom of God if there were any differences in it.

I am not one to presume to decide who is and is not a Christian, but there is something to this idea that we don’t really understand what Jesus means by “the kingdom of God” until we understand the truth of this parable.

God’s economy is quite different from ours.

Now I want to be absolutely clear. As tempting as it might be to look at this story in terms of economic policy, that’s not what Jesus is doing here. This is not evidence that Jesus was a proto-socialist. In Jesus’ day, the “economy” of that society was based less on money than it was on relationship. Social status was determined by who you knew, not what you earned. That can be difficult for us to get our heads around, and it’s not really vital that you understand it completely right now, but hold that thought in your head. This story isn’t about the money—it’s about the relationships. It’s about all of us being equally important to God, each of us being equal partners in the covenant with God, regardless of when we ‘entered the vineyard.’

This is hard for us to comprehend. We have all been so conditioned by the inherent competitiveness of the culture in which we live, we don’t even realize how deeply our sense of fairness is shaped by it. We don’t see that we have fallen into the trap of valuing ourselves and others for what we achieve rather than who we are. So much of the current conflict in our country can be traced back to a fundamental belief that some people are worth more than others. I know it seems like I’m saying this every week lately. But every week I see another example of the truth of it. We won’t make progress until we face this ugly truth: we have a long history of saying some people are worth more than others. We resist the kingdom because we don’t want to accept the conditions: that every person, the early-morning worker and the latecomer, is of equal value.

Every conversation I have about this parable inevitably leads to the “who gets into heaven discussion.” One woman rather incredulously asked, “Are you saying that I can spend my whole life being good and faithful, and then some murderer comes along and gets into heaven alongside me because he had a deathbed conversion?!”

God’s economy is not ours.

And the only way for Jesus to drive the point home is to have the manager pay the late-comers before the early-comers. If the ones who had been there all day had been paid first—which seems only fair, as they had waited the longest, right?—they would have gone home, content to be paid what they had promised, and would not have ever known that the folks who trotted in at 5:00 were paid the same amount. And when the all-dayers complain, does the landowner respond with explanations or consolations? No. He responds by chastising them. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

This parable isn’t really about the hereafter.

Sometimes I wish I recorded the conversations we have during the Bible Study at the Wednesday morning Eucharist, because participants sometimes say the most profound things, and I don’t always remember them exactly. This week, we were discussing this passage, and Susan Morin summed it up beautifully, saying that the person who allowed her whole life to be shaped and guided by faith was more blessed than the person who didn’t find faith until just before the moment of death. Rather than resent him, we might instead pity him. He hadn’t experienced the grace of all those little moments along the way. He’d had to get through this life without an awareness of God’s presence with him.

He didn’t hear the invitation to work in God’s vineyard until the very end of the day. Notice that in the parable, it says that those latecomers had been in the square all day, but hadn’t heard that there was work for them to do until the very end of the day. They hadn’t realized there was a place for them, there.

This parable isn’t about us. It’s about God. It’s about God’s grace, God’s generosity, God’s willingness to draw more and more people into the kingdom’s work. Not hired, but invited. Not employees but co-creators. We are empowered to invite others into the kingdom, to share the work with us, as equal partners in the work of God in this world. We are called to rejoice every time someone else joins in, whether it’s as morning dawns or not until just before dusk. There is plenty of work to be done, sharing the Good News of God’s love with the world. Especially because too often, the world thinks the cost of the Gospel is too high. To receive the grace of God is to let go of all those other value systems, in which some are just a little more important or valuable than others. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” sounds great to the people at the back of the line. But the folks up front, they’re not so sure about it.

I said earlier that I don’t like to assume the responsibility of deciding who is and is not Christian. But I think it’s important for us to wrestle with that quotation from that book, so I will tweak it a little, and leave it with you as a challenge:

Perhaps none of us can really be citizens of God’s kingdom until we have accepted the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Until we are willing to share the kingdom equally with those who have toiled but a fraction of the day. Until we realize it wouldn’t be the kingdom of God if there were any differences in it.

Amen.

Christ Episcopal Church, Norway, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion