March 25, 2012

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC


Matthew 19:27 – 20:16


If it were today, those workers who worked all day would do more than grumble to their boss.  They would find an attorney.  They would file a lawsuit.  There must be some legal remedy.  You can’t bring in workers at the end of the day and pay them as much as those who worked all day.


And even if you did, even if you could get away with it legally, it would be foolish to do so.  Because as soon as word gets out that you pay as much for a one-hour day as you pay for a twelve-hour day, you’re supply of twelve-hour labor is going to dry up.  Everyone will just start showing up an hour before quitting time.  Why would you get up early and work long, exhausting hours through the heat of the day, when you get paid just as much for sleeping in, watching daytime television, and sauntering in to work just in time to pick up your paycheck?

The boss in this parable has successfully destroyed any incentive for his employees to do the work he needs them to do to make a profit on his vineyard.  And it was hard enough in Jesus’ day for vineyard owners to survive.  Their grapes would ripen in late September.  The fall rains would often begin in early October.  The grapes would rot on the vine if they weren’t harvested in a big hurry.  Each fall it was a frantic race against time.  Many laborers were needed.  The last thing you would want would be to give your laborers a reason to not show up for work.  That would be no way to run a business.

Our economy is improving.  Finally.  The Dow Jones average is up 7% since the first of the year.  Investors are wondering if this is the time to buy or to sell.  I’ll give you some stock market advice.  Don’t invest in a company with a compensation plan for its workers that resembles this morning’s parable!

It’s no way to run a business.  It’s also no way to run a universe.  If God treats people the way this vineyard owner treats his workers, we’re all in trouble.  If word gets out that God doesn’t care whether you’re bad or you’re good, where’s the incentive to be good?  It’s the foolish people who will show up on time to be put to work for God.  But the ones smart enough to figure out how the game works, won’t be in any great hurry.  As long as they are young and healthy they will devote themselves to having as good a time as there is to be had.  There will be plenty of time when they get old and feeble to get back in God’s good graces.  Because as long as you are on God’s team when the game ends, you get the same prize as those fools who never missed a practice.

Today’s parable is introduced by Peter’s question.  “Jesus, we have left everything and followed you.  What then shall we have?”  Jesus has just been talking about rich people.  It will be harder for them to get into heaven than for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle.  Peter is listening intently.  That may be so.  Rich people may have some long term problems.  But in the short term they have it pretty good.  What about us?  We’ve been your loyal, faithful followers from the beginning, Jesus.  What do we get?

And Jesus tells this parable that pretty much tells Peter that he gets nothing extra.  When the books are settled at the end of the day the most revered saint is treated the same as the most vile sinner whose deathbed conversion came just in the nick of time.

It’s not fair.  It’s not just.  It doesn’t square with what we’ve always believed about how we treat people and how we expect to be treated.

There’s a novel called Niels Lyhne that tells the story of a good man who rejected God.  He secretly wanted to believe.  He wanted the inner peace and joy that believers seemed to have.  But Niels Lyhne refused to be dishonest with himself.  He would endure the darkness and the despair of a world without God before he would profess faith just to make himself feel better.  Life was not kind to Niels Lyhne.  Family members met untimely death.  He craved comfort.  Deep inside he wanted to know that there is meaning and purpose and love at the center of the universe.  But he was a man of integrity.  And he was stubborn.  He would not give in.  Even in the final hour of his life, when he was asked if he wanted to see a pastor, though he wanted to say “yes”, he said “no”.  He held out to the end without compromise.  Niels Lyhne was a man of great honor.  His doctor watched him die and then spoke these words:  “If I were God, I would far sooner save the man who does not repent at the last minute.”

I think we all know honorable men and women like Niels Lyhne.  They are not believers, but we can’t help but respect them.  One thing that is very troubling about this parable is that it seems to be telling us that the thief on the cross squeezes through the gate of heaven at the last possible moment, but that gate will not open for a man like Niels Lyhne.  That’s no way to run a universe.  That’s no way to encourage people to enter God’s vineyard and go to work right now.

Sometimes these parables are tough nuts to crack.  As we saw last week, the obvious meaning often turns out not to be the deeper meaning.   After further review, as they say in the NFL, we may have to change our minds. That’s one thing I find both frustrating and fascinating about these parables of Jesus.  You have to stay with them and not give up too soon.  We really need the Holy Spirit’s help in any Bible study that involves the parables of Jesus.

There’s a concept you may be familiar with called lateral thinking.  There’s a man named Edward DeBono who gives seminars teaching people to think laterally.  Here’s the illustration he uses to show what he means:  One night when he was in college he was out late partying.  When he returned to campus, the front gate was closed.  This was a secure campus, surrounded by a wall.  That was no problem for him.  He climbed the wall.  But then there was a second wall.  This was a surprise.  He climbed it.  He looked around after he hit the ground and it dawned on him that he was now standing back outside the first wall.

You see, he had climbed over and across a corner.  He tried again.  Except this time rather than climb the wall he climbed the gate.  It had better footholds.  He climbed it and was straddling it when the gate slowly swung open.  It hadn’t been locked.

Edward DeBono says he learned two lessons that night.  (1)  No matter how good you are at climbing walls, you should always pick the right one.  (2) Some walls don’t have to be climbed.  You can enter through a door no one ever imagined.  That’s lateral thinking.  There are solutions to problems that are not immediately obvious.  Sometimes you move sideways before you can move forward.

Edward DeBono was hired by a corporation to help them solve a problem.  Their offices were in a New York skyscraper that had too few elevators.  Workers were getting impatient and even angry having to wait to go up or down.  They had explored several possibilities:  staggering work hours, speeding up the elevators, even building a new elevator outside the building.  In came Edward DeBono who recommended installing mirrors around the elevator doors.  That way people would see themselves in the mirror and become so interested they wouldn’t notice they were waiting for the elevator.  It worked.  That’s lateral thinking.  Instead of attacking a problem head-on, you move to the side until you find the open gate.

Lateral thinking comes in handy with the parables of Jesus!  This one in particular.  It makes no sense the way we’ve been trying to understand it. We’ve been looking at the injustice of a world in which it does us no good to be good.  Because people who aren’t good can slip in at the last moment and get the same reward.  In a just world we would expect to get in proportion to what we give.  But not in this parable.  Those who give the least get as much as those who give the most.  That’s crazy.  If you try to run a business that way, you would go broke.

But what if we move laterally and look at this parable from a new perspective?  Work in the vineyard is its own reward.  That will take some mental gymnastics for some of us, because we generally think of work as something bad we have to endure.  But maybe the new perspective that will open the unlocked gate into this parable is to view working in the vineyard as a privilege.  It’s something good. It’s a gift.  It’s not something we have to do.  It’s something we get to do.

After all, we don’t show up for work the day we’re born so we can pay our own way through life.  Our birth, our life, our work, our struggles, our joys are all wrapped up into one big gift box.  It’s a gift for you, for me, for everyone, even for those we think shouldn’t be on God’s gift list.  All it takes to receive God’s gift is a grateful heart.  And all it takes to miss out on God’s gift is a jealous heart.

Isn’t that the point of the parable?  The workers who have been working all day are jealous of those who just started working.  As if those who just started working are getting a better deal.  As if the privilege of life in God’s vineyard all day long is not the better deal.  And as long as we go through life worried that someone else will get more out of life than we will we’re pretty much ensuring that someone else will get more out of life than we will.

This is a parable for those of us who have been laboring in the vineyard for a long time.  We’re the ones who have a tendency to get cranky when we get tired.  We tend to expect special treatment from God.  After all, haven’t we earned it?  We’re the ones who tend to look around and compare our blessings with the blessings of others, and we grumble.  We said last week that we can always find someone to compare ourselves with to make us look good.  Well, we can also always find someone to compare ourselves with to make us feel miserable.  The all day workers in the vineyard went home feeling miserable.  They could have gone home feeling grateful – tired but grateful.  Proud of a job well done, looking forward to well- deserved rest, eager for another day in the vineyard.  They could have.  They chose not to. It’s a lesson for those of us who have been laboring in God’s vineyard for a long time.

It’s also a parable for those who would come to God’s vineyard late in the day.  There’s no disgrace in that.  Better late than never.  Of course, the latecomers miss the time they could have been in the vineyard while they were busy doing something else.  What’s lost is lost.  There’s no getting it back.  And far from thinking they got away with something, latecomers know they missed something – they missed a lot – by waiting so long to find God.  This parable says to latecomers, welcome!  God’s glad you’re here.  There’s work to be done in the vineyard, the very work for which you were created.  Now let’s get to it!

This is a parable for Niels Lyhne.  Remember him?  That brave atheist who was too proud to open the door to the possibility that there really is a God who loves him.  We said he was a man of great honor.  He was also a man of great unrealized potential.  His life could have been so much richer, so much fuller, so much happier, so much more productive.  He could have come to the end of his life in triumph, not in tragedy, if only he had been brave enough to admit that he might have been wrong about God.  God was nudging him.  God was trying to get through to him, but Niels Lyhne turned a deaf ear.  And that was too bad.  This parable says to all the Niels Lyhnes – and there are a lot of them — that it’s not too late.  Open your heart to the possibility that God’s love is for real.

Phillip Yancey came to Nampa a few years ago for NNU’s Wesley Conference.  He wrote a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace?  He said that people generally think the way you get to heaven is by being good.  But he said that’s not the way to heaven that he finds in the Bible.  It’s not the way we find in parables like “the laborers and the vineyard”.  It’s not a matter of laboring in the vineyard long enough and hard enough and productively enough to earn your way into heaven.  That’s not the way it works.  You get into heaven not by being good but by saying, “Help!”  Even if it’s the last thing you say.

Like that thief on the cross.  He said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”  But what he was really saying was, “Help!”  And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Thank you Jesus for giving us a place in your vineyard.  Open our eyes to what life as you give it to us is all about.  We don’t work in the vineyard so we can have a life after hours.  Work in your vineyard is our life.  It’s a good life.  It’s the best life.  It’s its own reward.  And it’s too good to keep to ourselves.  You want all people to know the joy of your vineyard.  Your generosity we don’t want to begrudge.  May we be privileged to be the way you invite and welcome some in who do not yet know your love.  Amen.