Early in the morning, men and women get dressed in the darkness. Then they shuffled into the same meeting places as merchants set up their tents, brought out produce, unpacked their wares. Now they take the bus or catch a ride to the edge of a strip mall, the back of a parking lot. You see them there, early in the morning, as vans and trucks pull up, then a couple of guys hop in the back to go hang drywall or clear a field. Then, the landowners sent them into the vineyard.
But, in this vineyard, it seems there was more work to be done. After hiring some early, the scene repeats itself at 9, at noon, at 3. Even as late as 5, he went out again. It is kind of amazing to me that these potential laborers were still there, were still waiting. But the landowner has no judgment: Why are you here? Because no one has hired us. Ok. You go, too.
But it is verse 8 that changes the tone of the passage. If Jesus had told the story differently – if he had the owner give slightly different instructions – then nobody would have noticed. The people who would have worked the whole day would have gotten their usual daily wage, and headed home. But Jesus wants us to understand something about the reversal that is coming. And, though it doesn’t make any sense, the laborer who has waited all day in the market, standing, sitting, looking around, trying to scrounge up work, almost hopeless, all of the sudden gets paid for an entire day’s work, though they had only worked a couple of hours. What joy! They head home with a bounce in their step, for today, having been paid much more than they expected. Good, good news.
By the time the manager has worked his way down the line, I imagine the folks who have been there all day are getting excited. Dreams of maybe two whole days’ pay for one day’s work run through their heads, along with the things they could do, debts they could pay off. Until that lone denarius is placed put in their hand. ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ The manager calmly points back to their agreement, to his own freedom as the employer. And then he steps back, questions for the workers and for us. "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" he asks. Then he lowers his voice and says to the hushed crowd: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
"Is your eye evil because I am good?" the landowner asks. The phrase the NRSV translates as, "are you envious because I am generous" can be more literally translated, "is your eye evil because I am good?" In the ancient world, the eye was considered to be a source of light that illumined reality. The critical issue is what one sees. "If one’s eye is healthy," Tom Long writes, "that is, if one essentially has a generous spirit and sees the world in a benevolent light – then one’s total life will be abounding. On the other hand, if one basically sees the world in a pinched and selfish way, then one’s whole existence, even acts of apparent charity, will be begrudging."1 And this makes sense, I think. What we see effects how we think, how we live. Too often we receive those images passively, letting them establish the playing field for our vision. How can we watch any news in the last few weeks and think that the default way men and women – NFL players or not – relate to each other is by violence? How can we go to the gym and see pictures of buff, scantily clad people and not begin to believe that our appearance is what matters most? How can we be immersed in our marketing and advertising culture without thinking our value consists of the abundance of our possessions, the image those things project? How can we pick up the newspaper or watch television without being convinced our job is to be anxious and afraid, that we must resort to violence, or that death has, in fact, won? What we see matters, and shapes us.
But there is a different way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on his time leading an underground seminary for Confessing Church pastors in Nazi Germany wrote a wonderful little book called "Life Together." In it, Bonhoeffer reflects on the nature of the common life those young men – at the time – had together, so centered on ministry under threat of arrest, or worse. Late in the book he is reflecting on ‘The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue,’ which is another wonderful sermon for another day. He challenges us to discipline our tongues, which will, in turn, discipline our thoughts. This, he argues, frees us to see others differently. I think you can substitute ‘eye’ for ‘tongue’ with little problem, and it’s printed on the back of your bulletin, too:
Where this discipline of the tongue [eye] is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus do violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and, to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God’s creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy…To me that sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man [and woman] in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it.2
Because God is already reshaping our vision. This was the landowners response: Don’t you see? Don’t you see? NOW we see suffering. Now we see pain. NOW we see violence. Disease. Inequality. Apathy. But, as Jesus reminds us at the very beginning, love in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God that is breaking in, teaches us to see differently. To see through all of the silliness that consumes much of our living, to glimpse what matters. If the God of the landowner reigns, then people have value not because of when they showed up or how hard they worked, but because they are children created and cherished by God. If the God of the landowner reigns, then the market no longer determines worth, and we are freed to see differently, living with God’s generosity and grace, even ourselves. What if we saw each other not as people who came to work later than us, but as people to whom God will be gracious, even as God has been gracious to us? How would that impact the way we conduct ourselves in traffic, at the office, with employees we supervise with various gifts and skills? How would that shift in vision challenge us be a more generous people, more generous church?
This past Wednesday I went back to Greensboro for a funeral.
Virginia was one of the stalwarts of the congregation I served there for five years before we moved here and cancer, after decades of trying, finally got to her. Virginia was one of those people you can’t make up, standing ram-rod straight with a helmet of shimmering white hair. She had been a soprano in the choir for as long as anyone could remember. She made it a point of coming into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, when she knew I was practicing my sermon, to shuffle a few papers, give me a few pointers, maybe place an offering envelope in the plate knowing she’d be singing later. Virginia was not a gentle soul – the first time you met her, the odds were you wouldn’t like her. She spoke her mind, whatever it was, whenever it occurred to hurt, hurting someone else’s feelings on a regular basis. But she was also capable of great kindness, and when she made her way into your heart, she was there for good. Virginia and her husband Jack, who died of cancer 8 years ago, had a bond as strong as steel.
After the committal service at the cemetery I was talking with her son Jay. Virginia and Jack had a rocky relationship with their children. They were very firm parents and very clear in their opinions, which can sometimes drive away the people upon which you most often inflict those opinions. Jay came up to me and said, this funeral was really wonderful. He said, for so long my brother and I thought that you all just didn’t see the real her. We thought WE experienced all the hard and difficult to like stuff that you all didn’t get. But these past few days I’ve realized that you all in this church really saw her, but you also loved her. That has made all the difference to us. You saw her for who she was, and you loved her, too.
May it be so for us, for our relationships. May it be so for the church. And May it be so for our broken yet beautiful world. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 74.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Trans. John Doberstein (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1953), 92-93.