The readings for Sunday, September 18, 2011:
First Reading: Jonah 3:10--4:11
First Reading: Jonah 3:10--4:11
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm: Psalm 145:1-8
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
I've often thought that these parables that use work metaphors are less useful to those of us toiling in the 21st century--and I've wondered how the contemporaries of Jesus would hear this parable.
Outrage is the classic response to the idea that the workers who toiled all day getting the same wages as those who show up one hour before quitting time. We howl, "But that's not fair."
Some preachers will use this Gospel as an excuse to preach on the classic idea that life isn't fair. Maybe they'll remind us that we're fortunate that life isn't fair (how often do we pray for justice, when what we really long for is mercy?) or maybe they'll give us a real soul-sapper of a sermon about the grinding nature of life. Or maybe congregations will hear about the idea of grace being extended to us all, no matter how long it takes us to acknowledge it.
But the poet in me immediately searches for a new way to frame this parable. What if, instead of toiling in the vineyard, we're invited to a party? Those of us who come early get to drink more wine, eat more goodies, and engage in more hours of intense conversation. We get to spend more quality time with our host. Those who come later will still get to drink wine, eat goodies, converse, and have quality time. The wine won't have soured, the goodies won't have molded, the conversation won't have dwindled, the host won't be tired and wishing that everyone would just go home. The party will still be intensely wonderful. But those who come late won't have as much time to enjoy it.
God does call us to toil in the vineyard. But toil is the wrong word, or at least, in our world, it has negative connotations that can't be easily overcome.
Don't think of it as the kind of work you had to do in that soul-deadening job with that boss who delighted in tormenting you. It's not that kind of work. It's also not the kind of work where it's OK to just show up and keep the seat warm, wondering when it will be time to return home, to the place you'd rather be (which would be Heaven, in this metaphor, I suppose).
Instead, God's work is like that enriching job, the one where you were challenged, but not overwhelmed. God's work engages you on every level and you look up at the end of the work day, amazed at how time has passed and how involved you have become. At the end of God's work day, you're amazed at all you've been able to accomplish.
God calls us to partnership in an amazing creative endeavour. We're called to transform the world, to help reclaim the world for God's vision. In Surprised by Hope, Bishop N. T. Wright reminds us, "But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15;58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208).
The ways that we can do this Kingdom work are varied, from helping the poor, to enjoying a good meal, to writing a poem, to consoling a friend, to playing with your dog, to painting . . . the list is as long as there are humans in the world. Wright assures us that "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).
Do the kind of creating that involves you on many levels, that makes you lose your sense of time, that leaves you unmoored in your wonder at the beauty of creation. That's the work that God calls us to do.