‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our gathering together outside today provides us with an appropriate setting to think about the “vineyard” which our Lord likens to the kingdom of heaven in today’s Gospel. So let’s imagine ourselves to be in the vineyard of the kingdom: this little vineyard of Grace Church, specifically. It’s even in the morning right now; we’re like the first batch of laborers whom the landowner has hired for the day’s work. God has brought us into his employment and provided us with the tasks we are to perform as his workers as well as with the grace -- the “wages” -- we need in order to perform them. And we can think of ourselves as the first batch of laborers because we are those who are already here; we are those who are already members of Grace Church. Of course, many of us have been working in this vineyard for decades. This Sunday is just another normal day after countless others in the past. But even still, we are the existing congregation of Grace Church. At this moment, “early in the morning” in the words of Jesus’ parable, we are so far the only workers that have been hired.
To the first group of laborers who were hired first thing in the morning, they probably thought that they were sufficient in number to complete the day’s work. There’s nothing in the parable that suggests that the reason the landowner proceeds to seek out more workers throughout the day is that the first group wasn’t enough. And besides, that’s not normally how day-laborers are hired anyway. So the first group of laborers in the parable probably assume that they’re it. And similarly, it might be easy for us here at Grace Church to assume that we’re it and that however many are here already is enough. Sure, new members would be nice -- I doubt there’s anyone in our congregation who actively doesn’t want the church to grow and for more people to discover what we so deeply cherish here. But consciously or not, we probably are inclined to think that we are more or less “complete” as is -- adding new members would be a nice bonus, but perhaps not necessarily essential.
Well, today’s Gospel lesson radically disrupts this assumption, whether of the first group of laborers in the parable or of those of us here today at Grace Church, because the landowner is about to do something out of the ordinary. He’s already hired the first group of laborers, but:
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
So he proceeds to go out into the marketplace not once but four more times throughout the day, right up to 5 o’clock in the evening -- quitting time -- in order to hire more workers. There’s only two possible explanations for this peculiar behavior: either there’s so much work that needs done that the landowner will take whoever he can get whenever he can get them, or the landowner’s main concern isn’t about the work at all, but is rather with the sheer generosity of bestowing wages to as many as he can find. Or maybe it’s both. Either way, this vineyard appears to be unlimited: it can accommodate as many as the landowner sends in and then provide work for all of them once they’re there.
So what does all of this reveal to us when we turn to think about Grace Church? First, I’m struck by the fact that as long as it’s just us for the most part -- as long as Grace Church is comprised mostly of those who have been here already -- it’s still “early in the morning.” Most of the work-day is still ahead of us -- the life of this parish is still ahead of us -- and no matter how acceptable our current congregation may appear to us right now, we’re not progressing through the day until others join us. Granted, this work-day only ends when all things are made new, when the wages of our salvation are finally disbursed and we receive the reward of seeing God face to face. So, as long as we’re not there yet, there’s still work to do. And this is true both in the local sense of our individual parish of Grace Church and in the universal sense of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of all times and places. The Church is tasked with bringing all humanity into the unity of the Body of Christ. But what that looks like in practice for a single parish like ours is that we really only exist as a church to the extent that we are in mission. This vineyard is only tended by the constant invitation to those in our community to join us in the fellowship of the kingdom.
Keeping out attention focused beyond the little vineyard of our church to those outside in our community, our “marketplace,” would be difficult in any circumstance. But COVID has certainly made it even harder. There are numerous restrictions on our parish life that prevent us from doing things “as usual” and it’s definitely more complicated to continue to make Grace Church an open and accessible place for the worship of God. And some of this is inescapable; we really just have to accept the fact that the internal demands of our parish are a lot more complicated than usual and we’ll just have to push through until the pandemic finally subsides. But we shouldn’t let that become an excuse for us to get so inward-focused that we forget how early in the morning it is. There are so many fellow laborers out in the marketplace ready and waiting to join us in the good work that God has prepared for us to walk in. We are incomplete without them; we have yet to fulfill the task until they are with us.
Not surprisingly, at the end of the parable, a conflict arises on the vineyard between those who began working first thing in the morning and those who only came at the very end of the day:
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It makes sense when those who’ve served an institution the longest are rewarded accordingly. That’s what seniority is for. But the radical thing about the Gospel is that it is not our efforts that set the standard for what we or anyone else receives from God. Grace is grace because it is free and unconditional. God, represented by the landowner in the parable, doesn’t calculate what he gives to the last group of laborers by comparing how much they worked to how much the first group worked. Because, again, the radical implication of this whole parable is that the “wages” of God’s grace is not calculated based on anyone’s work. At the end of the day, the first group of laborers receive their wages from the same source of utter generosity as the last group. There are no grounds for resentment between the laborers because all have been gathered by the grace of the landowner.
So for us who are here today as the existing congregation of Grace Church -- the first group of laborers -- this parable reminds us that as we continue to set our attention to our community, we must resist the temptation of entitlement. For this is not our vineyard, it is God’s; we are here at God’s gratuitous generosity alone. And because this grace is unlimited, we are freed from any fear of possessiveness or of competition with those whom God may bring among us. This parable reminds us, in short, that in the kingdom of heaven, the last will be first, and the first will be last; which means that those of us who are here first are called to make room in this vineyard for those who will come ahead of us as the day moves to its end. Amen.