The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 20th Chapter
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 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 wentout 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.’ 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.”
My Master’s thesis was titled “Optimization of a Sherry Baking Process for Muscadine Grapes and a Feasibility Study for Sherry Baking Utilizing High-Temperature, Short-Time Technology.” Basically I tried to see if you could make Sherry wine from native, North Carolina grapes. It turns out it’s possible… technically. Taste wise though, there’s a reason nobody does. On the up side I learned a few things about wine making and that makes me wonder about today’s parable.
You see, winemakers are generally an obsessed lot. So, when it gets close to harvest time they go out in the vineyard almost every hour and take a sample, eat a few grapes and test them for sugar and acidity. As the sun moves across the sky, as the dew dries, as the rain falls, as the day warms up or cools down, the grapes on the vine constantly change and then there is that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT where everything is just right. The trick to making great wine is to pick ALL your grapes in that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT. And, since the grapes keep changing as long as they are on the vine, when that moment comes, you’ve got to move FAST! The land owner keeps going out to get more workers because THIS is that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT.
He gets everyone he could find to start at 6 a.m. They agree on one denarius for a 12 hour day, which was a living wage, but there aren’t enough workers. So he goes out and grabs a second bunch and promises them whatever’s “right.” Still, there aren’t enough people to so he sends others. The grapes are still changing on the vine, you know! There’s no time to talk about pay, THE ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT is slipping away! He needs EVERYONE picking… even people hired at “the eleventh hour” could make all the difference if, with that last hour’s push, all those grapes can get into the crusher!
And then the day’s done, the grapes are in the crusher and it’s time to dole out the cash! Everyone gets a denarius. The one hour workers open their pay envelopes, their eyes widen, but shockingly they don’t say, “Hey, you paid us too much!” The twelve hour guys though, look in their envelope, and their eyes widen and they shout, HEY! THAT’S NOT FAIR!
The landowner however, they all soon learn, doesn’t care about “fair” and if they had been paying attention, he gave away his M.O. when he told the second group what he would do for them. He said, “I’ll do for you what is RIGHT”… this landowner does what’s “right” not what’s “fair.” So THAT’s what this parable teaches, right? God is passionate about justice! God cares about doing what’s RIGHT… generously giving us what we need, regardless of what the world says is “fair” or how things have always been done. That’s a whole sermon right there and if life was “fair” I’d say “Amen” and we’d all sit down and get to coffee hour all that more quickly. But life’s not fair and as good as justice is (and it’s REALLY GOOD), justice is only the tip of the iceberg in this parable. You see, I think we miss something really important when we forget that this is a winemaker, and winemakers are an obsessed lot.
So, take a minute and imagine what happens in the scene that follows in this little wine making town. On the way home, the workers start talking in the car. It was so bizarre that in the drive through at McHummus they tell the guy in the window what happened. They sit down and eat and can't stop talking about it. And what are they saying? “Do you believe what that guy just did!? He paid everyone the SAME!” “Yeah, EVEN the ones who only worked ONE HOUR! Can you believe it?” And soon, all around the table, all around the town, all around the COUNTY, the story of this obsessed, wack-a-doodle winemaker goes viral. Their conclusion? This guy’s crazy! They also think, next year this guy is going to be sorry because EVERY SINGLE PERSON in this whole town… heck this whole COUNTY is going to show up at this guy’s vineyard at the eleventh hour, work for an hour and expect a whole day’s pay!
So it looks like this winemaker’s made a horrible mistake, right? He’s done something completely crazy and next year at the harvest he’s going to pay through the nose! But is this winemaker crazy like a crazy person or maybe… just maybe is he crazy like a fox? Because what’s the one thing this obsessed winemaker cares about most? It’s not his reputation. It's clear he doesn’t care what other people think about him. It’s not holding onto cash. He seems fine throwing that around. You might want to say “doing what’s right”, and that’s in there somehow, but I’m wondering if the thing this obsessed winemaker values most isn’t simply MAKING GREAT WINE.
He’s a winemaker! Could it be that what he wants, more than money, more than a good reputation, more even than doing what’s fair is to get his grapes harvested in that ONE PERFECT MOMENT… in the ONE HOUR when every grape is absolutely perfect? SO, did this winemaker just sneakily, craftily, brilliantly create a situation where next year, every single person in the WHOLE county will show up for one hour of work and because EVERYONE is there at once, did he just fix it so his entire harvest will get to the crusher, not just on the one perfect day but in the one perfect HOUR?
If THAT’S what’s going on here, could Jesus be telling us that we have a God who doesn’t care what people think, doesn’t care about playing fair and doesn’t care about the cost? Because if THAT’S what Jesus is telling us, then it looks like we have a God who will do literally ANYTHING, spend ANY amount, disregard what ANYBODY thinks, just to make sure EVERY SINGLE PERSON from every single corner of creation piles into God’s Divine vineyard in that perfect hour… on that perfect day, so that by hook or by crook, by faith or even by flimflam God makes sure EVERY SINGLE ONE in all of creation ends up in the front yard of the Divine Winemaker’s Kingdom. Is that what Jesus is saying? Or is it just that we have a God who loves really good wine? You know, I think it's probably both! Amen.