Matthew 20: 1-16 / 25th Sunday in ordinary time /September 18, 2011/Norman B. Bendroth
A man owned a vineyard. It’s been a good year, weather-wise. The grapes are rich and full and ready for plucking, so Mr. Bordeaux gets up early, showers and shaves, and goes down to the village to hire some laborers to pick the grapes. Unfortunately, every other grower is looking for help, too, so Mr. Bordeaux must pay a premium wage to get the people he needs, say $150 per day.
Mr. Bordeaux loads his crew into his pickup and heads back to the vines. But the harvest is so good and the grapes are so ripe, Bordeaux quickly sees that he needs more hands. So, back in the pickup he goes, at 9 a.m., then again at noon, and finally at 3 p.m., giving all the workers the same line. He’ll pay what’s right, top dollar. One hour before quitting time he sees that the job won’t get done without all the hands he can muster, so he goes back one last time. All that’s left by that late hour is your usual group of losers that nobody wanted to hire, hangin’ out, shooting craps, drinking cheap wine. What the heck, thinks Bob. He goes up to them and offers them work. What the heck, they think. It’s only an hour before dark. Maybe we could make enough to go halves on a six-pack. Let’s go.
So, what do you think happens when Bordeaux drops off each successive group at the vineyard? Right. They ask the guys who got there first, “What’d the old man say he’d pay you? $150 bucks! Well, let’s see, 150 divided by 12, wow! That means those of us who got here at noon will get $75 bucks. You guys that just got here, well that’s a good $12.50 for you. You can buy a couple of six packs with that.”
Bob Bordeaux, however, had a surprise for them. At the end of the day, with all his grapes safe in the vats, he’s happy. Maybe he’s been into a little of his 1985 Bordeaux. He’s feeling good. At any rate, he pays everybody off, beginning with those shiftless losers who got there last. So when the first guy, the one with the sunglasses and the gold earring, opens his envelope and finds 15 tens in it, he doesn’t say, “Mr. Bordeaux, excuse me, I think you make a mistake.”
No, he plugs in his iPod and starts walking as fast as his blue jeans will carry him. He’s out of there before the old man realizes what he’s done. And when his friends who got there earlier finally get their envelopes and catch up with him, he can’t wait to tell them what jerks they were for sweating out there all day when he got the same money for one hour of work, and in the cool of the day, too.
Think how the people felt who had been there since dawn! They hightail it back to Bordeaux’s ranch, screaming their heads off. “What kind of way is this any way to run a vineyard?” they demand to know.
“Look, pal,” says Bordeaux, who by this time is well into his second bottle. “Who made you chief bookkeeper? You agreed to work for $150 per day. You worked one day. You got $150. If I want to give some guy in sunglasses and a gold earring the same as you, so what? Why is your nose out of joint? I’m only having a good time. Here, there are no early insiders or late outsiders. Here everybody gets to have a good time. Why should you mope about my generosity? Go on by the tasting room and get a free chardonnay. Drink up, or get out.”
Now, think hard. Is this parable a case study in the grace of God or in the judgment of God? Well, you say could say grace, because the losers got clobbered by the sheer, undeserved, extravagant love of God. Or maybe, you say it’s not about grace, but about judgment? How so? Because the outcome was great for that lazy street rat, but lousy for the hard working day laborer? I thought grace was supposed to make everybody feel good. Why does grace sometimes sting?
John Wesley, on the occasion of being kicked out of an English pulpit, once said, “There are few matters more repugnant to reasonable people than the grace of God.” Repugnant?
How did you feel when you heard that Watergate crook Jeb Mcgruder was headed to Princeton seminary to become a minister? Were you elated when you learned that millionaire cocaine dealer John Delorean had gotten born again? Watergate crook Charles Colson while in prison, got born again, and started a nationwide ministry to prisoners and families. When we insiders hear that these “sinners” get the same reward that was promised to us good, faithful, church-going people that burns us.
So, it is a parable of judgment as much as, maybe more than, a story of grace. When the Lord of the vineyard finally loses his cool, he vents his anger not on the losers, but on the winners. He is fed up not with the unacceptable outsiders, the deadbeat do-nothings and losers, but with those insiders who can’t accept the scope of the Lord’s acceptance. He says, “Are you envious because I am generous?” literally, the Greek translates, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
It is this “evil eye,” this ophthalmos poneros, the evil bookkeeper’s eye, always fixed on the accounts, always keeping score, that has got God’s goat. Bookkeeping is a sin. There is no minimum balance below which the grace of God refuses to forgive. There is no debt so high that your credit is cancelled. There is no worry over your credits because all of us live in the red, eternally indebted. If we’re ever going to make it to God’s party, it will have to be because we got invited, not because we worked our way in.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ harshest words of condemnation are always for the insiders, those presumed to be living in the black. In this kingdom, nobody gets kicked out except for those who are already in. The father said to the older brother who refused to party at the return of the prodigal son, “Son, all that I have is already yours. Come on; get that evil out of your eye. Let’s party.” That story ends with the no-count loser at the party, and the good, scorekeeping, CPA older brother outside pouting about the father’s generosity.
Robert Capon, Episcopal priest and provocative author, says that if the world would be saved by bookkeeping and settling accounts, God would have sent Moses, not Jesus. The law was OK, as far as it went. But about all that thousand years of law proved was that, in Paul’s words, “No one is righteous, no not even one” (Rom. 3:10). God, in Jesus, gave up the accountant job, closed the books forever, gathered all our iou’s and nailed them on a cross. After that, it appears, only the “winners” lose. Only the “losers” win.
God’s given up on salvation by the books and quit keeping score long ago. Now the only way to get saved is to be willing to come to the party, to let go of our accounting and let God be as reckless, as prodigal, as indiscreet with grace as God wants.
The most scornful, divisive thing they could say about Jesus is, “This man eats and drinks with sinners.” he will party with anyone, have fun with riffraff! Heaven is a party for losers. Would you come to such a party?
Finally, at the end of the day, when the judge puts on the wig and robe and bangs down the gavel and calls the court to order, to pass judgment on our lives, finally our only hope, whenever we got here, in whatever condition we arrived, at whatever hour of the day, our only hope is that Jesus will continue to party with riffraff, and drink with sinners, and love the losers.
Hmmmm. Folks like you and me.