Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Pentecost 14 – Year A

It’s an offensive parable, really.
A man hires a group of day laborers early in the morning
and they work for hours and hours,
tediously picking grapes off the vine one by one,
and sweating buckets beneath the blazing Palestine sky
Then the guy goes and hires a few more workers at the end of the day,
and they only work for a little while, when the sun is already setting.
And then everybody gets paid the same amount?
If it were me in that vineyard,
I would certainly feel offended.
Why are they getting paid as much as I am?
Whatever happened to equal pay for equal work?
Why do the last get to be first?
Shouldn’t the first go first,
if they went to all the trouble to be first?
And why exactly is this scenario like the kingdom of God?
If you’re not a little bit offended by it,
well then, congratulations, you are saintlier than I am.
This parable speaks volumes
about who we are
and how we view ourselves.
It also speaks volumes
about who God is
and how God views us.

Last week, the President of the United States
came to the town where I now reside
to talk about the struggling economy.
And given that:
1. I’m technically an undecided voter
who is concerned about high unemployment
2. and I’d never been in the same room
as a sitting President (and the patriot in me
thought that would be really cool
to tell my grandkids someday), and
3. my friend Xan had an extra ticket,
I decided to go hear him out.
Now, they were saying that traffic and parking up near
the University of Richmond was going to be a mess,
But there were going to be free buses shuttling people
from the City Stadium to UR.
Well, I live not even half a mile from City Stadium,
So around 8am last Friday morning,
ticket in hand,
I walked on over and saw…
The. World’s. Longest. Line.
for the shuttle.
All along the Freeman Road sidewalk.
It stretched the length of the stadium property, which is about 3 blocks.
And in the 7 minutes it took me to walk
from my house to the stadium,
the weather had changed from slightly cool with a chance of showers
to sunny and blazing hot.
Suddenly the long black pants and jacket
I had chosen to wear that morning
seemed like a mistake.
I walked to the very end of the line
and tried to avoid eye contact with those I passed.
Was it my imagination, or were they looking at me with pity
and smugness because I hadn’t woken up as early as them?
But that’s ok, I try to be a good sport.
I eventually found the very last person in line
and I took my place behind him.
As I mentally preparing for a loooong wait,
the sun continued to beat down on the not-shaded sidewalk.
Then in the distance,
we saw the big buses coming down McCloy Street.
But rather than turn on Maplewood, towards the front of the line,
the buses kept going, and slowed down
at the intersection of McCloy and Freeman,
right beside me at the end of the line.
The buses halted.
And the door of the lead bus opened.
And Jesus himself got off the bus and he yelled:
“OK, listen up, folks!
Everyone is going to get a seat on one of these buses.
It may take us several trips,
but I promise you that everyone here
will get to the University in time to see the President’s speech.
However, we’re going to do something a little different.
The last are going to be first,
and the first are going to be last.
So this morning, we’re going to load these buses
from the end of the line,
starting with this lovely young brunette in the black pants and the jacket.”
Startled and delighted, I smiled at Jesus gratefully
and I boarded that air-conditioned bus.
And off we went.

Ok, so that didn’t really happen.
But it should’ve.

What actually happened was this.
I went to the end of the long line and stood there for a bit.
Then some buses came and left.
Meanwhile, more people were arriving even later than I had,
and as they passed me on their way to the end of the line,
I felt sorry for them, but also glad
that I’d managed to get there earlier than they had.
And a few more buses came and went
And more and more people arrived and got in line
And soon I was no longer at the back of the line.
Now I was near the front of the line!
By this time I was really hot and sticky from the direct sun.
So were other people—
in fact, one older woman got dehydrated
and an ambulance had to come for her.
Turns out she was ok, so we all stayed in our places
and kept waiting for the next bus.
By this time I was getting a little bit hungry
And kind of thirsty
And perhaps a touch cranky.
And I swear to God,
if a bus driven by Jesus himself had come at that minute
and started loading up passengers from the other end of the line,
I would have pitched a fit.
It probably would have been an internal fit,
because I’m not really one to make a scene
I certainly would have grumbled
at the incredibly offensive injustice of it all.

(In case anyone is interested in what happened after
I got on the bus, well, after I rode to the University,
where there was an even loooonger line
to get in to see the speech.
But I found my friend and cut the line to join up with her.
I apologize to any of you who may have been behind me.)

The thing that strikes me about both
of the scenarios I just described—
the one where I go last to first,
and the one where I go first to last—is that,
no matter where I was in line,
it was all about me.

We live in a culture of keeping score,
Of claiming our spot at the head of the line when it’s our turn:
“I’m number one on the waiting list.”
“I had the right of way.”
“I’m in boarding group A, and as a longtime member
of the Preferred Elite Frequent Flier Executive Club,
I deserve to sit in an exit row seat for the extra legroom.”
I. Was. Here. First.
This is how we earn our station in life, right?
We get there ahead of everyone else
and then vaguely attempt to keep our smugness in check.
This is how our culture functions.
Maybe so.

But, friends, as you know,
this is not how God functions.
We, as a society, have set up
these elaborate economic systems of fairness
to determine who deserves to be the line leader.

But in God’s eyes, none of us is the most deserving,
for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And our linear, human notions of justice
have absolutely no significance to God.
God’s sense of justice reverses all our assumptions.
The last shall be first and the first shall be last.
We hear it in the Magnificat, the song Mary sings about her son:
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly”
We hear it in the parable of the Prodigal son,
And we hear it in today’s parable of the laborers in the field.
And once we get over how offensive it is,
we can start to appreciate how beautiful it is.
So often we assume that we’d be the ones
out laboring in the vineyard all day long.
But what if that’s not the case?
What if we’re all prodigals who come to the vineyard late
and are surprised and delighted
To be given a wage we do not deserve,
Not because of who we are,
But because of who God is.
Not because we earned it,
But because our God is gracious
and loves us on a level we cannot even fathom.
Our baptismal liturgy reminds of this.
When the sponsors are asked, on behalf of the candidates:
“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?”
The answer is, of course:
“I do.”

So yes, it’s an offensive parable.
The one who told it said a lot of things that people found offensive.
He offended a lot of powerful people.
And eventually he paid for it dearly.
And all for our sake,
because he loves us that much. Amen.