Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The vineyard of Heaven

This Sunday I visited my alma mater, and attended my local church in that city. As it turned out, there was a special speaker - an ex-con who had drifted in and out of trouble and hedonism for much of his life until finding Christ through the loving encouragement of a prison volunteer. It was a powerful story of salvation and transformation.

Drawing from his own story, he then went on to describe the Parable of the Vineyard Workers:


“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

3 “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

6 “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

8 “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

And the speaker went on to say: "I know that when I die, I will meet my Creator, and he will welcome me. Even though sometimes I made him sad, and even though one time in my life things got so bad that his Son wept for me, he will welcome me and say, 'Come on in, there's some people I think you'd like to meet, and they'd like to meet you too.' I believe that I will receive the full reward, even though I came to faith late in my life."

That made sense. Surely it seemed reasonable that the fullness of salvation belongs to any who accept Christ, regardless of when they find him. The connection had been drawn, and the meaning of the parable suddenly became clear.

Yet, faced with this parable in the past, I had indeed struggled with the unfairness of treating those who had toiled away for the whole day and those who had only worked for a few hours the same. I had to rationalize this by telling myself that it was the farmer's (God's) generosity that paid the last men well rather than unfairness that caused the first men to be paid little. Indeed, this is the case, but it still felt somewhat unfair.

This only goes to expose my own pettiness... but more than that, it shows how we can misinterpret Christ's teachings. The parables were set in familiar terms to make them comprehensible to those with open hearts, but they were also set in these terms to confound those who did not have hearts to listen.


10Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" 11And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

"'You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.

15For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.'

16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

What I had done was listen to Jesus' parable with the ears of this world. I had applied this world's standards and this world's meanings to it. In doing so, I had missed the point and corrupted the message. Jesus' message was not about wages or vineyards, but about salvation and grace. Viewed with these eyes, the Parable of the Vineyard Workers provides a powerful lesson about the nature of God, one that is indeed fair and loving.

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