Cultivating mercy

What a curious story Jesus told us. Take it to a business owner or a manager and tell them how this peculiar workday unfolded from first light to pay time. They’ll scratch their heads and wonder, “What kind of business man is this land owner? How did he ever manage to stay in business?”

Then take it to the union hall where the organizers will try to keep their calm while explaining why you can’t pay some workers for one hour’s work what others make in an entire day. It’s just not right.

Then take the story to the corner of the parking lot at Home Depot. Early in the morning, men and women gather here, waiting for someone to hire them – spread mulch in somebody’s yard, perhaps, or help clean up a construction site. They laugh as they listen to your story because they know how hard it is to get hired, how hard it is to make a living with day labor. They know what it’s like to watch truck after truck drive by – and how few trucks come around after noon.

When Jesus first told this story, many farmers in Galilee had lost their land, and they had to make a living as day laborers. Mid-size and large farms, many of them owned by absentee landlords, were usually operated with day labor rather than slaves; it was much cheaper, and there was an abundance of landless peasants. Farmworkers in Galilee were poor, chronically underemployed, and yet they still had to pay taxes to Rome.

One denarius, a small Roman coin, appears to have been the going rate for a day of field labor, but a denarius wasn’t much. You could buy 10-12 small loaves of pita bread for a denarius. For a new set of clothes you had to save 30 denarii.[1] Day laborers lived hard and often short lives.

So this landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers. Nothing unusual. Common practice. Familiar world. But then he came back at 9 to hire more workers. “Well,” you say to yourself, “he must have realized that he needed more hands to get the work done; it happens.”

Then he came back at noon. “Does he know what he’s doing,” you wonder, “or is he perhaps one of those rich guys who buy themselves a vineyard and a winery and it’s all just an expensive hobby?”

Then he came back again in the middle of the afternoon, when everybody was dreaming about quitting time, and he kept hiring. Now you are running out of explanations that don’t involve mental health concerns. Has the owner perhaps been in the sun too long?

About an hour before the first stars would come out the owner of the vineyard returned again, and he hired every last worker he could find. You’re done trying to explain this.

What do you make of this story? Where do you find a way in? Imagine it was you who got up at dawn to go to the corner where they pick up day laborers. You know that if you get hired, you can get some bread on the way home and your family will eat. But you don’t get picked in the first round. You go to the other side of the square, hoping to have better luck over there, but you don’t. The younger ones are hired first. The stronger ones are hired first. You cross the road again, but it’s noon already. You decide to check out the Labor Ready office, but they tell you to come back tomorrow, and to be there early. So you go back to the marketplace, and just when you decide to call it a day and walk home, this landowner shows up and asks you, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

You already feel like a left-over person, no longer needed, unnoticed, forgotten, and this man calls you idle. He doesn’t know how long you have been on your feet. He doesn’t know how hard you have tried to find work. He doesn’t know how hungry you are and how much you dread coming home tonight with empty hands. Did he just call you lazy or work-shy? “We’re here because no one has hired us,” you tell him. “You also go into the vineyard,” the landowner replies. And you go. You’re not doing it for the money, or you would have asked him how much he’s paying. You go because …, who knows. Perhaps it’s just because you want to be useful, because you want to contribute and feel like you belong.

So you go and work in the vineyard. Soon the foreman calls everybody to line up, starting with those hired last, starting with you. You barely got your hands dirty.  How much could it be for an hour’s work? It doesn’t really matter. It won’t be nearly enough to put bread on the table.

The foreman puts a coin in your hand. You feel the weight. No way. It’s a denarius. It’s a full day’s pay. It’s unbelievable! You turn around to the people behind you, “Look at this! A full day’s wage – and I just got here!”

The news travels fast to the end of the line, where the ones hired first are waiting to be paid. So there’s another door to enter this story.

Imagine you’ve worked twelve long, hard, hot hours. You are dirty, your clothes are sticking to your skin, and your back is aching. Talk about eating your bread by the sweat of your brow! But you’ve heard the news from the front of the line and now you’re looking forward to a little bonus, and your back is already starting to feel better. The line moves slowly forward, and eventually the foreman puts a coin in your hand. It’s a denarius. One denarius. It’s unbelievable! You turn to the people around you, and they are just as upset as you are. “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.” You have made them equal to us.

What a curious story, this parable of God’s kingdom. You wish somebody would just explain it, boil it down to its essence; but it resists reduction, this curious story. Instead, it shakes up our expectations; it challenges our assumptions about God and the world, and perhaps it subverts what we accept as settled just enough to free us to re-envision our world anew in light of such grace.

This parable holds the pain and the hope of those in every generation who are treated like left-over people. All those latecomers in the company of sinners and tax collectors who are not pious enough to be counted among the righteous, who are unworthy of divine reward, and yet Jesus welcomes them into the kingdom.

This story holds the pain and the hope of all those in the company of landless peasants who feel like they are no longer needed or wanted, and Jesus affirms them because the words “no longer needed” are not in the kingdom dictionary.

But this story also holds the anger and resentment of those in every generation of God’s people who worry that too much mercy for others will only breed further lack of effort on their part; it holds the anger and resentment of all who look with envy on those they deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of the joy of God’s reign than they themselves are: the company of the self-made upright who cannot imagine themselves as recipients of any gift they didn’t earn, but whom Jesus welcomes with the same compassion as he welcomes notorious sinners.

You have made them equal to us. Yes indeed. Will we learn to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies like me and them”?

This little story of God’s amazing grace holds a mighty surprise. Whether we respond with joy or with grumbling depends entirely on where we see ourselves in line:

Have I been working since the break of dawn, or am I only just now beginning to get my hands in the dirt of this landowner’s vineyard?

Do I see that work in this vineyard is about cultivating mercy and not about endlessly cloning our own concepts of fairness and equity?

Do I recognize that at the end of the day the story is not about my work in this landowner’s vineyard, but about this landowner’s patient, passionate work in the vineyard of our life? Very little is said about what the workers do all day, but a lot about what the owner of the vineyard does. How much time he spends on the road, driving back and forth between the vineyard and the marketplace, picking up anybody off the street at all hours that is looking to make a living! The harvest is not about grapes, it’s about us. It’s about our growth in God’s extravagant mercy.

The peculiar landowner in this story is a lot like the man who told it: persistently looking, calling, and inviting us to go and work in God’s vineyard. Every last one of us needs to work a little in that vineyard. Until all of us rejoice in the gift of life shaped entirely by God’s grace.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKK 1/3), 146.