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No Bargain is the Best Bargain
When you first hear this parable, no doubt many think that this is a crazy, mixed up way of running a company. Five times during the day he goes out to hire workers for his vineyard and then at the end of the day pays them all the same wage. No wonder the ones hired in the morning were burned; working under the heat of the sun, while those who came last remained in the late day shade. What happens to our tidy world of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage? So what’s the point? Some parables are helped by looking at the context they appear in. The context may spin out possible meanings.
In the preceding chapter we heard the tale of the rich young man who turned away sorrowfully when Jesus pointed out that his wealth was getting in the way heaven. It’s not that wealth is bad and poverty good. Rather it seems that God is insistent on having every part of us and particularly that part which we are least willing to give up.
For the rich young man it was his money that was more important than God. For someone else it might be intellectual pride or prejudice or ambition. Whatever it is that we hold back, maybe that’s what God has her eye on. Now Peter and the disciples were watching all of this and thought what does this mean for us? After all, they had given up everything - goods, fame and family. So Peter says, “we have left all and followed you so what do we get back in return?” So Peter watches the young man turn away and then puts some reverse English on it and says to himself, “so that’s how life is!” We have left everything to follow you. What then shall we have?
The answer Jesus gave didn’t disappoint Peter, though it might surprise us. Jesus was reassuring. Peter was right apparently. “Truly I say to You… When the son of man shall sit on his throne, you who have followed me will also sit with me.” Well then it’s not such a bad bargain to sacrifice here with rewards to dazzle later on. Maybe sitting on thrones doesn’t move you much nor do images of pearly gates strike a fire in you, but update the rewards a bit and it makes sense.
Collect the green stapes and viola. Pass the road test get your license. Do your research, publish and get tenure. So if this is the way God operates, then at least it’s a bargain that has rules. It may be a hard bargain, but at least it’s a bargain.
But then comes the conjunction but, and after that comes this confusing parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which throws the whole scheme of things into shambles. The quid pro quo falls apart. The understandable sacrifice- reward falls to the ground. No wonder the first workers were so ticked off. They had entered into a contract all neat and tidy. A day’s work for a day’s wage. But 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. Notice reward is still ther, but suddenly it’s turned sour. The bargain with God turns from a hard bargain into a bad bargain.
I wonder if life gets distorted when we look at it through a calculating eye. There are many moments where we do for others without thought of reward. We lose some sleep to care for the homeless and some of course would say the reward is in the doing. Maybe Jesus is saying that these moments of selfless giving without thought of reward, without calculating getting something back in return, are the norm in God’s world. Everything else in our tit for tat world is abnormal.
But when you really ponder things, this other attitude of uncalculating love is the only way to treat God and people around us. For notice how the contractual arrangement with the householder in the parable distorted the relationship of the first ones hired to those who came at the end. If the first ones hired were the only folks in the picture there would be no problem. But as soon as the others came into the picture, a deadly comparison walked in with them.
Get a tit for tat arrangement into your relationship with God and our relationship with neighbor is poisoned at the start. What you believe about God does color your relationship to other people. If your business with God is just on a business basis, so much of this for so much of that, than your neighbor becomes a competitor, an enemy.
I will likely resent another’s good fortune or happiness with this attitude. So we will resent someone of a different ethnic makeup driving around in a Mercedes. So a bargain with God is always a bad bargain because it makes my neighbor a competitor.
But it’s also bad because it distorts my relationship to God. Because it leads me to believe that I have God under my control. For if God doesn’t live up to my understanding of her end of the bargain, then I can throw a tantrum or lose my faith as we say, which is simply a way of trying to control of God. Poor old God you know I just don’t believe anymore. And that is putting the cart before the horse.
The grumbling of the first workers wasn’t just a matter of justice or a distortion of their relationship to the other workers; in effect it was their reluctance to let God be God. Let the householder be the householder. The householder replied to their grumblings with, “am I not allowed to do what I choose to, with what is mine. Do you begrudge my generosity?”
And that would be scary way to run things. To cut God down to the size of our sense of justice; for even our best notions of justice are partial and imperfect. For who can probe the mixture of motives that underline so much of who we are and what we do.
The remarkable thing about this is that Jesus loved the rich young man who turned away. Just as he loved Peter who sacrificed everythin,g but who wanted to tally up what was in it for him. Just as God loves each one of us with all our alternating moods of faith, sacrifice, mixed with self interest.
And it’s that kind of love, we are asked to trust. In God’s economy who can count on anyone thing except God. Slice up life in terms of rewards and God has a neat way of stepping outside it all laughing with a holy hilarity.
Trust me your life and don’t count the cost, but don’t count the results either. Or the whole thing will turn sour. Make a bargain with God, it won’t make you happy. But trust me with your life and love and - if you’ve got your eye on, what follows after the and - then you’re your eyes are on the wrong place.
For this kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
Sunday, March 6, 2016