Rev. Caroline Barnett
A Vineyard is Just a Vineyard
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.
11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’
13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Over the last few weeks, Nick and Kathy both shared how the parables— these short stories we are reading in July— reminded them of their experiences at summer camp as teenagers. And while I could share my own stories of camp — though mine would take place on a lake in Northern Minnesota— if I’m being honest with you, the parables remind me of a different staple of my summer memories.
Assigned. Summer. Reading.
Every summer, after summer camp had ended, and the days inched closer to that back-to-school start date, I’d crack open a book or two that I had not picked out for myself. They had been selected for me by an English or history teacher.
One book I remember reading is called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” It promises that after the 300 or so pages, I would understand what all those classics I read in English class are talking about.
The author assured the reader that there are patterns and conventions and symbols to literature that with time and practice, anyone could recognize them, and the meaning behind these great works could be uncovered.
The same is true of parables which are, after all, a collection of short stories.
Jesus tells these stories, sometimes in a sentence or two, but he use ordinary objects, common everyday settings, and well-known tropes of the ancient world to symbolize what the kingdom of God is like.
Pearls and merchants. Mustard seeds and soil. Yeast for baking and sheep for shepherding. And for this morning: Vineyards.
For any of the first listeners of this story, a vineyard is hardly special. Perhaps some of them have worked in a vineyard, or maybe they or their family owns one. It’s a common setting for work and life in the ancient world.
But a vineyard can be more than a vineyard; it can help us understand the meaning behind the story. Elsewhere scripture, a vineyard is a metaphor for Israel, for God’s chosen people, with God as the caretaker of that vineyard.
So let’s apply this short story: If God is the one who takes care of and oversees the vineyard, then perhaps God’s people are the workers. Perhaps we are the workers who are hired first thing in the morning, maybe we are the ones hired right before the end of the day.
And if God is the head of the household, and we are the workers, then perhaps the denarius — the daily wage given to the workers — is something else: maybe we imagine it to be some of those things Christ talks about often: grace, or salvation, or love or mercy.
If we understand the text this way, this is a story about how God’s grace is not something we can earn, nor is it something anyone deserves more of than someone else.
It doesn’t matter if you have been a Christian for a long time or are new to faith. It doesn’t matter if you are the first one here every Sunday morning or if it’s been a while. It doesn’t matter if you are a pillar of the community known for being charitable or if you’ve made some mistakes and messes in your life, God gives enough so that you may live.
If we understand the text this way, this is a story that tells us the essential nature of God is one of generosity and love, and we, as God’s people, can rest in the firm and certain knowledge that God’s grace is a gift that requires no conditions.
The kingdom of heaven is a world where God does not withhold anything from us and from others.
But for as often as we proclaim that God’s love is a gift, freely given, how often do we believe in another sort of messaging?
Because sometimes it feels like our lives are defined by what we can achieve. Despite Christ telling us otherwise, we tend to believe we and others must be perfect, the best versions of ourselves, successful and put together in order to be deserving of good things.
So this story, set in a vineyard, about people getting not just what they earn, but what they need to live fully, is one we should keep telling over and over again.
But let’s pause here for a moment and consider what’s always a possibility in preaching the Word of God: What if I’m wrong?
Jesus never offers us this explanation explicitly. He never provides us an index that tells us household owner = God, denarius = grace, worker = you and me.
So what if this interpretation that this is a story about God’s grace, which is a valuable message still, is not what Jesus meant?
What if we’re reading too much into the symbolism of the whole thing?
So let’s look at our short story again, this time with an eye toward practical application.
What if the household owner isn’t God, but just a person who has some land and enough wealth to keep hiring workers? What if the workers are just people who need to make a living?
What if a denarius is just a denarius? And a vineyard is just a vineyard?
It’s a different story then, because the kingdom of heaven is not about how God will treat us, but how humans should treat one another.
It’s a story where Jesus seems to be saying that if you fit the description of the vineyard owner, that is you are a person with wealth or power or the ability to help others, then you should. And you should do it without reservation.
The vineyard owner keeps hiring people. He sees that there are still more people in need of that daily wage, and gives it to them, so that they may live. He uses the resources he has to materially improve the lives of others.
He does what is right, even if it is not popular, even if it is not expected.
So which version of this parable is correct? The theological or the practical?
Here is the beautiful (and sometimes messy) thing about symbols: They can mean more than one thing.
So this story, this parable, can hold multiple meanings, multiple angles in on what the kingdom of God is like.
But, truthfully, these two interpretations are not as far apart as they first appear.
Because our actions toward our neighbors should reflect what we believe to be true about God. What we believe to be true about God should uplift all of us.
The kingdom of God is not just about us being recipients of God’s grace, but about actively allowing that grace to saturate this world. This parable should be a comfort to us, but it should also challenge us. All at once.
So hear this comforting word: You are enough and you do not have to earn God’s grace.
And hear this challenging word: In the places where you have the ability to do so, make these comforting words come alive in real and tangible ways. So that all people have what they need to live.
Because the overlapping and intertwining meanings of this story — of any of Christ’s parables—enriches our understanding of the kingdom of God. Together the theological and practical, the challenge and the comfort, give us a glimpse of who God is and who we, with God’s help, can be.
Thanks be to God. Amen.