Philippians 1: 20c-24, 27a
The Gospel that we just heard comes up on this Sunday every three years. And every three years when we hear this parable of Jesus we can become a little disturbed …. because it doesn’t seem fair.
A landowner goes out to get workers for his vineyard at the crack of dawn, and promises to give them the usual daily wage. He goes out again for workers at 9:00, again at noon, again at 3:00, and once again at 5:00. And quitting time is 6:00. And they ALL get the same pay.
Some of the workers object: “We’ve worked a 12-hour shift, and these one-hour workers got the same pay as we did! It’s not fair!”
Perhaps that is how we feel when we listen to this Gospel – it doesn’t seem fair.
However, if we look at this parable alongside some other parables that Jesus told, we find a delightful surprise: this parable is not as crazy as it initially sounds.
Four other parables of Jesus drive home the same point:
1] One was about a servant who owed his master a huge amount, and the master forgave him the whole debt; 2] another about a lost sheep; 3] another about a lost coin; 4] and still another about a prodigal son.
They all make the same point: God often acts toward us in ways that we would not expect. These parables all show us the kind of God that we serve.
As God says through the Prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
1] What first-century master would say to a servant who owed him a huge debt, “I forgive you the whole thing.” That wouldn’t happen then any more than Visa or MasterCard would say today, “We are wiping out those thousands of dollars you owe on your credit card just because you called us today.”
2] No sensible shepherd would leave 99 sheep and go in search of one measly run-away sheep.
3] No sane person would sweep and clean the house for hours, hoping to find a lost coin that was worth ten cents.
4] No reasonable parent would welcome back a wayward child – who had really hurt them – with a big party. A sensible parent would probably put that returning child on probation – to see how repentant they really were.
5] And in today’s Gospel, who in the world would pay somebody who only worked for one hour the same amount as they would pay somebody who had worked for 12 hours? We wouldn’t do that.
All of these five stories of Jesus are designed to take our breath away and cause us to ponder the kind of God that we serve: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts,” says the Lord.
There was a musical on Broadway that ran for 18 years, entitled Les Miserables, or Les Mis, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. The central character is Jean Valjean who had been in prison for 19 years, and why? Because he had stolen a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family.
Jean Valjean came out of prison a very bitter man. When he got back to the neighborhood people didn’t want to have much to do with him because, after all, he was an “ex-convict.”
There was a very kind bishop in the town who invited the newly-released Jean Valjean to have dinner with him and to spend the night in his guest room. For the dinner, the bishop used his finest silver plates, which he only brought out for very special guests. During the night Jean Valjean stole the silver plates and headed out of town.
He got stopped by the police. They searched his belongings and found the bishop’s silver plates. He protested that they were a gift from the bishop.
So the police took him back to the bishop’s house. And the bishop said to Jean Valjean, “I am so glad that you came back, because I meant to give you the matching silver candlesticks as well.”
Because of this totally unexpected, merciful forgiveness of the bishop Jean Valjean became a changed man. He began to serve others with great mercy and with generous kindness.
Now, think of those five parables: who is the bishop like in each of them? The bishop is like: 1] the master who forgives a huge debt; 2] the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep; 3] the house sweeper looking for the lost coin; 4] the father awaiting and celebrating the return of his prodigal son; 5] and he is like the landowner who pays the one-hour workers a full day’s wage.
How could anybody treat someone like that? And it doesn’t seem fair?
But that is what our God does, all the time. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts,” says the Lord.
How would I summarize all of these parables today? Very, very simply. There were cries from: 1] the lost servant, 2] the lost sheep, 3] the lost coin, 4] the lost son and 5] the lost workers. God heard their cries and went out and found them.
God continues to do that. God hears our cries and finds us. And we find ourselves in the loving and merciful embrace of our God.
And what is our God like? “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts,” says the Lord.
What an awesome God we are privileged to serve!