One of the biggest fads to hit social media as of late is the computer ‘meme.’ A lot of you may know what I’m talking about, but for those who are less tech savvy: a ‘meme’ is a picture or video produced with a certain inspirational message that is passed on through social media such as personal blogs or Facebook. These modern day “motivational posters” might have a picture of a beautiful Robin with an earthworm hanging from its beak, and at the bottom of the picture the popular proverb: “The early bird catches the worm!” The saying seems reasonable and there is no arguing that this responsible bird and its chicks will be fed. Recently my friends started sharing a meme that had a photo of a small, rather awkward looking bird with big glaring eyes, disheveled feathers, and an oversized beak that made it look like it was frowning. The message accompanying the picture said “I woke up early…….there was no worm!”
But assuming the early bird does indeed catch the worm, why are the first set of laborers hired to work by the landowner so disgruntled? Perhaps as early birds they felt a sense of entitlement. The Jewish work day began at 6 AM and ended at 6 PM. They showed up early to work a full 12 hours out in the heat of the day, harvesting the crops and hauling heavy baskets of grapes back to be made into wine. At various points in the day they were joined by others hired by the landowner. Some worked 9 hours, some 6, some 3, and strangely some only for 1 hour before it was time for wages to be distributed. When those who worked the least amount of time received a full day’s wage, I imagine then that the “early birds” expected 10 times that amount for their extra time. This would put them ahead so that when future work was hard to find their circumstance might not be so rough. Surely we can all identify with their disappointment and anger at receiving the same wage as the rest. We live in a society that believes in reward based on merit. It’s this belief that fuels the capitalist vision of the American Dream. The recipe for success according to American Industrialist Jean Paul Getty: Rise early. Work hard. Strike Oil! (1) This is hard to contradict. At the time of Mr. Getty’s death in 1976, his net worth was a staggering $2 billion. (2)
But Jesus’ stories were never ones to be taken at face value. In order for them to resonate one has to take a closer look. It may help to know that in Jesus’ day when it came time for the harvest, the work had to be finished by the time of the seasonal rains, or what was not harvested would be ruined. Landowners had to be quick to hire the help they needed to bring in the maximum amount of profit. If they didn’t act, available laborers might be snatched up by other landowners meaning they could lose some of their crops. Earlier in Matthew we hear Jesus make reference to this when he says to his disciples metaphorically, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Keeping that in mind, day laborers would come to the market place with their own equipment in hand to be hired by these landowners. If the landowners had all the help they needed, others would be left in the market place waiting….desperate to be hired. Because they were still hanging around the market didn’t mean they were lazy idlers but in actuality were eager to work. They too had families to feed and with each passing hour they waited, their situation grew dire. (3) Perhaps like the little bird with disheveled feathers not only did they get there early but waited all day and in the end didn’t get the worm.
So just what is it that about this story Jesus tells that is so convicting? I think the crux of the matter lies in the reaction of the early laborers in the vineyard. Listen to their words again closely: “And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’” Jesus’ economics lesson isn’t necessarily about income inequality but rather about worthiness in the eyes of God. The “early birds” did not want to be seen in the same light as those who were hired later. They were there at the beginning of the day, did the most work, sacrificing their own comfort, in order to support themselves and their families, yet the landowner made no distinction in how he paid them.
This is what makes Jesus’ teaching so revolutionary. In first century Palestine (as well as in our day) there was a tendency to distinguish yourself from other groups and castes of people. Jewish people were God’s chosen and the Gentiles were not. Certain professions were good and noble while others were considered sinful and a reflection of bad choices made in one’s life. If you were poor, sick, or associated with anyone who was, you were considered ritually unclean and not allowed in the Temple. You were not allowed to eat with anyone who was considered a lower caste. Even Jesus’ disciples were always arguing over who was the greatest and who would sit at His right and left when he entered His kingdom.
Jesus message was that there was no distinction with God, that all were welcome in His presence. This flew in the face of what people had been taught all their lives about God and each other. The landowner says to the early laborers, “Friend,” (which would likely NOT be a term used by an employer to a laborer); “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go.” In other words, you have my love….it’s yours for the taking! He continues, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Maybe they were envious or maybe they were just completely mystified that there was nothing they could do or say or achieve that would make God love them any more OR any LESS than He already did. God’s love is an extravagant love and He has an infinite amount of it to give. I like what Paul says about the extravagance of this love in his letter to the Philippians. About Jesus he writes: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (4) And it is this extravagant love that transcends death and mystifies us as much today as it did when they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty that first Easter morning.
In a few minutes we will be invited to partake in the Eucharistic meal at the altar. In the meantime, prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ story. Who are you in this story? Perhaps you’ve arrived here this morning in touch with how good God has been to you. You may be overwhelmed by the abundance of God’s grace in your life. If that is so, give thanks to Jesus for the wonderful things he is doing in your life. The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Offer your gratitude to God. In Jesus’ story, we don’t know how those who worked only one hour reacted to being paid a full day’s wage, but I imagine they too were mystified by the goodness of the landowner.
It could be though that you identify with the “early birds” in the story. You may find yourself in a place of fear; fear that you may not have enough to get through the next rough patch; worried about the future. Or maybe you feel a little resentful of others who seem to live free of worry. Maybe you feel underappreciated. If this is the case, whatever it may be, offer this to God. Make this your prayer. The early laborers felt a need to voice their concern to the landowner. Hear God’s reassurance: I love you. I have plenty for everyone and I will give you the provision you need. All of us, no matter who we are or what our lot is in life, are welcome at this table. As you come forward with your arms stretched out to receive the Eucharistic meal, be assured that whether you’re in the front of the line or at the end, there is an abundance and we will all be fed. Amen.
- “J. Paul Getty.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2014. 23 September 2014. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jpaulgett100065.html Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/citation/quotes/quotes/j/jpaulgett100065.html#kZzzUJWVVm11s3Uh.99
- Lenzner, Robert. The great Getty: the life and loves of J. Paul Getty, richest man in the world. New York: Crown Publishers, 1985. ISBN 0-517-56222-7
- Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2, Revised Edition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1975. Print.
- Philippians 2:6-8 NRSV
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