What Do I Get?
What Do I Get?
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On March 5th, 2023
This Lenten season at Immanuel we have been focusing on some of the parables of Jesus and how they illuminate the message of the gospel, the way they cast light on the good news of God’s love embodied in human life. As part of this emphasis on parables, many of us have been reading Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus in Lenten small groups.
In her chapter on our parable for today, which has come to be known as The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, she posits other possible titles for it: among them, the parable of the Surprising Salaries, or the Conscientious Boss, or Debating a Fair Wage, or Lessons for Both Management and Employees. She wonders what might happen if we change the theological focus from “how we get into heaven” to “how we treat our neighbor.” With that in mind, I invite you to hear today’s parable with fresh ears—with a particular focus on the landowner’s generosity to the last hired and how it aggrieves those who were first hired, who, instead of celebrating that the others are getting paid enough for a day, feel that they should receive more. Listen now for God’s word to us:
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 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.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 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.” But he replied to one of them, “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; 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?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
Let me ask you honestly, how does that parable land with you? Like a lot of Jesus’ parables, it probably hits differently based on the characters with whom we most identify. There’s something about human nature, and our tendency to compare ourselves to others and to sense injustice most strongly when we feel it has been done to us, that probably leads most us to feel some sympathy for the workers who started at 6, or at least sometime before noon, and then wondered why the ones hired last received the same exact wage as they did. I mean, honestly, is that any way to run a business?
If anywhere within you, you can identify with that sense of feeling aggrieved that others who didn’t work as hard as you did received or might the same benefits you did at the end of the day, then Jesus’ parable probably hooked you. It hooked me. I love that joke that occasionally makes the rounds. When I die, I want the kids who “worked on the group project with me”—and left me to do all the work and got the same grade I did—to be my pallbearers. I don’t want them to miss the chance to let me down one last time. Ouch.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? To work hard and get the same grade, or the same salary, as somebody who didn’t work as hard. In case you somehow missed what I have become convinced is the punch line of Jesus’ story, let me provide a bit of a twist on it with a scene from an episode of the TV series Louie. The series, and its creator and main character Louis C.K., admittedly lost some appeal for me and many others with revelations about the comedian’s personal behavior. That fact notwithstanding, there are some real gems in that series.
Like this one. Maybe you watched this episode. The main character is preparing a special meal for his two daughters, both of whom are children at the time. Louie has an extra slice of mango left over after making smoothies for them, so he offers it to his older daughter. Not surprisingly, the younger daughter takes issue with this apparent injustice.
“She got a mango popsicle and I didn’t,” the younger one whines, although the so-called popsicle really just is a slice of fruit speared with a fork. But the fact that her sister got one and she didn’t makes it the most important slice of mango in the world at that moment.
“That’s right,” Louie says, and continues cooking. “Sometimes she gets things you don’t and sometimes, it goes the other way. That’s just how life works.”
“But daddy,” the younger daughter pleads, “it’s not fair!”
“Who said anything about fair?” he asks, a little incredulous. “You were just fine without it until she got it. What’s the problem?”
“It’s just not fair,” the younger girl insists. “If she gets one, I should get one, too.”
“Look,” the father says, turning toward her and leaning down to meet her eyes. He has an important lesson to teach his daughter now.
Look the father says to her, “The only time you need to worry about what’s in your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough.” He turns back to the stove. His younger daughter, a little stunned, walks away.
The only time you need to worry about what’s in your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough. Sounds a little like Jesus to me. That’s Amy-Jill Levine’s take, too. She insists that we read this parable in terms of its practical economic implication. Jesus, she says, “encouraged landowners” to enact the graciousness of god by “speaking of a vineyard owner who generously assisted some impoverished day laborers.” Not just the ones who he hired at 6, either. The owner, Levine writes, is the role model for the rich; they should continue to call others to the field and righteously fulfill a contract whose conditions are from the beginning to pay not what is “fair” but what is “right”—and what is right is a living wage.
Right about now Adam Smith, the old Scotsman who we call the Father of Capitalism, is spinning like a rotisserie chicken in his grave. How on Earth do you ever incentivize people to work hard if some don’t get compensated more than others for their labor? Okay, okay. But maybe, Levine hints, Jesus’s story isn’t making a point about capitalism in general, but more about making sure that we always keep an eye out to take care that everyone has enough. We may disagree on what enough is, but as Levine points out, “Jesus’ is often less directly on ‘good news’ to the poor’ than on ‘responsibility of the rich.’ As a good Jew, Jesus would have known and followed Deuteronomy 15:11 “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ In other words, The only time you need to worry about what’s in your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough. That’s the punch line.
It is so much easier to spiritualize this parable. To say, well, this parable isn’t really about money at all. It’s just a metaphor Jesus uses. Since Jesus tells it about the kingdom of heaven, it’s about some sort of afterlife. It concerns who or who doesn’t get into heaven when they die. Everybody gets the same reward. The people who grew up in the faith and never left it, and attended worship most Sundays, and served on church committees, and went on mission trips to Cuba, and donated to the auction, they get the same after-life reward as the people who came to faith late, or only come to church on Christmas and Easter, or maybe even never. Heaven is heaven. Everybody gets the same denarius. I’m sorry, but that’s a pretty limp reading.
It's so much easier to spiritualize this parable, especially for you and I who are, all of us, well off financially compared to the rest of the world, rather than to let it do its work on us. I think one of the ways parables work on us is that they call us to mind-shifts. They shift our mindsets.
This, by the way, is what the Greek word which is translated as repent in the Gospels literally means. The word meta-noia means a higher, different way, or knowing. When Jesus joins his cousin John in saying Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near, that word repent means take on a different mindset. And in the Gospels, especially the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that mindshift, that different mindset is exemplified in Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, where he quotes Isaiah in saying that he has come to preach good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captives, and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. The Jubilee year, when everybody has enough.
The mindshift is seen in the Beatitudes—blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the ones who hunger and thirst to do what is right, the peacemakers, the persecuted; and the proof of it, when all is said and done, is in Matthew 25—how we treat what Jesus calls the least of these—the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the vulnerable, the sick and imprisoned. That’s the indication of the mind-shift. That’s the indication of meta-noia.
Most of us, if we are rigorously honest with ourselves aren’t quite there yet, regardless of where we happen to find ourselves on the political spectrum. Making grand policy pronouncements about what the government should or shouldn’t do for people isn’t necessarily an indication of metanoia, by the way. The mindshift, the metanoia, begins with beginning to look at people we meet—or who we see on our screens—and shifting our focus from comparing ourselves to them (favorably or unfavorably) to seeing them as human beings who have the same basic human needs and emotions that we do and asking ourselves whether or not they have enough.
The shift doesn’t happen all at once. It occurs a step at a time, when we move from looking at the person who stops us on the sidewalk looking for money as someone who is probably running a scam or wanting to use the money for drugs and alcohol to seeing them as someone with a name. And then maybe rather than waiting for them to approach us, the next time, we approach them instead of hurrying on by. We introduce ourselves. We engage as a human being with a story to another human being with a story. Working at a hypothermia shelter can speed that process, but it is a life-long journey of becoming more and more human, more and more kind and loving. More and more compassionate.
What the Spirit does with that in each of us is the Spirit’s work to do, but that’s the metanoia.
It can be hard to move from “What do I get?” To “How can I give?” As an example of that, the lead in to this parable in Matthew 19 comes right after that story of the Rich Young Ruler. People in McLean and surrounding areas love the story of the Rich Young Ruler, right? Jesus encounters someone who is wealthy and young and a ruler who asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus first asks, “what does the law say?” The man reiterates several of the commandments and then says, “All of these I have kept from my youth.” When the man persists, Jesus says, “If you want to have eternal life, then give up everything you have and come and follow me.” It’s no big surprise that the man turns and walks away. And Jesus doesn’t chase after him.
Then he goes on to teach his disciples that it’s harder for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The disciples ask, Who then can be saved? Then Peter, the model disciple in the sense that he’s not afraid to ask the questions that everyone else is afraid to ask, says, “Look, we’ve left everything to come and follow you. We’ve left it all. What do we get?”
And that friends, is when Jesus tells his parable. Think about that. Jesus invites Peter and the rest of us to move a step at a time, little by little towards thinking of life less in terms of the question what do I get towards the question does everyone have enough.
When the parables have done their work on us, the only time we worry about what’s in someone else bowl, is to check and see if they have enough. Because in God’s kingdom, the measure of a life isn’t in what we get, but in how we love.