Our Scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and it may be helpful to know that it’s part of a longer section in Matthew of the things Jesus taught his disciples as they are traveling toward Jerusalem for what will be Jesus’ final, culminating ministry there.
The cross is not all that far away.
Now, of course, the disciples don’t know that. But Jesus must, at least on some level.
A few verses beyond our reading for today, he will ask the sons of Zebedee, who are two of his most loyal disciples, if they can drink the cup that he is to drink…and then he will instruct all of them that whosoever would be great among them will be a servant.
And so there is a quality of final instructions to the teaching he is offering. There is a lot more teaching to come, of course, but this seems more designed for the men and women who have followed him most closely—it is, to some degree, the advanced training…the train-the-trainers kind of teaching that will equip them to carry on the work of spreading the Gospel even after Jesus is gone.
Whether the disciples see that coming or whether they do not, Jesus wants to make sure that they are as ready as he can get them.
And so he tells this strange story of a householder with a vineyard, who keeps hiring more and more day laborers, beginning before dawn but continuing right through happy hour.
It’s almost like the householder keeps driving through the center of town in his pickup truck, and whenever he sees more guys standing around on the same corner, he tells them to hop in the back and that he’ll zip them out to his vineyard to help for the day.
The interesting part comes when it’s finally quitting time, and the whole crew lines up to be paid.
What emerges is that the dawn crew, which has been hard at it for a full day, somehow decides that, if the last to arrive are going to get a full day’s wage…well, that must mean that everyone’s getting a raise.
Have you ever opened a pay envelope and seen a number there that was lower than the one you were hoping for?
Because that’s what happens—not that the first crew had had its hopes up for very long.
But it doesn’t take long, does it?
It doesn’t take long for that hope and delight to surge within us, and once it does, even if it’s only for a second, then coming back down to earth can be a real crash.
One of the most cruel things I ever experienced was listening on my car radio to an afternoon DJ hold a call-in contest for a “100 Grand.”
And when the winning caller was put on the line, they told him congratulations, that he’d won “A 100 Grand” and asked him what he was going to do with it.
He was in tears, overwhelmed and thrilled in the moment. “Oh man,” he said, “you don’t understand….I have this crummy old truck and all this back rent….”
And I’ll spare you the details, but just tell you that the joke was, of course, on him.
The “100 Grand” they were giving away was a “100 Grand” candy bar. So much for that new truck…..
And I can’t tell you what the man said, but I will tell you that it wasn’t “Ha ha ha, I guess you got me. Good one.”
Like most of us, it didn’t take him long to go from delight and gratitude for a wonderful gift and into feeling resentful and angry at being cheated.
If you think about it, that’s what Jesus is getting at in this morning’s parable.
Because nobody is being cheated. Everyone is receiving a fair day’s wage, and they’re all willing to work it, and they get paid the agreed amount at the agreed time.
It’s just that….those guys? They’re making out like bandits here, and I was schlepping around in the noonday sun….and…hey….
I think it’s that “hey” that Jesus is most interested in.
It’s that “hey” that makes this a parable about our spiritual lives.
And I think Jesus is interested in that “hey” because he knows that soon enough, he will be gone. (At least in human form, anyway….)
And he because of that, he’s taking a look at these people around him, these regular human people whom he loves and knows so well.
He knows that very soon, they will be the ones to carry the work forward.
And what’s going to happen then?
Are they really ready to be the church? Ready to carry the Gospel….ready to carry the cross?
Or have they gotten so used to being carried by Jesus that they’ve forgotten the part about carrying others until they, too, can stand for themselves?
Those are big questions.
But in a funny way, so often, acting on our faith…being God’s people out in the world…comes down to tiny moments—things that happen in a flash.
Little moments when the big questions and our grand intentions touch down, and the wheels either get some traction and move forward, or they just keep spinning.
And that’s what it means to say that it’s that moment when we say “hey” that Jesus is most interested in.
Because it’s a moment like that, when we were suddenly hoping for a little extra and don’t get it that fairness becomes personal for us.
I don’t know about you, but there are times for me in this phase of my life when Liz will come home, and I’ve had a long day that I want to talk about, and you know, she walks in the door and puts her bag down, and takes off her Principal shoes with the heels, and she smiles, and I’m like (MG: big breath in)….and right at that moment, the girls tear into the room, shouting and grabbing at her and wanting her to come look at something or go draw with chalk in the driveway even though it’s raining…and I’m like “O.k., well sweetie, I guess I’ll see you….”
And it’s a moment like that when love and marriage and family become personal for me in a whole new way.
Because it’s in moments like those that I have the choice, right? The choice about how I will respond.
And so much of the challenge of discipleship is in how we decide to respond, and about the work we do on ourselves to respond in the moment in one of the ways Jesus would have us do.
When the grand aspirations of our faith become personal—those are the hardest times. And maybe also the holiest ones.
When it’s not really about loving our neighbors, but more about loving the guy who trims the tree on your side of the property line without asking.
Or when it’s about walking the second mile with someone who is still too caught up in his or her own situation to notice just how far you’ve gone above and beyond, much less to thank you for it.
When fairness means that maybe someone else got a little better than they deserved, while you received no more than you deserved.
Moments like these show what it really is for us to be followers of Jesus.
And these are the moments when our lives speak – preach – to all who will listen.
It’s true, of course, that so often, we cannot help how we feel.
But with God’s help, and in God’s time, we can come to feel differently, and to see our lives in connection with the lives of so many others.
The world can, in the best sense, become something we take personally.
And with God’s help, we can learn to see life in terms of the generosity of the giver who gives all things, and to rejoice that in God’s vineyard all are invited to toil and to receive.