September 24, 2017 16th Sunday after Pentecost YR A The Rev. Anne Abdy Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
On the ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack and I was sitting on a green grassy slope overlooking the half-shell amphitheater in Brookings listening to the roll call of names. I remember thinking: “Why me? I have better things to do this evening. I guess I won’t get done what I need to get done tonight.” We’ve all been there, right? You know the feeling. You are being asked to do something and really don’t want to go but in your gut you know you have to do it. This is the call of the Holy Spirit. So I blurted out to my young colleague, “Sure. I’d love to go.” There I was sitting next to Jackie attending an ecumenical memorial service to honor the dead. But as I sat there, I also remember thinking of where I was when the planes dove into the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and crashed onto a field in Pennsylvania. I remember the news reports and thinking there goes my night’s sleep after just coming off an all-nighter at work. But then I remembered Jackie sitting next to me. She was from NYC and I couldn’t imagine what she may have experienced.
This is the second parable that has the phrase: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” (v. 16) In the previous chapter this phrase is used in reference to those who will enter the gates of Heaven; while in this chapter, the phrase illustrates how God turns our attitudes upside down. Whose attitudes? The attitudes of the disciples as they consider themselves the privileged few—the gatekeepers of Jesus—shooing away children or asking Jesus to tell the crowds to disperse. But this parable is also directed toward the religious high and mighty of the day strategically planted in the crowds plotting and gathering evidence against this radical preacher.
In this parable, the workers who have worked a full day in the hot sun bent over picking grapes are griping that those who have only worked one hour are being paid the same wage. This is back-breaking work. Labor intensive work is hard work. And I know that we have all read newspaper articles describing the value of immigrants regardless of legal status provide in the fields across this country. This is work that I know not many Americans choose to do. I can totally sympathize with the workers. I might even want to complain too if I were in their shoes because this seems a simply unfair. When you witness something unfair at work, especially if persons are being favored over others, isn’t it natural to grumble about with your co-workers? So the laborers complain and the owner’s response is: “Do you think I am being overly generous?”
Tom Wright, a noted New Testament theologian, retells of a story where he witnessed a fox hunt in England. At the signal of the horn the pack race in the direction of the fox. The hounds scattered amongst the horses out front with horsemen and women dressed in red, white and black riding helmets. Bringing up the rear of the hunt are the ordinary. Those without uniforms. Those with ponies of various sizes, shapes, and ages. He describes this group as a “raggle-taggle group of riders.” The cunning fox ducks under a hedgerow into a neighboring field and runs back towards the direction he came eventually standing proud at the crest of the hill behind the pack. Someone notices and blows the horn. In one full swoop the whole pack does an about turn racing to catch up to the fox. Leading the way is this raggle-taggle group of riders.
Jesus’ story of the workers in the vineyard is not a commentary on the social inequality of pay. Our God is a not a God of injustice, but rather a God of justice. The owner of the vineyard paid all the men the agreed upon wage. Rather this parable is a story of the call to engage in radical ministry. We are called to work with the raggle-taggle of society.
Another way to look at this parable is a modern story from the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The mayor, Richard Berry, has taken to wandering the streets talking to the homeless about their circumstances. Many told him “they didn’t want to be on the streets begging for money, but they didn’t know where else to go.” Now a bus collects those who want to work on beautifying the city for a wage of $9 an hour and are supported with a night in a shelter as a reward. The City of Albuquerque brought work to these men. Like the mayor, the owner of the vineyard brought work—God’s holy work—to the laborers. He brought them a gift.
Unfortunately many times our attitudes get in the way of doing God’s holy work in the diverse, busy and chaotic marketplace of life. Think of the brother in the prodigal son parable who became bent out of shape but should be celebrating the return of his brother to the Kingdom. I begrudgingly agreed to sit on a hill side on a windy evening—I realized much later I was doing God’s work. The Mayor implemented a successful work-to-housing program with the help of non-profits in his city. He is doing holy work. Many times during a simple day, we get bogged down in daily laborious and arduous tasks not realizing how that task is God’s work in the lives of the raggle-taggle crowd leading the hunt.
The gift offered to the laborers is the opportunity to work in God’s vineyard. Working in the vineyard is not about how much I earn. It is about responding to the gift of God’s call. And with any call from God there is no discrimination. The call is the same. We are to walk alongside all of God’s children remembering that all of God’s children are equally deserving of the opportunity to work in God’s Kingdom, and as such, will be equally rewarded. The reward, in this case, is a covenant or a fulfilling of a promise between the vineyard owner or God and his laborers meaning us.
This last story is of a cab driver who is unsure whether he will take his last call after a long shift. He does and ends up driving a terminally ill older woman around New York City free of charge for two hours. She has no family so this is her final ride before entering a hospice facility. Here are his reflections in a Facebook post:
“What if the woman had gotten an angry driver or one who was impatient at the end of his shift. What if I had refused to take the run or had honked once and driven away? I did not do anything different as with anybody else. We’re conditioned to think our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others consider a small one.”
In this story of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus reminds us that he is generous and we are the beneficiaries of his generosity in small miraculous ways as we walk hand-in-hand with all of God’s children in the Kingdom here on earth.
So listen for the God’s call. Respond to God’s call. Be that joyful laborer in the vineyard. And know this: The Church of the Resurrection’s ministries are the generous gifts shared with each other and shared with the raggle-taggle of society.
 N T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 2nd ed., New Testament for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2004), 152.
 Colby Itkowitz, “This Republican Mayor Has an Incredibly Simple Idea to Help the Homeless. and It Seems to Be Working.,” Washington Post, August 11, 2016, accessed September 19, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/08/11/this-republican-mayor-has-an-incredibly-simple-idea-to-help-the-homeless-and-it-seems-to-be-working/?utm_term=.fe754cc2239e.