What if we look at this Gospel story in a very different way this morning? Most people read this Gospel story and look at it this way – they see the landowner as God; and a God who works in ways that don’t fit with our sense of being rewarded for hard work. And they see the workers as being an ungrateful lot who aren’t afraid to voice their complaints. They think their boss is an unfair schmuck. It makes you wonder what time they showed up for work that next day? The payoff is the same for everyone. This landowner is frivolous with what belongs to him, and his idea of a good time seems to be to lavish those who work for five minutes, with ridiculous abundance. And those who come in last seem to be just as blessed. This story flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught if we look at it this way. It’s interesting to me, but we never hear from the ones who seemingly got paid extra. And, we do think they got paid extra, don’t we!
There is another story beneath that story. The part that’s there if you listen or look a little deeper. I’ve always wondered what the 3:00 & 5:00 workers thought about this whole thing? We never hear what they have to say.
For those who hadn’t slunk too far away to hear the conversation, what do you think they thought? No doubt those who came late and made a full day’s wage weren’t grumbling at all. They were probably overjoyed. They were standing around with each other saying, “We can all eat tonight! I can pay down my debt. My children can buy new shoes. A strange boss, but a generous one. I sure was in the right place at the right time today!”
Another way to look at this story is that the landowner still had work to do and he was open to any and all-comers who would do it, even as the day wore on. Otherwise why else is he out looking for more hires later in the day? He keeps finding others who will do some piece of the work to get the vines dressed and the grapes picked, and the wine made. And he agrees to pay them the full amount in exchange for their services.
The landowner wasn’t satisfied until all the workers were hired. And nowhere does it imply that those who showed up later in the day didn’t work their hardest. Those who came at the last minute were as essential as those who came early in the day. Without them his vineyard couldn’t operate at its fullest nor become the best vineyard it could be. And those workers who come next often find they are the blessed ones.
At age 16 Andor Foldes was already a skilled pianist, but he was experiencing a troubled year. In the midst of the young Hungarian’s personal struggles, one of the most renowned pianists of the day came to Budapest. Emil von Sauer was famous not only for his abilities; he was also the last surviving pupil of the great Franz Liszt. Von Sauer requested that Foldes play for him. Foldes obliged with some of the most difficult works of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann.
When he finished, von Sauer walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. “My son,” he said, “when I was your age, I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, ‘Take good care of this kiss–it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.’ I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, and now it is your turn.”[i]
One of my closest friends has a son who spent this last year working as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He was one of the small number of clerks chosen each year by the Justices to do legal background research for the cases to be heard.
I’m guessing it would be the thrill of a lifetime to work as a clerk in this capacity for anyone on the Court. I know it was an honor for him.
A clerkship begins in July and lasts for a year. It is well known that Justice Ginsburg was a hard taskmaster with her clerks. She read every document they wrote to her and scribbled messages and corrected grammar on each one. She also cared deeply for each group of clerks over the years and had ongoing relationships with I assume many, if not most of them.
Marco’s life was also blessed this year by the birth of Nico, his first child. This joy happened for him and his wife Ashley just as his year was finishing up.
He texted his mom on Friday after the news came out and said, “RBG was an optimist and she loved Nico and she really did think his world would be an even better one.” That is some kiss!
Marco was hired at five o’clock. He was the last group of workers to do the work for the day. I have no doubt he worked hard and was paid his full wages.
Rabbi Tarfon wrote: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love Mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
What does that mean for us? Well, first off, in the grand scheme of things it means that those of us who show up well into the process of the world being redeemed, receive the same blessing as those who were there at the beginning. It means that you and I are as important in God’s eyes as Moses and David and Peter and John and Martha & Mary. And as much a part as Francis and Clare and anyone you know who has shared the Gospel with you. If we are in fact the recipients of such a blessing by those who have been working for a long time before us, what do we do with our kiss?
What is our work and what is left to do? Is there an urgency to it? Perhaps, but we don’t know if we’re being hired at noon or 3 or 5. What matters is that we take the work and do it well. Have we been sitting around all our lives waiting to hear God call us to do something or bring us to some valued work? Maybe even after we thought we’d already done some other work? This is our moment. The kingdom is ours. Someone, somewhere has given you a kiss. Now it is your turn to make the world a more hopeful place.
©The Reverend Patty Baker, Vicar
St. Clare Episcopal Church
[i] Source Unknown. From http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/b/blessing.htm