It’s all about grace! by Pastor Noel

September 23/24, 2017    Proper 20A     16 Pentecost


      Today we hear Jesus say, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.” But we call this story “The parable of the laborers in the vineyard.”

      He also says, “A certain man had two sons.” And we call that parable, “The prodigal son.” And, “Some person was going down to Jerusalem.” We call that parable “The Good Samaritan.”

      Why this disconnect between how Jesus introduces the stories and our understanding of them?

      These stories are about grace, forgiveness, inclusion, generosity…. Like everything about Jesus.

      Why do we focus on rules and blame and differences?

      I think that we are afraid of the gift of grace, so we twist Jesus’ stories and actions into something more comfortable.

      We’ve been told there is no free lunch, so we can’t believe that the workers in this story all get the same pay. We can’t believe that the son who ran away and came home destitute is as welcome as the son who stayed and worked.

      We do cheer for the Samaritan, perhaps because he is the giver of grace, not the recipient.

      When we tell and hear these stories, words matter. Even though the three parables I just mentioned all focus on one person, they are named for others. That changes the focus away from what Jesus was saying.

      Let’s look at this parable about a man and a vineyard.

      It’s harvest time and he has grapes to be picked. We don’t know anything else about him. Does he have sons to help? Does he have servants, farmworkers, to help? Maybe.

      We do know that he goes into the village to hire some workers. It is early morning. Dawn. He finds men wanting work, they agree on a fair wage, and head off to work.

      He goes back at 9 AM, at noon, at 3 PM, and then one last trip at 5 PM. Almost the end of the long work day.

      Nothing is said about why he needed so many workers.

      Nothing is said about why so many workers were there to be hired—only that no one has hired them.

      Over time, these last workers have been labeled as lazy, no good, but Jesus doesn’t tell us that. It’s like labeling folks who need food stamps as lazy, even if they are working two jobs already.

      The last batch of workers may have already put in a day’s work somewhere else. Maybe they were looking for some extra work and extra pay. Jesus lets us decide about them. He doesn’t label them.

      When the workers get their pay, there is labeling. The ones who worked all day grumble that the owner has made them “equal” to the ones who came in last.

      Actually, what they say is that these last ones have been made equal to the first. That is what they don’t like. It’s one thing to say that we are all equal, especially when we are raising up someone we think is inferior. That usually makes us feel good.

      To be made equal to the ones we consider inferior—that does NOT make us feel good.

      Step away from the vineyard for a moment, and let’s move to Nineveh, “That great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.”

      (I just love that last part!)

      This story of Jonah is an ancient parable. If Jesus were telling it he might say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who tries to hide from God.” or “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who would rather die than help share God’s justice and mercy.”

      Jonah was happy to have God’s mercy when he had a plant to shade him from the sun. Jonah was not happy when God wanted to spare people he considered inferior.

      He was happy for the grace of the shading plant, and he didn’t want to allow that grace in Nineveh.

      Sorry, Jonah. God’s grace is for everyone.

      Jonah reminds me of times when I’ve said no to something I really wanted because I was feeling left out or unwanted. In a snit is a good way to describe it!

      What I missed at those times is gone.

      Grace is never gone. God is always offering it for us to accept and live.

      Grace is a free gift—we cannot earn it or pay for it in any way. Just accept it and say thank you. And live it.

      Jonah was living in grace, but he couldn’t see it. He’d been saved from the belly of a great fish, for pities sake! But by judging himself better than the folks in Nineveh, he was not accepting the grace and not making it his way of life.

      By being judging, he was living in judging, not grace.

      I’ve been thinking of judging the past few days—and the problem of judging when I don’t know all the facts. I’ve thought that, on a human level, Aaron Hernandez got what he deserved. Human punishment for a human crime.

      Now my thoughts are changing, confused. Hernandez was suffering from the most severe brain trauma. It didn’t give him the right to kill someone, but it does mitigate the circumstances, doesn’t it. And his suicide is also probably a result of his head injuries.

      So my judging has turned to praying—using the words we hear Jesus say on the Cross. “Father forgive, they don’t know what they are doing.”

      And that leads me back to grace. And, to quote the hymn I should have asked Susan to play, “grace will lead me home.”

      Accepting the most wonderful gift of God’s grace opens my eyes to see the world through God’s eyes.

      Grace opens my eyes to see, and my heart to understand, about the wages paid in the parable.

      Everyone got what was right. A denarius, a day’s wage, would feed a family for about 6 days. Everyone got enough to take care of their family. No one had to beg or rely on others. That is right in my book.

      Fair is different. Fair is some get more because they did more. But fair leaves some hungry and out in the cold.

      What Aaron Hernandez did seems not to have been of his own making. His years of football made him sick, which was not his intent, I’m sure.

      When people can’t find work, that is not always of their own making. When something is “fair” it can really be very exclusive. The “fair” way can be unfair in fact.

      The “right” way means giving everyone opportunity to have what they need. And there’s plenty left over for those who think the fair way is better.

      Robert Capon wrote wonderful books on the parables. He puts this parable, “A landowner had a vineyard” in the book of Parables of Judgment. I was sure it was in the book Parables of Grace, and it took me a while to find it.

      The judgment is the attitude of the first workers, who didn’t want to be equal to the last. Their attitude of judgement takes them out of God’s kingdom—at least for now.

      But, as Capon says, “Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in.” So this IS a parable of grace—grace for the last workers, and the landowner who did what was right.

      The other workers, the first ones who grumbled, they put themselves at the end of the grace line.  It’s still there for them when they are ready.

      The kingdom of heaven is like—hearing a parable and wondering what it has to do with our lives.

      We can be fair or right. We can see with judgment or with grace. There are many shades of fairness and rightness and many shades of judging and grace. And a whole lot between those words.

      As we ponder this, and other parables that may trouble us, may we remember Paul’s words, that we should live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

      And when we wonder about grace, remember the Psalm: “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion; slow to anger and of great kindness.” That’s the gift of grace.

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details