Who Are We…Beyond What We Do?

(Message given at Newberg Friends on September 29, 2013, from Matthew 20:1-16)

Ok, I know we are supposed to listen and respond to all of the bible, not just the parts we like.

And that’s what I try to do. But…if we were to give ourselves permission for a minute to “like” or “not like” a part of the bible (specifically, say, this parable)…what would you say?

Do you like or not like this parable? Would you be willing to give it a thumbs up or thumbs down or somewhere in between? [ASK]

For those of you more on the “like” side of the fence…with whom do you identify in the story? Who is the focus? [ASK]

All right, now for those more on the “unlike” side of the fence…with whom do YOU identify in the story? Who is the focus for you? [ASK]

My hypothesis is/was that the people who like the story either identify with the last-hired workers or the owner of the vineyard.

Those who don’t like it identified with the workers hired first, who slogged through the work in the heat of the day. Looks like my hypothesis was proved … [Right!]

In my reading this week I found someone who wrote pretty eloquently about people like me who have a sense of unease about this story Jesus told. The writer is R.T. France:

The story is as clear as it is unexpected. Whereas we take it for granted that harder work deserves greater payment, this employer operates on a less conventional basis. The reader instinctively sympathizes with the aggrieved workers in verses 11-12: it doesn’t seem fair. The retort of the landowner is of course technically correct: no one has been cheated; the agreement has been scrupulously observed. 

Why then do we still feel that there is something wrong? Because we cannot detach ourselves from the ruling convention that rewards should be commensurate to the services rendered. When one [person] is “rewarded” far in excess of what has been earned while another receives only the bare sum agreed, we detect unfair discrimination. 

It’s hard to get out of the “you get what you put into it” mindset.

Today we’re continuing to wrestle with the same issue as last week. If God’s way of doing things really isn’t based on what we do, how we act, how we measure up and perform…what are the implications of that? Who are we…beyond what we do?

This parable is one of many examples that shows us that God lives on a different plane; God brings the realm of grace.

Last week I shared my experiences on sabbatical, of liking myself when I was relaxed and fun-loving, and of really not liking myself when I was stressed and grumpy with my family trying to make trains in Europe. In sharing those, I wasn’t trying to communicate that I should have thought worse of myself when I was fun loving and given myself more grace when I was having a hard time.

No, what I wanted to communicate was how BOTH of those views had me unexpectedly locked out of God’s realm of grace and locked into the “you are what you do” mentality. When I truly move into God’s realm of gift and love and grace, the quid-pro-quo, dog-eat-dog world is broken by the unfair economics of the unending love of Christ.

But grace is also unfair. It can cause resentment. Open your bibles with me and let’s take a look at this parable in context.

Let’s look at this parable in more detail.

Parables are stories that are set in the life that the hearers know well. The stories often assume many of the same things that the culture of the hearers’ assumes. That doesn’t mean the parable agrees with those assumption; they just take a “given” situation and make a (sometimes surprising) point about it.

The parable reflects a culture that is inherently unjust. If you were born into a family that were landowners, you had the power to decide at your whim whom you would hire. If you were born into a family that didn’t own land, you were at the mercy of the choices of the landowners. You could only earn your livelihood if a landowner gave you a chance.

We’re introduced to the story knowing that the kingdom of heaven, the realm of grace, is like a landowner who went out to hire workers for his vineyard. It doesn’t say this economic way of doing things is how life ought to be, or condone the injustice found in the imbalance of power. What does it say? [READ v. 2]

The agreement is detailed enough and clear.

You work for the day, says the landowner, and I will pay you the customary wage. It’ll be the normal 12 hour work day, and you’ll get the normal denarius for it. As a comparison, if you remember the story of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan leaves two denarii to pay for an indefinite length of stay and care for the injured man. So a denarius per day wage is at least normal, and perhaps generous.

Then throughout the day, more people are hired at different times. The language is great, suspense-building story telling. The all-day workers know their wage (we do too). The rest agree to work and be paid “whatever is right”. The word here includes the ideas of fairness and justice. The original hearers (and we) easily jump to the conclusion that the later workers will be paid less. That’s what’s fair. That’s what’s just, in a world of “I get what I put into it”. A bad storyteller would have said, “I’ll give you a denarius as well” and ruined all the surprise at the end.

People get hired all the way until an hour before quitting time. And then comes what was normal in this era, settling up at the end of the day. Again, we see masterful storytelling-the last ones hired are the first to receive pay, and they get the full denarius for only an hour’s work! You can imagine the minds of the ones hired first beginning to work as they wait for their money.

“One hour for a denarius! Could it be? Could I be getting TWELVE denarii for working all day?!” And once the thought goes in the mind, well then of course, that’s exactly what I deserve. In that case, this isn’t about the generosity of the owner-this is about the wealth I’m going to get right now for what I’VE done. Before I’m even paid, I’ve spent twelve denarii twenty ways…and then I get “cheated” and only paid one.

Even when we know we are dependent, even when we know about grace, it’s easy to slip back into bitterness and thinking we’ve earned more.

That’s when it’s hard to live in the realm of grace. “Well, if it doesn’t matter…why do I even try?”

I’ve talked before about the hardest job I ever had, loading trucks at UPS at 4 in the morning while I was in college. At one point they said I was doing a really good job working hard…and rewarded me by giving me four trucks to load instead of three. The guy across from me was loading two, and getting paid the same or more. It made me question whether it was worth it.

One of the things I’ve wrestled with this week is how we find a place for the value of work in the realm of grace. Is there a way to have work be valuable, if work doesn’t give me value?

I started making some headway in my own mind when I looked at the workers hired last instead of the workers hired first. 

The last workers “weren’t hired by anyone else.” They were unwanted, viewed by all the other vineyard owners as not having anything worthwhile to contribute. This parable of grace says something about meaningful work, too. God’s realm of grace wants everyone, will hire anyone, will find a place for everyone to make a meaningful contribution and receive the same gracious reward.

No one else wanted you? You have a place here! You can do something meaningful here. Get out and do what you can, and I’ll make sure you are provided what you need for today.

Think about that! In a world that evaluates based on what you can do for me, there are always people who get left standing against the wall, unpicked because they are viewed as unworthy. But in this realm of grace, in this way of life in the deep love of God, you are wanted. You are chosen. You are given permission to bring what you can bring to God’s realm!

And when I think about it that way, rather than hard work seeming worthless in the realm of grace…doing my best takes on a new value and meaning. My worth; my identity; who I am is assured by God choosing me, not by what I do or accomplish. And when my identity is established and secure, then I am given the opportunity to join what God is doing in the world.

It’s so clear in the bible when you look for it. The classic part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the one I read last week, shouts it out: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we ARE God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

So the truth is something rather easy to say, and rather difficult to live out:

We don’t gain value or worth or reward for what we do, for our work. Our value comes in being chosen by God- God who chooses any who are willing. And because we are wanted, because we are chosen, we CAN contribute meaningful “work” to the realm of grace. Work has value, but it doesn’t give us our value.

One of the things that stuck with me from last week’s service was something Marta Sears said. I asked when you had a hard time liking yourself, and she said, “When I’m not paid for the work I do.” She’s hit on something so true.

It’s not that the only people who work are the ones with paying jobs. Her statement recognizes we all do work, whether a student or a homemaker or a retired person or a laborer. We all do work, but our world speaks value by money. All through life, and then again in retirement, there are the nagging voices from outside the realm of grace that our lack of earning shows we have no value.

Gary Fawver shared with me a book that has been very important to him in retirement. 

It’s called “The Gift of Years (Growing Older Gracefully)” by Joan Chittister. One of the quotes he gave me from this book fits well with what we are talking about today:

“Part of being a vigorous older person demands, first of all, that we learn to accept it for what it is, a new and wonderful-but different-stage of life. The problem is that preparation for aging in our modern world seems to be concentrated almost entirely on buying anti-wrinkle creams and joining a health club-when the truth is that what must be transformed now is not us much the way we look to other people, as it is the way we look at life.”

Yes! Not about staying young and acceptable, proving our value by how we look or act. It is recognizing that life is created by the one who lives in the realm of Grace. The one who loves indiscriminately and chooses everyone recklessly.

So much of our time and energy and effort goes into managing our image and our looks, in doing things that others will value or that we hope will fill the aching void inside us crying out to be accepted and loved.

The truth is that we are!

We are accepted and loved, beyond what we do or how we look. We are chosen, and are given a part to play in what God is doing in the world. This parable, like it or not, points us to the power of the realm of grace.

I’ll close with the words of R.T. France once more:

The God who lavishly clothes the flowers and feeds the birds delights to give his servants far more than they could ever deserve from him. It is that principle, rather than the disappointment of the [all]-day laborers, which is the main focus of the parable…But their very natural disappointment and sense of unfairness helps [us] to reexamine how far [our] reactions are still governed by human ideals of deserving rather than by the uncalculating generosity of the kingdom of heaven.

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