21 January 2008

Homily - Septuagesima

God’s End to Our Bookkeeping
Matthew 20:1-16

This year the Epiphany season was very short, and now we enter the season of Pre-Lent. Now it’s time to start preparing for our Lenten journey to begin in two and a half short weeks. To this end, the Church gives us the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Yes, God brings us into the vineyard of His kingdom by His grace, and, yes, that also involves work, especially during Lent. So, let’s prepare to get busy in the works of repentance and living in our Baptism. And to help us prepare, let’s hear the Parable of the Workers with a modern twist. What you are about to hear comes from Robert Farrar Capon (Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans, 1989, pp. 51-56) with some slight modifications.

There was a man who owned a vineyard. His operation was not on the scale of E & J Gallo, but it was quite respectable: let us put him in the Robert Mondavi class. We first see this gentleman on the evening of the second Sunday in October. September has been a perfect month—hot and dry, bringing the grapes to 20º brix—but his meteorological service tells him that the weather is about to turn into cold soup. So what does our friend Robert do? He gets up first thing Monday morning, goes down to what passes for the local hiring hall and contracts for as much day labor as he can pick up. Unfortunately, every other grower in the neighborhood uses the same weather reports, so he has to promise higher pay to attract the workers he needs: $120 for the day is the figure that finally guarantees him a crew….

No,… $120 is not a ridiculous figure. A denarius was a day’s pay; I have simply taken the liberty of making it a good day’s pay….

Anyway, Robert loads his crew into a couple of old school buses and puts them to work, chop-chop. Just before nine A.M., though, he gets another weather bulletin. They have moved the start of the three weeks of rain from Wednesday back to Tuesday: he has one day, not two, to get the harvest in. Out he goes at nine, therefore—and with increasing panic at noon and at three—to hire on still more hands. Each time he succeeds in rounding up all the available help, giving them the by now practiced line that he is Robert Mondavi, the famous payer of top dollar who is also Mr. Fairness himself: whatever is right, they will get.

It’s a huge harvest, though, and with only one hour left before dark, Robert realizes he won’t get it in on time without still more help. So out he goes again, but the hiring hall is closed by now and the village square has only its usual crowd of up-to-the-minute losers hanging out in a haze of smoke. You know the types: lots of leather, some girls (and their boyfriends) with more mousse than brains, six-packs everywhere, and music that ruptures the eardrums. What the [heck], Robert thinks in desperation: it’s worth at least a try. So he walks up to the group, ostentatiously switches off the offending ghetto-blaster, and goes into his spiel: he’s Robert Mondavi; he’s famous and he’s fair; they could probably use a buck; so what do they think? What they think, of course, is also What the [heck]: whatever he wants them to do, it won’t take long; and whatever he pays, at least it’s a couple more six-packs for the night. Off they go.

Now then: run your mind over the story so far. I’m sure you know exactly what happens each time one of those new batches of workers gets dropped off at the vineyard. Before they pick even a single grape, they make sure they find out from the workers already on the job the exact per diem amount on which Robert Mondavi is basing his chances at the Guiness Book of World Records. And since they are—like the rest of the human race—inveterate bookkeepers, they take the $120 figure, divide it by twelve and multiply it by the number of hours they’ll be working. Then and only then do they lay hand to grape, secure in the knowledge that they will be getting, respectively, $100, $70, $40, and $10.

Robert, however, has a surprise for them. At the end of the day, he is a happy man. With his best and biggest harvest on its way to the stemmer-crusher, he feels expansive—and a little frisky. So he says to his foreman, “I have a wild idea. I’m going to fill the pay envelopes myself; but when you give them out, I want you to do it backwards, beginning with the last ones hired.”

Once again, I’m sure, you know what happens. When the first girl with purple hair gets her envelope and walks away opening it, she finds six crisp, new twenties inside. What does she do? …No,…She does not go back and report the overage; she just keeps on walking—fast.

But when her shirt-open-to-the-waist boyfriends catch up with her and tell her they got $120, too…well, dear old human nature triumphs again: they cannot resist going back and telling everybody else what jerks they were for sweating a whole day in the hot sun when they could have made the same money for just an hour’s work.

The entail of Adam’s transgression being what it is, however, the workers who were on the job longer come up with yet another example of totally unoriginal sin. On hearing that Robert Mondavi is now famous for paying $120 an hour, they put their mental bookkeeping machinery into reverse and floor the pedal. And what do they then come up with? O frabulous joy! They conclude that they are now about to become the proud possessors of, in order, $480, or $840, or even—bless you, Robert Mondavi--$1,440.

But Robert, like God, is only crazy, not stupid. Like God, he has arranged for their recompense to be based only on the weird goodness he is most famous for, not on the just deserts they have infamously imagined for themselves: every last envelope, they find, has six (6) twenties in it; no more for those who worked all day, and no less for those who didn’t.

Which, of course, goes down like Gatorade for the last bunch hired, like dishwater for the next-to-last, like vinegar for the almost-first, and like hot sulfuric acid for the first-of-all. Predictably, therefore—on the lamebrained principle that those who are most outraged should argue the case for those who are less so (wisdom would have whispered to them, “Reply in anger and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret”)—the sweatiest and the most exhausted decide to give Robert a hard time. “Hey, man,” they say; “you call this a claim to fame? Those punks over there only worked one hour and we knocked ourselves out all day. How come you made them equal to us?”

Robert, however, has his speech in his pocket. “Look, Pal,” he says. (Incidentally, the Greek word in the parable is hetaire, which is a distinctly unfriendly word for “friend.” In three of its four uses in the New Testament—here, and to the man without the wedding garment in the King’s Son’s Wedding, and to Judas at the betrayal—it comes off sounding approximately like “Buster.”) “Look, Pal,” he tells the spokesman for all the bookkeepers who have gagged on this parable for two thousand years, “Don’t give me agita. You agreed to $120 a day, I gave you $120 a day. Take it and get out of here before I call the cops. If I want to give some pot-head in Gucci loafers the same pay as you, so what? You’re telling me I can’t do what I want with my own money? I’m supposed to be a stinker because you got your nose out of joint? All I did was have a fun idea. I decided to put the last first and the first last to show you that there are no insiders or outsiders here: when I’m happy, everybody’s happy, no matter what they did or didn’t do. I’m not asking you to like me, Buster; I’m telling you to enjoy me. If you want to mope, that’s your business. But since the only thing it’ll get you is a lousy disposition, why don’t you just shut up and go into the tasting room and have yourself a free glass of Chardonnay? The choice is up to you, Friend: drink up, or get out; compliments of the house, or go to [you fill in the blank]. Take your pick.”

…It is the evil eye, you see—…the eye that loves the darkness of its bookkeeper’s black ink, the eye that cannot stand the red ink of unsuccess as it appears in the purple light of grace—that is condemned here. Bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven. For in that happy state, the books are ignored forever, and there is only the Book of life. And in that book, nothing stands against you. There are no debit entries that can keep you out of the clutches of the Love that will not let you go. There is no minimum balance below which the grace that finagles all accounts will cancel your credit. And there is, of course, no need for you to show large amounts of black ink, because the only Auditor before whom you must finally stand is the Lamb—and he has gone deaf, dumb, and blind on the cross. The last may be first and the first last, but that’s only for the fun of making the point: everybody is on the payout queue and everybody gets full pay. Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in; the only bruised backsides belong to those who insist on butting themselves into outer darkness.

For if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus. The law was just fine. And God gave it a good thousand years or so to see if anyone could pass a test like that. But when nobody did—when it became perfectly clear that there was “no one who was righteous, no not even one” (Rom. 3:10; Ps. 14:1-3), that “both Jews and Gentiles alike were all under the power of sin” (Rom. 3:9)—God gave up on salvation by the books. He cancelled everybody’s records in the death of Jesus and rewarded us all, equally and fully, with a new creation in the resurrection of the dead.

And therefore the only adverse judgment that falls on the world falls on those who take there stand on a life God cannot use rather than on the death he can. Only the winners lose, because only the losers can win: the reconciliation simply cannot work any other way. Evil cannot be gotten out of the world by reward and punishment: that just points up the shortage of sheep and turns God into one more score-evening goat. The only way to solve the problem of evil is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking it into himself—down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind—and to close the books on it forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the idiots who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads. (Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans, 1989, pp. 51-56)


  1. So, Randy, how was it received by the flock at Hope?


  2. I've had but a couple of comments, and those by folks who simply said, "Thanks, it often helps to put a parable in a modern setting." So far so good, I guess.