Crying Foul: The Cry of the Kingdom
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Happy Canada Day!
There’s nothing like a national birthday, especially when celebrated so close to our friends’ celebration south of us, to draw our attention to the differences b/w our nations. We look a lot alike; we speak the same language, sort of, we eat much of the same foods and idolize the same celebrities, but scratch the surface and we’re very different.
Our worldviews are shaped by deep-seeded factors that we may not recognize or be able to articulate. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” undergirds one worldview; and “Peace, Order, and Good Government” informs the other. Different starting points lead to different ways of looking at the world and our place in it as people and as nations. Foundational values permeate our society – our “kingdoms” and they form and inform our decisions and choices, mostly subconsciously, for better or for worse. We don’t see them until a movie or novel or satire or a comedian unmasks them.
Jesus constantly challenged the worldview of his listeners and unmasked the ungodly values and idols of his audience. And he did so predominantly through story, through parables.
Jesus recognized that story is more engaging, more instructive than mere instruction. Unlike formula or instruction, story arrests the heart, the affections and the passions of a person. It engages our imagination, not just our intellect; our heart not just our mind. Story helps us see life through a different lens. It helps us to imagine another way of being.
Parables are common stories with uncommon endings. They’re meant to shock us, to provoke us, to make us feel uneasy and defensive. They’re not just nice, safe illustrations. They’re unsafe, hazardous to our norms and acculturations. If we don’t squirm when we read a parable, we have not understood it.
In his teachings on the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ task is to reorient the thinking of his audience who, like us, had become acculturated. They had absorbed the secular worldview of wealth, power and entitlement. Jesus needed to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is a whole new way of living and being and seeing the world. It’s upside down. It’s inside out. It’s backwards. It’s counter-intuitive and it challenges our common sense.
He does so in this parable using the language of business and finance. In fact, many of Jesus’ parables around the Kingdom of God are illustrated in financial terms, around money and wealth, around buying and selling – a clue to one of the main areas of impact and consequence of the reign of God in our lives.
The “Kingdom of God” is part of our Christian vocabulary, a phrase that we often throw around quite loosely perhaps without grasping the implications. Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God. Actually everything he said had to do with the rule of God. Everything he did demonstrated the Kingdom of God – what life looks like when God reigns.
Most of us have grown up in a democracy and “kingdom” terminology is somewhat foreign. If Jesus were here today in 21st century North America, he might have used “empire of God” or “economy of God” or “ideology of God.” The Kingdom of God is simply living under the reign of God.
The theme or question that spawns Jesus’ telling of today’s story is around adequate compensation, around entitlement. This sense of adequate compensation and entitlement wasn’t unique to Jesus’ listeners. We're all programmed to think in these terms: in terms of return on investment, whether it be financial or accolades or recognition.
So here we are, faced with this parable.
And the invitation of every parable is to place yourself in it. Who we side with is starkly and frighteningly revealing! It challenges our worldview.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner.”
The setting of this story was as common then as it is now. We beat the pavement distributing resumes and filling out application after application. You’ve probably been there or are facing that right now. You know the sting of rejection and the frustration of insufficient job availability. Job hunting is a humiliating endeavour!
In this agrarian society, unemployed workers would gather at the beginning of the day in a corner of the marketplace.
The marketplace was the hub of economic and social life. It’s where you sold your organic honey and fresh goat’s cheese, where you picked up the latest gossip, and where you found work.
Those in the ‘unemployment district’ may have been homeless; Jews who had lost their land inheritance through ancestral debt; or they may have been migrant workers filing into the city at harvest time.
But whatever the situation, theirs was a day to day existence.
There were no RRSP’s to cash in, no assets to sell, no line of credit to fall back on and no credit card to buy food for dinner. It was a hand to mouth existence.
They would stand watching for potential employers. The landowner, or more likely the foreman or manager, would then begin the selection process. And unlike today where an email or phone call confirms your selection or rejection, this was a public affair. They would select the choicest, the best of the men to meet the labour needs of the day.
So you get the picture. Everyone there is desperate for work. Everyone there needs to eat and perhaps have families that need to eat (that’s the down-side of kids…they cost so much!). These guys need work!
So the setting of the story is common enough. But, in typical Jesus fashion there are some unlikely and seemingly twisted details.
1. For one, we see that the landowner himself goes to the unemployment district of the market.
Why would he bother himself with this annoying task of being harassed by desperate men clamoring for his attention, promising him the moon? Landowners in the Middle East were generally known as gentleman farmers, which means that they didn’t get their hands dirty! They hired others to work the land and take care of business.
2. Second thing to notice is that he keeps returning.
He makes the hot, dirty trek to the market, not once, not twice, but 5 times! This is an uncharacteristic detail and with Jesus, uncharacteristic generally means noteworthy. It was common knowledge that most would have left by noon assuming there would be no work.
So why does he keep returning? Does he need them? The story doesn’t indicate that the landowner was inexperienced. He would know how many workers he would need.
As is so often the case the significance of the details of a story become clear at the end of the story, right?
3. The third thing to notice is that while the first group was promised a denarius which was considered the standard days wage - it would buy you food for the day- the rest were not. They didn’t know what they would make for the day. The landowner says only that he will pay them ‘what is just or ‘right.’ Remember that word “right.”
Perhaps at this point they don’t care. Perhaps they feel they can trust this man’s sense of justice, or half a loaf is better than none. Maybe they’re eager to escape the unemployment district, or perhaps they just hope for future employment.
4. The fourth odd detail for Jesus’ audience, if this weren’t already enough, was that the landowner returns at 5 o’clock, the end of the work day, shocked that they were still there and that they’re waiting to be hired. And Jesus asks, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long?’
Listen to this question.
Think about this question.
Put yourself in their shoes and hear this question.
Does this question seem cruel to you?
‘Why have you been standing here all day long?’
Isn’t the answer obvious?
If they had found work, they wouldn’t still be standing there.
Did the Landowner really have to rub the obvious in their faces? It was likely abundantly clear why no one had hired them - they didn’t need to be reminded.
But Jesus is consistent in his approach throughout the Gospels – he always had the person he was ministering to face and admit and own their need.
With the blind man he asked what seems like the obvious: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
With the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethsaida he asks, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ Are you kidding?
What about the woman at the well who said, ‘I don’t have a husband.’ That’s for sure – you’ve had 5 of them!
There is a purpose in Jesus method. It wasn’t for humiliation but for healing.
So, what was their sheepish reply to Jesus’ silly question? ‘Because no one has hired us.’ That’s pretty clear. But what they were really saying in answering his question was, ‘No one has chosen us. No one has needed us or deemed us worthy enough to hire.’
They were facing their reality. They were naming their need.
And they were right, by the standards of the world. They were of no worth, no value.
So what does the Landowner do? He hires them! He gives them a place. Restores their dignity and value.
Again the wording merits our attention. He says, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ You also, could be translated ‘And you’ or ‘Even you’. It is the language of inclusion.
The same invitation is given to the ‘unfit’ as to the brawny, capable first picks. You too, are included. I deem you fit to work in my fields. You are not excluded. You qualify. I want you.
I choose you too!
It’s outlandish, especially since there is only one hour left in the working day. We can assume that there would have been at least a short distance to walk to get to the vineyard. So how much work could the landowner realistically expect to get out of these guys? Assuming as we have that the owner is compassionate, we might expect him, if his intentions are to help out, to reach into his purse and give them some money and send them home.
But he does something even more shocking – he hires them for probably less than an hour’s worth of work.
Michael Yaconelli in his book, Messy Spirituality says, “The Christianity of Jesus became the place-maker for those who had no place.”
That’s the challenge of the Kingdom of God; the challenge for us: to be place-makers for those who have no place, who are deemed unfit by the world’s standards.
He refuses to meet their felt need – money. He gave them more: a place in the economic order, in society, in the Kingdom.
Jesus is trying to show his disciples (and us) that the Kingdom isn’t only about charity. Charity is not enough. Pity isn’t compassion.
It’s not just about reaching into our pockets and giving of what’s left over. It’s bigger than that. It’s much more audacious than that.
The kingdom of God is about inclusion, and inclusion of the most unlikely, the un-entitled, the undeserving – a place for those without a place.
It’s also costly. This landowner was getting no return on his investment. Let that sink in. He was hiring, paying, but receiving nothing back. This came straight off of his bottom line.
This is beautiful! And if this parable stopped here we would learn so much.
5. But the most outlandish surprise comes last: it’s the payment and the manner of payment that will cause the greatest commotion.
The landowner ordered his foreman to “call the workers and pay them ‘the wage.’” It’s actually singular in the original text so for these first century listeners they have a clue of what’s coming that we miss in our English translations. We use the possessive pronoun ‘their wage’ inadvertently suggesting that the wages would be personalized, proportionate to the amount of work. The term “the wage” was generally accepted as a day’s pay so already eyebrows would be raised.
And then the landowner does the most ridiculous, provocative thing: he orders that those hired last be paid first.
We all know that you don’t cut someone slack in front of another.
If you’ve got children or worked with children you’ll know what I mean. ‘Why do they get to go to bed at the same time as me when I’m older?’ ‘How come he got dessert and didn’t have to eat his peas?’
In this respect, we’re all kids. We all suffer from entitlement.
If the Landowner had just paid the ones he hired first their denarius and sent them on their way they would have been none the wiser, would they? Jesus was making a point here by ordering it in this way. And he was inviting us to identify ourselves in the story. This wasn’t a cute story about compassion, it was a teaching moment about the Kingdom of God – about God’s extravagant, outlandish, prodigal grace!
About place-making for those without a place.
About challenging our sense of entitlement.
Can you imagine for a moment the shock, the sheer jubilation when those last workers were given a days wage for only an hour? Or only 3 hours? They had stood all day in that marketplace hoping to be hired. Trying to impress would-be employers. Worrying about how they would buy that evening’s meal? And then they get hired but with only 3 or 1 one hours work left in the day. It was something but not enough. So imagine their astonishment to receive an entire days wage for only an hour’s work?
But likewise try to get a sense of the rising tension for those hired first. They watch as group after group receive ‘the wage’.
Surely they will get something extra. Overtime pay. Maybe time and a half? Surely!
But no. They receive the same.
And so the workers complain…’these men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden in the heat of the day.’
“You have made them equal.” That’s the rub.
Equality, undeserved equality, that’s the issue.
When we hear the cry, “Equal pay for equal work” we tend to think of this situation (power point slide). It’s usually gender or race related and it represent justice. It’s a cry from the underpaid.
But in this parable Jesus turns it all upside down. The first group cry “foul” or “no fair!” but this isn’t the cry of the underpaid. No one in this story is underpaid. No one is treated unjustly.
The cry is from the justly paid who can’t stand grace!
‘You’ve made them equal to us!’ they cry. That’s the issue.
What is at the heart of their cry is that they feel they deserve more!
Grace confronts entitlement.
Perhaps we read this parable and we scream ‘foul!’ or ‘unfair.’ That’s because our sense of fair is in opposition to ‘just.’
Fairness is a human term and it is a comparative tool based on our judgment usually with ourselves as the frame of reference.
It is a human attribute, based on measurement and comparison and entitlement.
Fairness is counterfeit justice, a cheap imitation. And at its heart it is merciless!
And we erroneously and perhaps inadvertently project this attribute onto God. If God is good God must be fair, right?
But fair in whose eyes? The Bible tells us that God is just and that’s altogether a different thing than fairness as we deem fair to be.
The Landowner responds with two penetrating questions:
1. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?
2. Are you envious because I am generous?
Typical Jesus – he hits the nail on the head; he exposes the hardness of their hearts; their lack of compassion and mercy; their sense of entitlement. They were not really objecting to injustice they were objecting to grace and mercy and generosity!
Some scholars see this parable as depicting the Pharisees as the ones hired first –those who had spent their lives keeping the law precisely. Jesus had been welcoming into the kingdom the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the low-lifes – those who had not toiled under the hot sun all day, as it were – and he was giving them equal status!
Others see it as representing Israel and the Gentiles, Israel being the first one’s hired – they had a contract, a covenant, they know the expectations and the reward. Then along come the Gentiles. They don’t need to be circumcised and they can eat shrimp and bacon and they still get in and are given equal status!
And on one level those interpretations may be valid. But we can’t get away from the context of the parable. This story is set in the context of earning, entitlement, and reward. The story is about the least deserving being included, and the least entitled experiencing grace.
Parables are nuanced: there’s not usually just one point or moral or doctrine to be gleaned. Instead we look for ourselves in the story. We listen to what’s going on in our spirits. What emotions are summoned when we hear a particular parable?
This parable, like so many, speaks to us on a number of levels.
1. First is who we identify with. What are your gut reactions? I certainly felt for the ones hired first. I felt their pain at what they perceived as injustice. Grace looks like that sometimes.
2. Secondly, we tend to assume that the landowner is God. But the parable opens with the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner. The Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God) is the new reality that we inhabit; that’s the reign of God that we’re meant to exhibit. This may be a lovely parable about Gods grace but it’s more likely a parable about how grace informs how we live; how we see the world; how we conduct business; how we view wealth and poverty and work and reward and ROI.
Remember what I said at the beginning. Parables aren’t safe, sweet stories. They’re subversive, provocative, world-rocking stories intended to challenge our preconceived notions and our comfortable allegiances. This parable challenges us on the level of economics and inclusion.
Do you recall what the landowner offered those hired later? “I will pay you what is right.” Clearly what is right in the Kingdom of God is nonsensical to us. And that bears keeping in mind.
Sadly, a later version of this parable told by rabbis said that those hired later actually accomplished as much as those hired first, thus justifying the equal wage. What a shame. We always have to return to fairness, earning and entitlement.
But the Kingdom of God is new territory, a new system where grace is the currency. And the challenge for us is:
- How do we enact this new way of being?
- How does it inform our way of doing business, our view of work and wealth, of what and who we value and why?
Jesus’ opponents though grace (God’s favour) was uniquely available to the ‘righteous,’ the keepers of the law. Grace should be earned! (ponder that!).
The truth is, the reality is, that grace isn’t grace unless we’re unentitled.
But do you recall your gut reaction when this was read? With whom did you side? Were you rejoicing with the guys hired last? Or did you feel the sting of the ones hired first?
I believe that as those who have entered the Kingdom of God, who claim to live under the Lordship of Jesus, we are called to creatively re-enact this parable in every generation, in each of our historical and cultural contexts. We need to ask ourselves:
- How do I as an individual, how do we as a church, re-enact this parable this week?
- What does it look like in my life?
- What has to change?
- Where have I bought into society’s norms?
Jesus is speaking to all of us.
- Who are you in the story?
- Who do you need to be?