First, the texts:
“The Song of the Vineyard” from Isaiah 5:1-10
1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
8 Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16
[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers
for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We spend the first part of our lives learning what to expect, and what is expected of us, and the rest of our lives believing these expectations are true, in spite of everything.
We learn as newborns what to expect when we cry; most of us learned to expect to be nurtured. We spend the rest of our lives believing that our needs will be met ; that there is such a thing as love in the world. I wonder if unloved babies ever get over the feeling that there isn’t?
We learn to expect to be rewarded for being good and punished for being bad, at least in general, if not in every case. In other words, we learn what we can expect from others, and that others have expectations on us. It works both ways.
But things don’t always go to plan. We buy property expecting the value to rise, but it falls. We vote for someone expecting them to be wise, but later learn how much lobbyists paid to influence them. We expect our judicial system to punish guilty people, and then DNA analysis proves that we have put several hundred people on death row that were not guilty after all.
The texts we have read bring up both sides of the expectation equation: what does God expect from us, and what should we expect from God? These texts are going to teach us some urgently needed lessons, precisely about what God expects of us, and what we should expect of God, so let us look at them.
Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard
First, the prophet Isaiah and his famous poem we call “The Song of the Vineyard”
1 Let me sing for my beloved, my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
Israel is God’s vineyard, as the poem tell us. God, the landowner does everything possible for the vineyard. He cares for the vineyard, and he also has expectations for the vineyard. The poem says:
“he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”
Wild grapes are worthless. So the landowner confronts the people with a question. He puts them in the role of the jury at a public trial:
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
So now, twice we have heard the word “expected” in this poem. God expected his vineyard to be fruitful, and did everything that could be done to make it flourish.
Here we stop and notice both sides of the equation of expectations. What does God expect from his people? That they (that we) would be fruitful, that we would produce good fruit for him. What can we expect from God? That he has been working behind the scenes to accomplish his purpose for us.
Right now, God is working in your life to do everything necessary to help you accomplish his purposes. What he wants most is that you will want the same thing that he wants; your own flourishing is his purpose, his expectation for you.
That was what he wanted and expected for his original vineyard, the people of Israel, but what happened? The poem says:
7 he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
8 Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
God is very specific about what flourishing looks like. He expects the fruit of justice, but he got bloodshed instead. People who attend Thursday Bible study already know that the “bloodshed” here is not murder, but rather squeezing the life blood out of people through injustice.
In Isaiah’s day, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The poor were selling their land to survive, and selling themselves into debt-slavery.
The wealthy were “joining house to house,” gobbling up the land into large estates, leaving landless peasants with the life blood squeezed out of them. The courts that legalized this process were corrupted by bribery, Isaiah tells us, and God was not happy.
What should people expect from God now? Well if they thought he was going to keep watering and weeding and getting the wild grapes of injustice, they were wrong. The expectation equation now has zeros on both sides; neither side got what they expected. It was not a pretty picture.
Jesus and the “vineyard”
I hope now its obvious that Jesus was intentionally invoking this poem as he told his parable of the vineyard workers and the landowner (Jesus was bursting with concepts and images from the book of Isaiah). He has some of the same elements from Isaiah’s poem, but he does some new, surprising things with them.
He has a landowner, like Isaiah’s poem, who has a vineyard. But, unlike Isaiah’s poem, Jesus has workers in the vineyard who become important players in his parable. The landowner clearly has expectations for his vineyard, and he is doing everything he can to make sure his purpose of fruitfulness is accomplished.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.”
In fact he is hiring as much help as he can find, making multiple trips to the labor market throughout the day.
“When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’”
So far, the expectations of the workers and the expectations of the landowner are perfectly aligned. The expectation equation balances. But that will change soon. The question is, what is going on? What should we learn from this?
Landless laborers in God’s Vineyard?
First I have to tell you that Jesus has just sneaked into this parable a turn of events that no one would have expected – as he often did in parables – which turns Isaiah’s poem upside down.
Remember, Isaiah criticized the wealthy people of his day for “joining house to house” pushing peasants off their land, calling it “bloodshed.” In Jesus’ parable, there are a bunch of
day-laborers who the landowner hires for his vineyard: where did the day laborers come from? Why were they in the marketplace, looking for work?
Day laborers are peasants; landless peasants who live at the mercy of those who have “joined house to house” at theirexpense! How could Jesus tell a story in which God is the landowner and he feels OK with this situation? Shouldn’t he be on a justice crusade to restore the land to these laborers?
I think that when Jesus’ original audience, probably many of whom were, in reality, day laborers, heard this parable, they were thinking about that very justice issue and wondering about it. How could God put up with this injustice? This is not what they expected Jesus to be saying about God; it’s certainly not what they expected from God himself!
Pay-off time: trouble
If that seems unsettling, it’s about to get worse. At the end of the day, at sundown, it’s pay-off time. Day laborers had to bepaid daily, so that, on the way home, they could afford their “daily bread” (It is not a light matter at all that in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, right after they pray for daily bread, they pray for their debts to be forgiven!).
At pay-time, the landowner makes sure that what he plans to do is obvious:
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’”
The last people hired, who only worked a small fraction of a full day were paid a full day’s wages, the others observed, and naturally assumed that the rates had dramatically increased. It would only be just and fair to pay everyone the same hourly rate, right? That’s what they expected.
Expecting Justice from a Generous God
And that is the key to this parable. The expectation that you get what you deserve from God is exactly the idea that Jesus is subverting in this parable. The concept known as the “doctrine of retribution” that everybody gets what they deserve, is set on its head by a deeper doctrine: the doctrine of the extravagant generosity of God.
“But Jesus replied to one of them …. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
This parable has subtleties that we have no time to explore, like the fact that God’s extravagant generosity does not mean the landless peasants get their land back. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was no longer about Palestinian territory. In fact it was going to include, in the not too distant future, gentiles! (Talk about people who get into the pay line at the end of the day!)
God expects us to be fruitful; to produce the fruit of justice, and the fruit of the Spirit, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, and to see the face of Jesus in each of the “least of these.” His expectations of us are specific and serious.
And yet, on the other hand, we do not enter the kingdom on the basis of the hours we put in laboring in the vineyard. The pay-off of entering the kingdom is a matter of God’s extravagant generosity which goes way beyond justice and fairness.
Grace: always, only
Christians like us, in the Reformed tradition, are very comfortable with the understanding that we are not saved by our good works, but rather by God’s grace alone. Even our faith is a gift, as Calvin reminded us, given to us by a gracious God, so that we cannot even claim credit for believing.
But let us be clear about the lesson of this parable. It is not just our salvation that comes by grace alone; all throughout our lives, every day, we are the recipients of God’s extravagant grace. Daily we go through the pay-line and get ridiculously more than we deserve. What do we have that we have not received as a gift?
It is a tragic irony that many people live their lives thinking that the pain and difficulties they experience are God’s retribution, his pay-back for the wrongs that they have done. Is that what we can expect from God? Not according to Jesus.
What we can expect, is extravagant grace. What he can expect from us (as Calvin also reminded us) is extravagant gratitude. In the end, the fruitfulness that God expects includes both working for justice as Isaiah taught, and as scripture says “the fruit of lips that praise his name” for his extravagant, generous, daily grace.