Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
What is the Kingdom of God? Is it the landowner? Is it his vineyard? Is it all of his land and his ability to hire laborers for his vineyard? Is the whole parable a description of the Kingdom? I usually get caught up with the story, the supposed “meat” of the parable” that follows the “set up” but the set up is ambiguous.
Certainly the 1st Lesson pericopes seem to support the supposition that this passage is about God’s generosity and our tendency to always look for more. There are two optional passages. The first is Exodus 16: 2-15. The “whole congregation of the Israelites” complain against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The people think they will die from hunger. God spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites.” Tell them I will send manna (the term means “food” which is more generic than the usual interpretation of “bread). The other possible 1st Lesson pericope is Jonah 3: 10-4:11. Jonah is angry that God has saved Nineveh after Jonah told them that they were doomed. Now Jonah looks like a false prophet. God’s response to Jonah’s anger is that God sees the big picture and can show mercy to whomever God wants.
To strengthen the context even more, the 2nd lesson is Philippians 1:21-30. Paul is advising the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.” Given our context, this could loosely be interpreted as both your joyful living and your suffering are good because you live in Christ.
So back to the Gospel passage. It seems that at least one message is that it is that we should be happy about the gifts we have been given. “Don’t worry; be happy” as the song advises. Do not look at others and feel cheated. Interestingly the passage does not talk about some of the laborers getting more than others. They all get the same. Those who work the whole day think they should get more but the is up to the landowner.
“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. What does it mean to be first or last. In a different passage Jesus advises to take a chair lower at the table. Do not exalt yourself. The host (the landowner?) may invite you to sit further up. In both cases it is someone else’s decision, not mine.
Still, what are we to take from this passage? If we see ourselves as the laborers, it may not matter when we are called. We are all in the Kingdom. (Possibly others are as well.). What maters is that we recognize that Grace comes from the landowner. It is ours to recognize as blessing. It is ours to accept. There is no “more” or “less.” Grace is.