At the edge of 6th street and I-35 in Austin Texas there was a small, ramshackle building. From the outside, you might imagine it is a storage room. Instead, every night about fifty men call this place home or, at least, shelter for the night.
In the morning, these men stood outside and waited. They are day laborers, men whose income depends on a daily work. They have no salary, no budget. They depend on the contractors who pick them up in the morning and their promise of a daily wage.
The irony is many of these men use very little of their wages on themselves. Many of them have family living in other cities. They have come to Austin because the climate and economy promises the most work in a year. They save enough for meager meals and a bed. Everything else is given away to those they love.
I came to know some of these men while I was in seminary. Every Friday a group of us would take homemade bean burritos, fruit and water down to the shelter. We knew there was not much day labor over the weekend and, for some, this would be their only meal. We began to learn their names and share stories.
We talked about our families and, of course, Jesus. By the time I graduated and left Austin, these men were imprinted on my life. And it is their faces I imagine when I hear Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard today.
They know, more than I, what it means to work for that daily wage. They know, more than I, the frustration of watching those who work less be paid the same amount. They know, more than I, how it feels to live at the mercy of the landowner and his justice.
I wonder how they would respond to this parable. Would they, like me, find it shocking? Would the story offend or frustrate them? Would they identify with those who grumble or those who rejoice in the unexpected income?
Which brings me to the question, who are we in this parable? Do we rejoice at God’s abundance or do we grumble about those who we deem unworthy?
A rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
Jesus says, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The rich young man gets frustrated. He has kept all the commandments and he wants more. He wants security. He wants to know for sure. He wants to be perfect. Jesus says, “…go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you have will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And the rich young man leaves burdened by Jesus’ answer.
Interestingly, it is the disciples who are upset by Jesus’ teaching. Peter seems especially frustrated saying to Jesus,“Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” In this moment, Peter and the rich young man are the same. Peter wants security. Peter wants to know he’s reached perfection.
And he wants his reward. He wants to know that all the sacrifices he has made are worth it.
Unlike the rich young man, Peter can leave satisfied. Jesus promises all those who follow him heavenly glory.
Yet, there is one hitch. Jesus says to Peter, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
And he tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
Peter has his promise, his reward. Yet, the reward is not only for him: one who has followed Jesus from the very beginning. The promise of eternal life, a life bound to God forever, is for anyone who follows. Ultimately, it’s not about how good we are or reaching perfection. Indeed, there are some who never come close to perfection and receive the same heavenly glory.
I wonder how Peter felt hearing this story. Did he imagine himself as first and balk at the thought of being last? Was the promise of his reward satisfaction enough? Or did he grumble at the thought of the rich young man sharing his heavenly glory?
Which brings me to the question, how does this story make us feel?
Maybe we place ourselves at the front of the line. We work hard. We try to be good. We know there are rewards for being good and working hard. And this belief gets mixed up in our theology. In other words, we are tempted to believe we can earn God’s love. We’re often tempted to believe all of our hard work and goodness pays off in a great heavenly reward.
Maybe we place ourselves last, at the back of the line. Maybe we are like the rich young man. Overburdened by our possessions, we are unable to leave everything and follow Christ. We know when we have failed. We know there are consequences when we are not good. We have a keen sense that we do not deserve any reward, earthly or heavenly.
Those of us burdened by mistakes and failures are hindered by fear. Our fear keeps us from taking opportunities that might align our lives with God.
Those of us who see ourselves as good and righteous become self-righteous. We become dependent on our goodness and forget God’s goodness.
And we are ALL quick to judge one another’s reward.
There is one thread that binds us together. We all depend on God’s mercy. The day laborers need a daily wage. Whether hired at morning or dusk, their life depends on the wage they are promised. We need God’s mercy. Whether our self-righteousness or anxiety threatens to overwhelm us, we depend on God’s promise.
Jesus says to Peter, “…everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life…” Everyone who chooses to follow Christ chooses a new way to live. It doesn’t matter when or how, the point is we receive a new life in Christ. This way of life binds us to God, no matter what. That’s a promise.