When I was a volunteer at Koinonia Farm in Georgia, they had a small vineyard. The farm supervisor hired local workers to pick grapes. The work was hard, and would begin early in the day, to get as much picking done before the heat and humidity really set in.
There was another reason to begin early. As the day warmed up, there was a greater possibility that twined in among the vines there might be a snake. They liked to wrap themselves around the cross-beams of the vine-stands, and sun themselves. The local folks were very afraid of snakes, and with good reason. In that part of Sumter County there were several varieties of venomous rattlesnakes. Their bite might not kill you, but from what I heard, they hurt like crazy. If like, most people there, you had no health insurance, a trip to the doctor or the hospital emergency ward could be an expensive inconvenience. Many families who lived near the farm had no grass in their yards. They preferred to keep the rich red soil around their houses bare of any vegetation, for fear of the proverbial snake in the grass.
The farm supervisor during my time was a retired Baptist preacher from Erie, Pennsylvania named Ray Rockwell. Ray was an ornery, crotchety old guy. He was in his mid 70’s when I knew him, and could still out-work people half or even a third his age. On grape picking days he patrolled the rows of vines with a sharpened hoe, which he was not afraid to use, to quickly dispatch a rattlesnake if needed. He didn’t like guns, so the hoe was a preferred option.
The day labourers in Jesus’ audience did not contend with rattlesnakes, but they faced other daily challenges and threats. Many would have identified with the workers in the story, who each day looked for a place to earn a day’s wage, hopefully be enough to feed themselves and their family. Under the Roman rule of Palestine, most agricultural land was owned and controlled by a small wealthy class. There was a huge population of landless peasants. Some came from families that used to have their own farms, but had long ago had lost them. because they could not keep up with the heavy Roman taxes.
The Roman appointed tax collectors, with the help of the local government, and Roman soldiers, would seize the land to cover the tax bills, and then the land would be turned over to a wealthy family to manage, as long as they guaranteed the Emperor would get his share.
The day-labourers were at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. They might live on plots of rented farm land, and still have to look for work to supplement their income. The return on what they grew did not always cover the costs of working the land. So they would get up with the sun, and look for a day’s work, at the end of which they would be paid a denarius.
The story would sound very familiar to Jesus’ audience. They knew about hard work, and the precarious nature of life in Roman-ruled Palestine. Now that Jesus has drawn in his listeners with a story to which they can relate, he brings in the twists, the surprises that make this a parable.
The audience is already listening. They have already let the story get in past their defenses. Now the story is going to get under their skin. Jesus says that the landowner went out several times during the day and recruited more workers. These would be workers who had not been successful in finding work earlier in the day, and who likely expected to go home hungry that evening. The landowner goes out at nine, and noon, and at three in the afternoon, and at again at five. That may sound like quitting time to us, but in those days it might be more like 6 in the evening, depending on the time of year.
When the end of the day does finally come, which would be a tremendous relief to those who’d laboured since sunrise, the landowner instructed his foreman to pay each worker a denarius. This did not sit well with those who had been there all day.
I was out with the Sunday school when you heard this story, but I put questions in the bulletin for you to consider:
How do you feel about this story?
How would it feel to be the first one hired?
How would it feel to be the last one hired?
Jesus challenges us with contrasting versions of reality. There is the world we are used to, in which you only get what you deserve, or what someone else decides you deserve. This is also the world in which even if I have all that I need for today, I am still likely to want more, and also likely to be envious and indignant, if I feel like someone else got a better deal than me.
Then there is the world as God might have it be, in which a generous landowner might exercise the freedom to make sure all his workers went home with enough to feed their families. He did not make them rich, but they would have enough.
It would be like the manna that appeared for the Israelites on their trek across the desert. Enough appeared to meet everyone’s actual hunger, but no more. No ziploc bags, no freezers, no retirement plans. No extra for those who put in longer hours. Just enough for the day.
Can we even imagine living that way? Actually, that is how we live. We may go to bed at night with the knowledge that there is food in the pantry for tomorrow, but what we don’t know for sure is what tomorrow will bring, or whether we will live to see the next day. None of us knows what might happen. Our lives are literally out of our control. If we don’t control even our own life, how is it that we become convinced that we are in charge of, or own or control anything? Everything we need to live, including life itself, is on loan to us. We only have it for a while.
That, I think is one of the deep symbolic and spiritual meanings of the manna story, and of Jesus’ parable. We are not in charge. We do not really own anything. We are utterly dependent on the generous provision of God.
We resist this truth, in the same way that some of the Israelites tried to horde more manna than they needed for the day. In the same way that some of the vineyard workers wanted more than they really needed to feed their families. They wanted more. We want more. Human greed, which is rooted in fear, is the snake in the grass in this story. The owner of this vineyard does not use a sharpened hoe to strike this snake down. He uses something even more powerful. He uses open-hearted generosity. He rejects the worldly way of seeing things, that would have us wrap ourselves in the false security that comes from having more than we need.
We want that illusion of security. But in our hearts, we know that having more, hoarding more, gathering it all up so that we have more than our neighbours still does nothing to give us power over life and death. We are still captives.
The person who is the most free in the story is the landowner. We might look at this cynically and say that he could afford to be generous, because he was rich. But it is not the amount that he has, but what he is doing with it. It is his generosity that makes him free.
As Christian people, we do our best to follow Jesus. With his tricky stories, and with the example of how he lived, Jesus is leading us into God’s vision of how the world could be, and away from the way the world is. Jesus is leading us away from greed, and desperation, and fear, and the illusion of security. Jesus is leading us towards freedom, and generosity, and joy. Amen