“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 marketplace; 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.” --Matthew 20:1-16
This time of the coronavirus has befuddled even the wisest health experts among us. Where did this invisible enemy originate? How does it decide who to infect? On the surface, it seems so unfair. I mean, there are stories about people who have tried to be diligent about social distancing and yet they come down with the virus, while there are those who play loose with the restrictions, going to the beach or even partying, and yet are just fine. Why are things happening this way? It just doesn’t seem fair. Or what about the workers who have always been so loyal, often going the extra mile, only to be told, “Sorry, we’re out of money. Perhaps later.”? They hear that and observe others being financially taken care of, and the lament is heard, “Unfair!”
Then there is this parable for the day. What was Jesus thinking? To understand this story, it appears that we must hear the last question of Jesus first: "Do you begrudge me my generosity?” or “Is it not right for me to do what I will with that which is mine?" The question itself is troubling, isn’t it? The literal translation is perhaps even more so: “Is your eye evil because of my generosity?” It is also important to note that this particular parable, which is told only by Matthew, is book-ended by a very pithy and pointed statement of Jesus: "The last shall be first and the first last." And in perfect candor, we're not really crazy about that saying either, are we? So the context for this story is one that makes us more than a bit uneasy.
The story itself takes place in a vineyard during a time that required much hired help. It was probably very close to the time of year when grapes were ready to be harvested. In Israel, because the harvest preceded the fall rains by only a few weeks, it was imperative to get the grapes picked before the rains came and ruined them. Therefore, there were hired hands, very similar to the migrant workers who move all over our country guided by the harvest times of various types of produce. A well-managed harvest time is, of course, critical to the landowner’s livelihood, and the window of time for the process is usually brief, so every hand is crucial in getting the crop harvested. Living as a migrant was and is a difficult life –always on the move, always at the mercy of the landowners, always under the pressure of Mother Nature, always, always . . . (I remember hearing a story about a migrant child being asked by a school teacher where she was born. Her reply was "the beans, I was born in the beans," which meant, of course, that she was born in the area where her family picked beans each year.) As we all know, it is a demanding, difficult life."
This story makes such a life even more fraught with unfairness, or so it seems. We don’t like what this story says about fairness. We don't like what we think it says about God. And we surely don't like what it seems to say about us. But we are called to listen, and as we listen this day let us hear this story in the context of what seems to be God's strange question, "Are you upset with me because of my generosity?"
I don’t know about you, but I don’t do well standing in lines. You go out to eat and the hostess at the restaurant tells you, “It’s a forty-five minute wait.” Forty-five minutes? At my urging, we usually go somewhere else. I don’t do well standing in line, especially when people come in behind me and get seated before me. Of course, the same thing happens when I get to a table. If I sit there for a while and people who are seated after me get waited on before me, I’m irritated. It’s not fair. And while I’m confessing, I’m one of those who, when standing in the express line at the grocery store, side-eyes the person with 14 items in his basket when the sign clearly reads 10. I want to call on grocery control and get him pulled out of line. You see, it’s not fair.
Standing in any line can make you antsy, but waiting in a line (or online, as many of us are learning) to get paid, can make you almost crazy with anxiety. Just think about being a laborer in this parable, someone who was called to work early in the day. You stand at the back of the line, shift your weight from one foot to the other and nervously peer ahead to see what's happening in front of you. There's a great commotion, great joy because the workers in front, the workers who, by the way, had worked the least, are getting the same amount promised to you. Your stress levels begin to rise with a rumbling of discontent, a grinding of your molars. "This is not fair! We've worked nearly five times as long as they have! This is not right." And the inner grumblings become almost audible, "Not fair, I tell you, not fair!" From this point in line our feelings about the Boss Man are changing. We were pleased to be chosen in the beginning, almost elated because of our desperation, but now . . . well, things have changed. We saw the Boss Man as fair and generous and a good judge of character. After all, He chose us, and we worked hard for him, no question about that. But those other guys, why, they didn't work nearly as hard or nearly as long as we did. And he's paying us all the same? Oh sure, it's okay to be generous, but if you want to be fair, pay us more than those others. After all, we've done more for you, haven't we?
These questions are agonizingly theological, because they are hurled heavenward by God's discontented children, by us, by the church. "Why isn't God that good to me? Why doesn't God love me that much? Why doesn't God give me such generous helpings as others are receiving?" These are all questions that have been raised by God's children at one time or another.
And the questions asked by the workers in the vineyard are also questions that surface in Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus, which, by the way, means "beloved of God." The question of what it means to be beloved of God emerges from the dramatic confrontation between two composers, Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play takes place in Vienna in the late eighteenth century. Salieri was a court composer in the house of Emperor Joseph II. As Salieri himself tells us, (and at great length), he is a good man, a virtuous man, a hard-working man, a religious man. From his youth, Salieri has desired only one thing: to write music.
Patrick Willson’s insights to this parable are helpful in his synopsis of the play: Salieri begins, "Music is God's art," he says."My only desire was to join all the composerswho had celebrated God's glory.”In the little village church of Salieri's youththere was a painting of God over the altar . . ."an old candle-smoked Godin a mulberry robe,staring at the world with dealer's eyes. Tradesmen had put him up there.Those eyes made bargains,real and irreversible. ‘You give me so, I'll give you so! No more. No less!’" The night before Salieri left this village he went to see God, the God in this portrait. "I went to see Him and made a bargain with Him myself! I was a sober sixteen, filled with a desperate sense of right. I knelt before the God of Bargains, and I prayed through the moldering plaster with all my soul 'Signore, let me be a composer! Grant me sufficient fame to enjoy it. In return, I will live with virtue. I will strive to better the lot of my fellows. And I will honor You with such music all the days of my life!' As I said Amen, I saw His eyes flare. 'Bene. Go forth, Antonio. Serve Me and mankind and you will be blessed!' 'Grazie!' I called back, 'I am Your servant for life!' The very next day, a family friend suddenly appeared, out of the blue, took me to Vienna and paid for me to study music! Shortly afterwards I met the Emperor, who favored me. Clearly my bargain had been accepted!"
As we come across Salieri in1782, he has become a most successful and admired composer; he is in line to be the conductor of the Hapsburg court opera and orchestra. All Vienna sings his praises, to his own tunes. He is at the pinnacle of success when suddenly everything changes. Enter Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who as a child prodigy wrote his first symphony at five. Mozart as depicted by Shaffer, and substantiated by many historians, is not a man of virtue. He is a notorious womanizer. He is vulgar, punctuating his speech with gross words and obscene noises. Mozart is immature, infantile, in fact, and squeals in a high-pitched giggle which has much the same effect as fingernails scraping a blackboard. Mozart is tactless and conceited, irreverent and irreligious, disrespectful and enormously talented. He does not have to work hard to write music; music flows from him effortlessly, as if by grace, as if he were a musical instrument and God the musician. . . Amadeus, the beloved of God.
Salieri has everything he wants, everything he bargained for, but in Mozart he sees something else, something he doesn't have, a spirit which has eluded him. Salieri recognizes Mozart's talent, and he becomes jealous, envious, resentful and morally outraged that God would so bless such an obviously unworthy person with such a sublime gift. In the play, he turns to the audience and God, and says:"I know my fate.Now for the first timeI feel my emptiness as Adam felt his nakedness.Tonight at an inn somewhere in this citystands a giggling childwho can put on paper,without actually setting down his billiard cue,casual notes which turn my most considered onesinto lifeless scratches.Grazie, Signore!You gave me the desire to serve You,which most men do not have . . .then You saw to itthat the service was shamefulin the ears of the server. Grazie!You gave me the desire to praise You which most men do not feel,then made me mute.Grazie tanti!You put into me perception of the Incomparable,which most men never know,then ensured that I would know myselfforever mediocre.Why?What is my fault?Until this day I have pursued virtue with rigor.I have labored long hoursto relieve my fellow man.I have worked and workedthe talent You allowed me . . .You know how hard I have worked. Solely that in the end, in the practice of the art which alone makes the world comprehensible to me, I might hear Your Voice! And now I do hear it and it says only one name: Mozart! Spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantile Mozart who has never worked one minute to help another man! Him you have chosen to be Your sole conductor! And my only reward, my sublime privilege, is to be the sole man alive in this time who shall clearly recognize Your Incarnation. Grazie e grazie ancora! So be it! From this time we are enemies, You and I! I'll not accept it from You, do You hear? They say that God is not mocked! I tell You, man is not mocked! . . . You are the enemy! I name Thee now – Nemico Eterno!”[i]
And from our place in the line we shake our heads, if not our fists, along with Salieri. It’s just not fair! And we shudder to think of the resentment we have for a God who acts in such a manner. But as we stand stewing in our rage, we sense the rustling of those behind us. And as we move forward, it suddenly dawns on us that as hard as we have worked there are others who have worked even harder, and yet their pay is no more than ours. But we think to ourselves, "They don't know how long we have waited for this job. They have no idea what it is like to sit outside an employment office hoping and praying that someone will hire us." If you've ever sat in such a place you know how desperate and frustrating that can be. But you also know, if you've ever been hired, the absolute relief of being taken care of and of having the ability to take care of yourself and those you love.
I think that is one of the main points of this parable. Jesus tells it so that we might somehow get a better understanding of the richness of God's grace. We are put behind others in order to see the absurdity of that grace, and we are put in front of others to experience its absurdity. Because our thoughts are not God's thoughts and because our ways are not God's ways, we stand in line to learn . . . to learn the lesson of amazing grace. In perfect candor, God does not seem to be fair; but listen, if God were absolutely fair, we would all be in trouble. Thank God, God’s justice is tempered by God’s mercy. We don’t get what we deserve! We get more!
A Time of Reflection and PrayerI
In honesty before God, let us express our concerns, even our complaints.
In honesty before God, let us recognize how blessed we are.
In honesty before God, let us pray to be vessels of grace rather than critiquers of grace.
A Guide for Prayer: Max Ehrman’s “Desiderata”
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
[i] Shaffer, Peter; Amadeus (with an assist from Dr. Patrick Willson whose last pastorate was Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia)