"One of the sanest, surest, and most generous joys of life comes from being happy over the good fortune of others."
Robert A. Heinlein
Some years ago I was on a plane travelling from Australia to Canada. It was about an hour into the flight and as lunch arrived I began a conversation with the man in the seat next to me. We exchanged the usual pleasantries; where we had come from; where we were going to, something about our families and things of general interest of which I can no longer remember. After sometime the conversation came around to talking about the fare we had purchased. I dont remember the details, or how it came about, but he told me that he had paid about $1200 for the return flight from Toronto to Melbourne. I was surprised because I had recall that I had paid over $2000. He was Canadian and had bought the ticket in Canada and I was Australian and had bought the ticket in Melbourne. It didnt seem very fair.
Later as I sat in the quiet of that plane, I remember churning over the injustice for paying so much more than my acquaintance sitting (now sleeping) in the seat next to me. It should have been equal. Yes, I know he got a special that I didnt get and the North American market is much larger than the Australian market, therefore the price can be reduced, a simple issue of supply and demand. But those intellectual reasons didnt abate the emotional feeling that I had not been treated unfairly; that I had missed out on something that I deserved, something that was my right as much as my travelling companions.
Why parables are so important:
With some work on that story, a bit of imagination and a good moral, that experience could become a modern day parable. You see, that the kind of experience is what Jesus used to illustrate the way of life he and his disciples were following. He took the everyday stuff of living, the conflicts, inconsistencies, mysteries and wove them into stories and parables often beginning with the words, "the Kingdom of God is like a man talking with a fellow traveller on a plane between Melbourne and Toronto ." Or something like that.
It has taken a long time for us to recognize that the essential teaching of Jesus comes from the parables. In the past, these short, pithy and often obscure stories were relegated to the background of the message of Jesus. But more recently weve seen that stories like the Workers in the Vineyard, in Matthew 20:1-16 are in fact the backbone of Christian discipleship and lifestyle.
There are many parables found in the Gospels. They are clustered around themes like: open and closed doors, or parables from nature or the world of commerce - work and wages. There are things that are lost and found and weddings and feasts and many other ways of telling stories about the shape of Christian faith and the goal of spiritual living.
I often wish that when I am asked a question like, "What do you believe about this or that ," that I could answer as Jesus did and say, "let me tell you as parable." Sadly, such an answer is often not precise another for our modern religious mind. We want codified principles or doctrinal beliefs. I suspect that it would be of much greater benefit to us in the modern world and particular in our contemporary world if we could experience the fuzziness of parables. You see parables give a generous answer to the questions put forward. Parables give the listener some wriggle room and at the same time can cause them to question some of their own assumptions and opinions.
As I reflected later on the issue of the cheap airfare, I wondered to myself why I felt so aggrieved that my travelling companion had gotten something that I hadnt. Why was my first reaction jealousy, rather than joy that he had got a bargain?
Parables of Generosity:
There are many themes that flow through the parables of Jesus and of course there are many parables of Jesus. There are over sixty parables in the four gospels and if you considered the Gospel of Thomas, and Peter and Mary which didnt make it into our Bible, you would find that there are over one hundred parables clustered around the teaching of Jesus. And perhaps the central theme that emerges from these short, enigmatic stories is the theme of a Generous God.
Many of the parables begin with the words, "the Kingdom of God is like " They are always "what if" stories. What if the world was like this .? Or what if people responded like this ? For example the stories of the waiting father/prodigal son, the Good Samaritan, the lost coin, lost sheep, the pearl of great price, all these call us into a world beyond our present experience. In fact, into a world that maybe doesnt even exist yet. Do fathers patiently and lovingly wait for their wayward son or daughter to return after squandering the family wealth? Sometimes! Will a passer-by risk life or limb to assist a stranger left for dead? Sometimes!
The parable takes us outside our conventional comfort zones and encourages us to see the world and life and God as we have not seen it before. That calls for a spirit of generosity. And thats what many of the parables led us into, even if it does insult our sense of fairness as the parable of the workers in the vineyard does, nevertheless it helps us explore a bigger and bolder world of faith.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:
A few years ago I heard a worker from World Vision give a contemporary illustration of this parable. She had been an aid worker in Afghanistan before the recent war. Over the first few weeks after her arrival, she observed workers being recruited for their days work. First thing in the morning a truck would arrive at the gathering place and take the strongest workers off to work. Then a little later another truck would arrive and pick up some of the remaining workers and then later a few more. Finally, the only ones remaining were the old, the weak, the sick and the infirmed.
The aid worker saw a parallel in contemporary Afghanistan with the workers in the vineyard. In that story the generous landowner recruited probably the strongest and healthiest first then the weaker and finally even those who could put in only one hour of work and nevertheless still he paid them for a full day even if they hadnt earned it.
"The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard "
There is a deep truth in this story that goes beyond fairness and compassion. It speaks of the very nature of the God revealed in the parables of Jesus. You see in Matthewss community there was a running dispute among those who came to Jesus from the Hebrew/Jewish faith and those who were grafted in from the non-Jewish, Greek world, the "Johnny-come-latelies." Should those who had only just encountered this grace through an emerging relationship with God share equally with those whose heritage reached back into Jewish faithfulness for centuries? Doesnt God bless only those who have been around a long time and have proven their worthiness? Well, for this parable and many other parables the answer is no. Gods grace is without measure and surprisingly without condition.
Perhaps one of the most profound ideas that the controversial Bishop Spong has articulated is the notion that our response to God is to "live fully and to love wastefully." That the creator of life does not measure life out by thimble full, nor even by the bucket, but rather by the ocean is a life transforming idea. The generosity of God that washes over us to such an extent that we lose perspective and begin to love those who dont deserve to be loved; we show compassion on the unworthy and accept as friends those who may not be very friendly is the wonder of our religion.
"The vineyard workers complained to the land owner because some were getting paid more than they deserved. The landowner said to them, Dont I have the right to do what I choose with what is mine. Are you envious because I am generous?"
Parables are beginnings and not ends:
One of the first principles I learned as a storyteller was not to impose a moral on a story. A well told story is a moral and the listener needs the opportunity to move around inside the story and gather the truth that is meant for him or her. I remember a storyteller in Canada illustrating this by recounting an incident in which the minister gathered the children at the front of the church to tell them a story. He began by asking the children what is brown, covered in fur and gathers nuts for the winter. One of the children put his hand up straight away and says, "Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel!" We sometimes have the moral before we even listen to the story.
The parables of Jesus dont always have easy answers and even the moral of the story can be obtuse and particularly difficult to life in our present day context. But like any good story it does its work slowly as it reshapes our imaginations and helps us see other ways to live and new possibilities to explore.
This parable like all parables is a beginning and not an end. It calls us to open ourselves to a Generous God; to express that generosity in our relationships by being less jealous of those around us and to live fully by loving wastefully.