Whenever Jesus starts with those words "the kingdom of heaven is like," we can be sure that we're in for a surprise. Jesus seems to delight in turning our expectations upside down.
There was a Southern American preacher back in the 50's by the name of Clarence Jordan.
He ran a community farm and church where "disadvantaged folks" could come, get work and be part of a gospel community.
Sounds fine, but of course the disadvantaged folks in the deep south were black, or white and out of prison, and he was a white, helping them all. Living the gospel for him meant trouble.
Clarence described parables as "a stick of dynamite, wrapped nicely in cotton wool, given to unsuspecting self righteous people". Clarence was one for making the gospel real in his own situation with words and deeds like Jesus. Clarence was threatened, beaten and his house was burned a number of times. And he reminds us that Jesus got crucified for preaching this sort of thing...
So how might a parable like this sound for us today?
Heres my re-casting of the story into a rural Australian setting.
"A man owned a vineyard. It had been a good year and the fruit was full. Dr Lindeman was offering a very good price so the boss gets up early. He calls his regular pickers but theyve gone shearing 'cause the money was better and there were rumors of bringing in cheap Chinese labor. He drives into town to try the CES but remembers theyve been privatized.
So he gets his workers at the agency in the next town, he loads them on the truck. But the harvest is so ripe and there is so much he has to come back for more workers at 9:00, and strewth, then again at noon and because the weather report said storms expected later, more to help from the front of the local pub at 3:00.
Bob, the boss cocky gives all his workers the same line "I'll pay top award dollars for your work." An hour before knock off time he sees that he could get it all done with just a few more hands, so it's back to town for more. All that's left are the layabouts drinking on the corner. What the heck, they say to the offer of good pay, only have to work an hour at most, that couldn't kill them.
The end of the day soon comes and this is a cash economy, so the boss settles up the days wages. Now you can imagine what's been happening. As each new crew arrives they ask the other workers what the pay rate is. $150 per day they hear, so those who came at noon would get $75, gee that's great, and you guys who just got here, one of the brighter ones calculates, you could get $12.50.
But Bob the boss has a surprise for them. All his grapes are safely in, he's happy. So the first guy fronts up after his one hour's work and takes his envelope, and sees 15 tens.....
No he doesn't say excuse me sir, I think you may have made a mistake, no he picks up his old Akubra and he's out of there, can't believe his luck!!. And every other worker gets the same.
Out at the gate a few of them get to talking and compare the size of their wads... all the same, something fishy going on here!
Think how those workers who got there at dawn felt!! They run back in, mad as cut snakes - they'll have the union in, is this any way to treat workers they demand to know?!!
"Now look here pal" says Bob, "who made you chief book keeper here? You agreed to work a day, you worked and got paid what we agreed. If I want to give some no-hopers the same as you, so what - where's the skin off your nose just because I'm generous?" This is offensive generosity!
Once, when John Wesley was kicked out of an English pulpit by the hierarchy of the church, he said this,
"There are few matters more repugnant to reasonable upright people than the grace of God." How does this parable of the grace of God strike you?
This is another of Jesus stories of the outrageous love and grace of God. God doesn't count the cost, God doesn't follow our rules. God accepts back the wayward prodigal. God sends the rain and sun on the just and the unjust alike, like God we should forgive 70 x 7 times - grace without measure.
But it's not just a happy story of God's abundant acceptance. It's also a story about God's judgment.
When the Lord of the harvest finally loses his cool, who is it with? It's not the late comers who haven't done much. He isn't fed up with the unacceptable, NO, he's fed up with the ones who couldn't cope with the Lord's grace to others, with the ones who thought they were better, but showed their jealousy and narrow mindedness.
I heard a woman interviewed, she had raised a large family and the question was put, "I suppose you loved them all equally?"
"Oh, no she replied, I loved them all. But I never wanted to love equally. I loved the one that was down until he got up, I loved the one who was weak until she was strong. I loved the one who was lost until she was found." Grace goes far beyond mere equality, it loves extravagantly and without rationale. That's something like the love Jesus tells us the stuff of the kingdom is made of.
Jesus delights in, and reveals, that One God who will always have mercy. The God who fills your cup to over flowing. The God who decrees that the first shall be as the last and the last shall be as the first. The same God who like a patiently watching father, sees us while a long way off, sprints to greet the prodigal son or daughter, and welcomes them home with extraordinary hospitality. The God of abundant grace who is reflected in Christ who, when at a wedding feast, turned water into wine; wine of top quality and far more of it than the guests could ever drink.
The stick of dynamite in this parable warns us, "if you think you deserve special treatment from God, because of your loyalty through the years, your hard work in the church, or your service to the community, then think again. You are in the wrong vineyard."
Not one of us deserves the degree of grace, the "wage," that God offers. The extraordinary overabundance of God is the same for all.
And when we are called to consider our stewardship of Gods gifts to us, these are the values we are challenged to use. More than what is fair, abundance as we have been given to abundantly.
The good news of the Gospel is that God has given up keeping the books. God is reckless, generous and indiscreet with his grace and forgiveness. May God give us the grace to cope with his and to respond in the way we live and give, for Gods glory. Amen.