Generous Vineyard Owners and Children Visiting Old Women at a Nursing Home


A sermon preached on September 18, 2011 based upon Matthew 20:1 – 16.

Jesus’ parables challenge our point of view; and invite us to see life from a different angle.  If we don’t find them initially disturbing, then we probably are resisting the alternative consciousness they are invited us into.

Take this parable, for instance.    It just doesn’t seem fair that the workers who have spent twelve hours out under the hot sun breaking their backs to earn their wage should be paid equal to those who worked less – particularly those who put in only one hour of work, when the worst heat of the day had long subsided.

This isn’t fair.

And what seems particularly disturbing is that if we assume that in some sense the landowner represents God, because, the truth of the matter is that it seems we need God to be fair precisely because life in this world so often isn’t fair.  Oftentimes the ones who play by the rules get cheated, and those who cheat and cut to the front of the line get rewarded.  And so, it seems, we better hope that God, at least, is fair, and that the unfairness of this life, gets straightened out in the life to come.

But in this parable the landowner – the one who represents God — isn’t fair.

How we experience this parable depends to a great extent upon who we identify with in the story.  Do we identify with the 12-hour workers, or do we find it easier to identify with the ones who show up late to the vineyard, having spent the vast majority of the day standing idle in the marketplace?

I’m not sure what life feels like for you, but I want to try and express something of what it feels like for me.

A lot of the time I feel some identification with those twelve hour workers.   The majority of my waking hours is commonly devoted to meeting my various obligations:  to the church as well as to my family, as father, as husband, as son, as well as to friends.

I feel tired a lot of the time.    The fatigue factor often leads to this sense that I’m not putting in my best work, and when I stop my working,  there can be a sense of  crashing – the desire to veg out in some fashion, or to curl up in bed and take a nap.

Eventually my physical energy is restored, and once more I take on my never ending to do list.

Beneath everything there is this ongoing question:  Am I living a worthwhile life?   A life that matters?  Sometimes the answer seems, yeah, I think I am. Other times, I’m not so sure.   What do I have to show for all my labors?

Sometimes it doesn’t seem like much — just managing to keep the chaos at bay, that’s all.  And sometime the chaos seems to be winning.

Sometimes it feels like I’m spinning my wheels making deeper and deeper ruts.  Usually a good night sleep take me out of this sort of bleakness.

But my point is, where I put myself in Jesus’ story isn’t static.  It shifts.

Sometimes I’m the hardworking 12 hour laborer, and sometimes it seems I’ve spent the majority of my time idle in the market place.  Sometimes my life seems quite worthwhile, at others, kind of worthless.

I don’t know what its like for you, but I suspect that many of you can identify with what I’m describing.   I talked about this with the men at my Friday group, and the sense I got was that most of them could identify.

I actually think that Jesus himself could identify.  We like to imagine him floating through life with perfect clarity and serenity, but in the Gospels you often get this sense instead of his life being constant motion, with lots of stress and little time to rest, with the result being he sometimes gets irritable, even angry and hostile.

He spends two years nurturing his little group of twelve disciples, and when all is said and done, they don’t seem all that changed, still asking what’s in it for them, which is what both precedes and follows this parable.

In other words, this is the human condition.

So I spend my days going back and forth from feeling like the twelve hour guy and the one hour guy, but every so often, I go to a place that is different from both these places.  There are these other moments when I seem to enter into a different kind of consciousness altogether.  Why this happens, I’m not sure – it seems a state of grace, beyond my control.   At such moments its no longer about what I’m doing or not doing that matters, but rather it is about something I’m witnessing.    It’s like I’ve gotten out of the way.

There is this awareness that beyond everything, life is a gift.  The deep blessedness of life is revealed.  It becomes clear that my life is worthwhile, but that is value to my life has less to do with what I do than to a value that has always been there, though more often than not I’ve missed it.

Len Bostwick sent me a link to a little five minute film entitled, “What Is It?”   On a beautiful day an aging father sits with his grown son on a bench outside his home.  A bird flies nearby, catching the old man’s attention, while his son is preoccupied by the newspaper he is reading, and the all the problems described therein. Repeatedly, the father asks his son, “What is that?” and repeatedly, the son answers, “a sparrow,” though each time the father asks the question, the son’s answer becomes more annoyed, until finally the son loses his patience, screaming angrily at his father.  “How many times do I have to tell you, it’s a sparrow!!!!”

The father, looking hurt, gets up from the bench and goes inside the house.   The son sits there looking defeated, frustrated with his father, but also with himself.    The father returns carrying a book, which he opens to a particular passage which he insists his son  read aloud.   The book turns out to be the father’s journal which he kept when his son was a little boy of only three.  The son reads aloud as his father describes a day when his little son repeatedly asked him the question in reference to a sparrow.  “What is it?”

21 times the boy asks the same question, and 21 times he answers, giving the boy a hug each time.   (This is the part of the little movie that seems a bit unbelievable, but never mind.)

Having read this, the son turns, puts his arm around his old father, and kisses him, and they sit there together quietly as the camera pans up into the tree where the bird is seen flying through the branches.

The little film gets us thinking about the different stages in which we live our lives.   The little boy full of wonder becomes the preoccupied grown man weighed down with the business of the world.    Will the busy man become in time the old man who once more has time to witness the giftedness that underlies life?

The film reminded me of the words of Jesus:   “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Once a month I go to the local nursing home to lead a worship service.  About a dozen or so old ladies in wheel chairs come to the service.  I don’t give the same kind of sermon that I give here on Sunday mornings, because my Thursday morning congregation is in a different place in life from my Sunday morning congregation.

When I preach here on Sunday morning I assume that all of us are contending with some degree of stress in life — some version of , “so much to do, so little time.”    We do battle with irritability and our fears that the chaos will overtake our efforts to maintain order.

But the folks in the nursing home — they don’t have much stress, at least the sort of stress with which we contend.   There is no work for them to get done.   They are cared for by others.   To some extent, the folks in the nursing home are just putting in time waiting for the day of their death.   It’s a different context than the one we find ourselves in.

So I  told this parable to them this past week when I went there, and in doing so the different place they are coming from what evident.  Once upon a time they may have been 12-hour laborers, but now they identify with those who wait idle in the marketplace.

More often than not I go to my monthly preaching assignment at the nursing home with some reluctance.  It is just one more thing to do in my already busy life.   If truth be told, I’d rather not go. But inevitably I am blessed.  It has a lot to do with the place where the old ladies are coming from.  They are so open.  So receptive.  So present.  They are ready to hear the good news about a owner of a vineyard who isn’t fair but who is quite generous.

Last month I took the children of the Vacation Bible School with me to be with the old ladies of the nursing home.  It was a sight to be seen. Children’s aren’t 12 hour laborers either.  It was one of those moments of grace I was telling you about.

At the end of my time at the nursing home I go around to all the old ladies and pray with them one on one.   Sweet 90 year old Marie with the Jersey accent told me of how she has been praying for little four year old Kathryn who a month ago, without words, gave her the gift of a little drawing she drew for her.

Yesterday I officiated at a wedding for Al Booth’s nephew, where I once more read from the  thirteenth chapter of Paul’s  first letter to the Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The words bring us up short.  We may be twelve hour workers, but if our work isn’t laced with love, it amounts to nothing – so much idleness in the market place.  If we ask ourselves, how often has my work been done out of pure love, I suspect the answer would be, next to never.   There is love in what we do, but it is mixed with other things, which is the way of this world.  Perhaps we are all laborers who come late to the vineyard, but thanks be to God that the vineyard owner gives us the denarius we require to live.

What if that mystery behind the universe that we call God called into being all that is 15 billion years ago so that the possibility would exist that eventually we human beings would evolve with the capacity for the consciousness to witness the goodness and beauty of all that had been created?

It is into such a consciousness that Jesus’ parable intends to lead us.





Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.