Sunday, February 22, 2015

Eleventh Hour Laborers

Matthew 20, 1-16

(The 11th hour is about 5pm. It is based on a 12 hour work day from sunrise to sunset. If you start working at the 11th hour you have only about 1 hour of daylight left to work.)

Mr. Anderson was teaching religion to the 8th grade class. He was explaining the parable of the 11th hour laborers. There was almost a student revolt against the owner of the vineyard. They all insisted that he was unfair. Leading the charge were Peter and Paul, new converts to Catholicism. They both spent years in foster homes and got into a bit of trouble until they were adopted by two wonderful families. Those two kids were a wonderful success story. They were excellent academically and morally. They embraced the faith and were so motivated and curious to understand all about it. Mr. Anderson tried to explain that the “daily wage” they agreed on is actually a “Dinar” in the original scripture and that was a generous pay for a day’s work. That didn’t help much. Also explaining that the Dinar was eternal life, God himself was the reward and there could be nothing more didn’t help. Neither was explaining that the owner fulfilled the contract requirement and that, by definition, would be justice under the law. He went on to explain the personal loving relationship that developed between owner and the 11th hour workers. How they never asked how much will they be paid. They started work at a time when the other workers were starting to slow down, gather their tools, clean up and get ready to go home. They were running around wishing there was more time to work for this wonderful man. They didn’t think about their wages, anything would be generous. They were not expecting to make a single penny that day.

“Fair is fair”, said Peter. “These guys were paid way more per hour than the first ones. I am sure they were paid way more per unit work than the first ones. That is not fair. Should not the judge of all the world act with Justice?” Peter was quoting Abraham from Genesis, knowing that the owner of the vineyard represents God.  Paul asked “Why did he start by paying the 11th hour workers first? Is that to add insult to injury? Maybe it’s the only way the parable would work. But surely Jesus could find a way to teach his point without being more abusive to the first workers.” Mr. Anderson seized on that point. “What is Jesus’ purpose in teaching that parable?” “I don’t know. How you should never work for this owner starting in the morning and under contract?”, said Peter. “These guys got a terrible deal”.

Mr. Anderson started, “Remember how I explained that many of Jesus’ sayings are deliberate exaggerations meant to shock for the desired effect. The desired effect here is….” Paul interrupted, “And why that tone? He talks to the first workers as if he wants nothing to do with them. Like get out of my face. These guys didn’t do anything wrong. They expected to get paid more and grumbled. But that seems reasonable. If the owner wants to teach them something maybe he should explain whatever he wants in a nicer way.” “You think that would help?”, asked Mr. Anderson. “Sure”, echoed the whole class.

“OK let’s do this. Let’s reproduce the parable and I will be the owner and I will explain to the first workers what Jesus wanted to teach them to their full satisfaction. “I gotta see this”, answered a few students. Taking the bait, or perhaps the challenge, Mr. Anderson said, “I guarantee that by the end of this class all the students playing the role of the first workers will be totally satisfied with my explanation.” “Are we going to work all day in the vineyard?”, joked one of the students.”No, we will just reshoot the last scene of the foreman paying the laborers. I will be the owner and foreman. I will sit down here up front. You guys will stand in line. In the front of the line would be the 11th hour workers. In this group I need people who feel that God has been so generous to them. That they wish they had more time to do good works. That even if they lived another hundred years serving God and laboring in his vineyard they would never deserve the rewards of eternal life.” As expected, Peter and Paul were upfront with a few other students. “Behind these guys I want the laborers who started working in the afternoon. If you feel that God has been very kind to you and that you are undeserving of His gifts get in that point.” A few more students got in. “Now on to the workers who started at noon and late morning. If you feel that you have worked hard serving God in your life but still know that you cannot possibly be deserving of eternal life because of your own merits and being free from sin, then get in that group.”

“Now, for the last row I want students who feel that they have definitely earned the right to Heaven by their hard work and…” Paul interrupted, “ Mr. Anderson, there’s no one left. There are no students in the last row. Do we have to put some students in the last row for the parable to work?” “ The exact opposite”, said Mr. Anderson. “Nobody has to be in the last row. That is the purpose of the parable. Jesus wants everyone who hears this parable to never ever want to be in that row. Perhaps that is why the owner was particularly abusive to them. It is a motivational story about how wrong it is to feel entitled to God’s gifts. Not only are you not entitled, but also if you feel entitled you will be miserable and would be offending God, who purchased the gift of eternal life for you by his own suffering and death. The “day’s heat” doesn’t really account for much. If you appreciate God’s gift you would wish there was more heat and labor to repay him.