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The Rev. Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of numerous bestselling books and novels. Visit

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Weekly Sermon Illustration: Parable

September 15, 2014

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

On September 21, 2014 we will celebrate the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 20:1-16

"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."

The following excerpt called "Parable" was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

A parable is a small story with a large point. Most of the ones Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them. The parables of the Crooked Judge (Luke 18:1-8), the Sleepy Friend (Luke 11:5-8), and the Distraught Father (Luke 11:11-13) are really jokes in their way, at least part of whose point seems to be that a silly question deserves a silly answer. In the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the elder brother's pious pique when the returning Prodigal gets the red-carpet treatment is worthy of Moliere's Tartuffe, as is the outraged legalism of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) when Johnny-corne-lately gets as big a slice of the worm as the early bird. The point of the Unjust Steward is that it's better to be a resourceful rascal than a saintly schlemiel (Luke 16:1-8) and of the Talents that, spiritually speaking, playing the market will get you further than playing it safe (Matthew 25:14-30). Both the sadness and the fun are at their richest, however, in the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24). The "beautiful people" all send in their excuses, of course - their real estate, their livestock, their sex lives - so the host sends his social secretary out into the streets to bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame.

The string ensemble strikes up the overture to The Bartered Bride, the champagne glasses are filled, the cold pheasant is passed round, and there they sit by candlelight with their white canes and their empty sleeves, their orthopedic shoes, their sleazy clothes, their aluminum walkers. A woman with a harelip proposes a toast. An old man with the face of Lear on the heath and a party hat does his best to rise to his feet. A deaf-mute thinks people are starting to go home and pushes back from the table. Rose petals float in the finger bowls. The strings shift into the Liebestod.

With parables and jokes both, if you've got to have them explained, don't bother.


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