Imagine yourself at the Annual Meeting of the Corporation of the Justice and Grace Vineyards. The C.E.O. is making his report to the stockholders and he is at Section III, Paragraph C, entitled "Labor Policy."
"Fortunately during the harvest, we can find an unlimited pool of available laborers down at the town square. We take the buses down at daybreak in order to find the best people, and we contract for as many as we think we will need that day. If the work extends beyond our projections, we can always go back at 10:00 A.M., or Noon, or even the afternoon, and we can count on there being people there who have not been successful in finding other work. Naturally they are not the strongest or the most talented or they would have been hired elsewhere. Once, at the height of the crush last fall, we hired people as late as 5:00 p.m. and they worked the final two hours until sundown. We paid them the same amount as the folks who had worked for the entire day."
"Point of Order, don't you mean that you paid them on the same scale?"
"No, I mean in fact that we paid them the same amount."
"Let me get this straight, you paid a day's wage to people who had only worked for two hours?"
Correct, it's what the Owner specified.
And then there is pandemonium: "But that's preposterous!" "That's no way to run a business." "I move that we censure the owner and hire a financial management team to come in and set things right." "I second the motion." "All, in favor..."
Or looking at it from another point of view imagine yourself at the monthly meeting, Local #44 of the United Vineyard Workers, and one articulate young man, face burnished brown, with intense speech and dramatic gesture is describing the experience of working all day long at Justice and Grace Vineyards, and just before quitting time the foreman had brought in an additional bus full of laborers in to help clean up.
"They worked a couple of hours max, in the cool of the evening and when we lined up to get our pay, they got these big checks. Then when we picked up our pay, mind you we had been there in that sun all day, and were not given a penny more."
An audible gasp sweeps the Hall, and then shouts from every corner. When order is finally restored, and after much heated discussion, a moderate course is decided. The word will go out to boycott for one week all Justice and Grace products, and during that week there will be a picket line in front of the vineyard, "Justice and Grace, Unfair to Organized Labor."
Given the tactics of the vineyard owner, the censure of the Annual Meeting, and the reaction of the Labor Union, is not too farfetched. So it gives us more than a little jolt to realize that Jesus is telling this story, and it's one of those stories that is supposed to tell us what God is like, and what the realm of God is all about. God is the vineyard owner. Like so many of Jesus' stories it subverts our norms and values and turns our comfortable world upside down. But also, like many of Jesus' stories, if we stay with it, it can change our lives.
When we probe into our case against the vineyard owner, we discover that what upsets us, what we have the most difficulty accepting is his extravagant generosity. He appears to be unfair but only in contrast to his bounteous gifts to the undeserving, to those who did not earn such benevolence and received it anyway. But the reality is that all promises are kept, all contracts are fulfilled. If the parable can be taken as a presentation of God's administration then we are being assured that God's ways are first of all, just.
God gets blamed for so much that happens in the world, but in the perspective of the parable, we could conclude, if it's not just, it's not God. For instance we sometimes hear the opinion that the AIDS virus is a punishment of God against homosexual persons, or against substance abusers. But what about the people who contracted AIDS from a transfusion which gave them contaminated blood? What about innocent children who have been infected through no fault of their own? Then if you look at the AIDS epidemic from a global perspective only 16% of the cases are in the United States, and from the totals worldwide, it is evident that the vast majority contracted the virus from heterosexual, not homosexual relationships. Only if God is impulsive, erratic, capricious could such punishment be attributed to God, and Jesus is saying that God is just. If God were into punishment for people's sexual failures and mistakes, wouldn't each and every one of us be in the target area. We are all God's children, gay and straight. And the good news is that God is for us not against us.
The parable is a warning against projecting our own opinions about how things should be unto God. The parable establishes God's justice. And beyond justice the parable exhibits God's extravagant grace. If the motivating impulse is not judgment, but the grace of God, what should our response be to the victims of AIDS? By persisting in all that we can do medically and educationally to curtail the spread of the disease, by standing without judgment with victims in their suffering.
Yvette Flunder, a pastor herself, observes that the church like the rest of the society is often absent from the person suffering from AIDS, but the extravagant grace of God in Jesus encourages a different response.
Now, if Jesus walked the earth today, where would he be? Probably on the AIDS ward at the county hospitals, in the cities of our country, probably whispering to some young man or some young woman, saying to them, "I know that your Mother's not here, and your pastor is not here, and your teachers are not here, but I'm here."
One Pastor who has offered that presence is Bob Gillespie, who is the retired Presbytery Executive, from my own Presbytery. Bob is now volunteering as a Chaplain in a ministry with the victims of AIDS and their families in Marin County, California. He talks about his experience with a young man named Stephen.
"I've already lost so many good friends. Stephen was the last -- an intelligent 40-year-old. He knew the end was near. He wanted desperately to be loved and held by his mother, but that was not to be. He had been reared Catholic and wanted to confess to and be anointed by an understanding priest. I was able to get that done and we shared wonderful conversations about last things and the hope of the future in Jesus Christ."
Somehow I think that Jesus would have appreciated that it's not that far away from a story he told once about laborers in a vineyard. Stephen could have been one of them, a guy in the vineyard in that very short time before sunset, who received through Bob an impression of Jesus, and experience of the extravagant grace of God. It's a ministry that the parable commends to all of us.