Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 20:1-19) transports me to some intense labor negotiations at the vineyard, where some cotton-pickin’ grape pickers are getting nit-picky with the boss about the deals they made. Jesus is flat-pickin’ to beat the band as he throws down one of his many parables (the Greek word for parable literally means to throw alongside). These throw down stories turn the world system, this time the economic assumptions of the world, on its head. It’s hoe-down time in the Kingdom of God, and given the economic twist Jesus throws on it, that kingdom would more appropriately be called the Commonwealth of God.
The landowner in Jesus’ jig, let’s call him Vino, is engaging in some quirky home economics as he employees day laborers to bring in the grape clusters and get them ready for some free style flat-foot-stomping and fermenting. Vino hires some street corner workers early in the morning and makes them an offer they can’t refuse, a day’s work for a day’s wage, enough for them to live on and provide for their family for one day. He goes back to the corner throughout the day and finds more idle folk, hiring them on the promise to “do them right.” When the whistle blows, the laborers line up for their just reward. That’s when the holy home economist does some worst to first finagling and turns the line around, putting those who did the least work at the front of the line and those who worked the longest at the back. If this isn’t bad enough for the wore out early birds, every last one of the workers winds up with the same wage. The beasts of burden who bore the brunt of the full day’s work begin to grumble about the cockamamie idea of commonwealth, and Vino responds, What’s the matter with you? You got what was coming to you. I treated you fair. If I want to be generous with what I have to make sure everybody has food in their bellies tonight, that’s my business. So go on and take your wage, and don’t spend it all in one place. Bada bing.
Labor economists would have a field day deconstructing this story. The main question for analysis would be, what happens the next day? What incentive do the workers have to show up early? Won’t they all lay around watching the tube until mid-afternoon, and show up for an hour of work to put their daily bread on the table? It all boils down to a question of motivation. Economists theorize about the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivations for work. Extrinsic motivations tend to dominate the debate in our capitalist system; it’s all about the money and other material reward. Jesus here is throwing that aside; he’s banking instead on the power of intrinsic motivations, on the internal call to be at work in God’s field. It’s about being drawn to work that you love so much it feels like play and pleasure. Now exactly how is this story illustrative of the reign of God? Followers of Jesus are intrinsically motivated by the overwhelming generosity of God’s mercy, a mercy so thorough that it ignores all human merit. Those who deserve it least go to the front of the line. Those who think they deserve first place status go to the back. Does that mean some will try and snooker God, and rely on a cheap grace by sinning boldly and trusting God to forgive it all in the end? Of course there will be some snookerers. Pity them, because they may never know the peace and pleasure and priceless joy found in following Jesus, not for some external reward but in response to the love displayed on the cross. It’s all because of Jesus we’re up and at ‘em early in the morning, ready to gather the grapes for the cup of a new covenant. An old 16th century Latin hymn writer put it best, O Deus, ego amo te. . . translated, My God I love thee, with the motivations for that love spelled out: My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby, nor because they who love thee not must burn eternally. Thou O my Jesus Thou didst me upon the Cross embrace, for me didst bear the nails and spear and manifold disgrace. Then why O blessed Jesus Christ should I not love thee well? Not for the hope of winning heaven nor of escaping hell. I’ve discovered that this old hymn works pretty well as a blistering bluegrass number, complete with banjo breakdown. So I’ll be pickin’ and grinning my way to the line, be it front, middle or end.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.