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An “Aha” Moment from Jesus’ Parable of the Labourers

September 20, 2011

Many of us have seen these kinds of optical puzzles. The first one is a picture of an old and a young woman; the second of a woman and a man; and the third of a duck and a rabbit. For most of us, when we first look at such pictures, we see only part of what the picture contains. If we haven’t seen it before, perhaps in picture one, for example, we can see a young woman, but can’t for the life of us see an old one. But if we fight the urge to give up and say that the location of the old woman is at best for us an insoluble mystery, and instead keep looking, we finally have an “Aha” moment. We see the picture from a new and different (even opposite) perspective. We see the old woman, and once we do, we wonder how we ever didn’t!

Today’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Labourers, was like this for me. For years, I was kind of apologetic about it, trying to defend God’s actions of giving the same to all. I used to do things like point out that when we complain, we’re assuming we’re among those who worked longest – which is, certainly, a big assumption on our part. But all my explanations stopped when I got to the part where the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” The landowner actually made sure that the last got paid first, in front of the others, to show them that they also received the usual daily wage? It struck me as an “in your face” kind of act – an insoluble mystery for me to penetrate.

My movement towards an “Aha” moment began when I learned about the social context in which Jesus told this parable.

As he did with all of his parables, Jesus was describing a scene all his listeners would have been familiar with. Unusual parts, the parts that stick out, show the point he is trying to make.

The usual parts of the parable are the grape harvest, the use of labourers to gather it in, and the marketplace as the equivalent of a labour exchange. Also, I haven’t read this anywhere, but I think we should remember that we’re not talking about large communities here. You would probably know the labourers, and they would certainly know one another. This is the context. This would have been understood by Jesus’ listeners.

They also would have understood the lot of the daily labourer. A daily labourer amasses no savings. If you don’t work that day, then your family will go hungry. One of the most poignant parts of the parable occurs when it says, “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.”

The labourers are not being lazy to stand there all day. It’s the place where people go to get work – where else are you supposed to go?! Imagine how desperate you would have to still be there at 5 p.m., knowing the work day only goes till 6, hoping for even an hour of work. When they saw him arrive, the other labourers should have said, “Here’s Judah. He only got one hour of work today. It’s better than nothing at all, but it won’t nearly be enough!”

THIS is why last were paid first in the parable. The owner wants to show the labourers that they are all going to be OK. This is how God sees it. When I realized this, it gave me a whole new perspective – an “Aha” moment. I asked myself, “Why WOULDN’T you look at it like this!? Why didn’t I see this to be what was going on?!”

Because we’re supposed to look at others like this. We’re supposed to live like this!

Our attitude is not to be: “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.” Rather, it is to be instead: “At least I knew my family would be cared for. This man has borne the burden of anxiety and growing despair throughout the day, standing all day in the scorching heat not knowing if he was going to find work at all, and then thinking whatever he did find would still not be enough. I was so worried about him, too. How wonderful to see that he and his family are going to be all right. How blessed all of us are!”

Why did Jesus tell this story?

The context in Matthew’s Gospel gives us a clue. Just before this, in response to Jesus’ telling the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions to the poor, and then come and follow him, it tells us, “Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’” Jesus gives his answer to all the disciples, “‘Truly I tell you, everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'”

Jesus then uses this parable to teach the disciples that they are not to regard themselves as “insiders” – the “privileged few.” The unusual parts in this parable are the landowner going back repeatedly to include more and more people – and, of course, the punch line about everyone receiving the same wage. Jesus’ point is clear: God loves all – all are precious.

We should care – we should want to see that all are treated like this, all are cared for.

(adapted from September 18 sermon)

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