There’s a lot in our bible that is tough to swallow. However, the hardest parts of the bible, I believe, are not the miracle stories of Jesus stilling a storm or turning water into wine. The parting of the Red Sea seems relatively easy to accept, as does those remarkable healings and special visitations by angels. But what seems much harder to accept are those stories that offend our sensibilities.
The owner of the vineyard had a harvest to bring in that day. He needs the extra workers, and he’s troubled that the work won’t be completed before the day ends. When I was in Florida, I lived right around the corner from a community of immigrant workers. Men of all ages would stand on the sidewalk outside of their homes and wait for people to offer them jobs, either doing landscaping, picking crops, or moving furniture. They were willing to do those odd and laborious jobs that no one wants to do, usually for very little pay and absolutely no job stability or benefits. Often these folks would still be waiting at the end of the day. It was obvious that they were desperate to work and to feed their families.
Something like this is going on in our story for today. Those workers who come to the vineyard rather late in the day are not lazy workers out to get a free lunch or to presume upon the owner’s kindness. They actually want to work. Indeed, the writer of our story is careful to point out that the workers were hired late in afternoon were still standing there because no one had chosen to hire them any earlier, including the vineyard owner.
But now the day has ended and it’s paycheck time. The tension builds. The vineyard workers are grumbling. Summoned to pick grapes under the hot sun all day, the earliest workers did honest day’s work for a fair wage. They receive their pay—exactly what was agreed upon, no more—no less. The problem comes when they see what others are receiving. “Now, wait just a minute,” they nearly cry out, “I was here first!” “And, and… (you can just hear their complaint, “Those people—they showed up at the last hour and did the least amount of work! Why are they getting the same treatment? Why isn’t their pay pro-rated?”
Have you ever stood in line at some counter and wondered if the salesperson would know that you had been standing there longer than the next person behind you? There’s a great pastry shop in the North End of Boston. It’s called Mike’s Pastry. The place is nearly always packed. There’s probably five or six people who wait behind the counter on any given day. Who knows how it is now with the pandemic, but in pre-Covid times, when you would enter the cafe, most of the time you would have to wait in line—a while. The problem was that it’s hard to tell exactly what line you’re in… the crowd moved around so much, and it’s a fairly small place. When I was there years ago, people were juggling cookies, gelatos, and cappuccinos, tourists are pointing cameras, and there were little kids pushing through your legs to see the different kinds of desserts behind the counter. Their advertisement once said that they seat 50 people comfortably, but whenever I’ve been there, it’s a madhouse of people.
One day, my husband and I waited in line there for about ten or fifteen minutes. Each time we thought it would be our turn, someone behind us would edge in mightily close to that glass counter to take a peek at the baked goods. And what did I do? I stood there wondering if the next person behind me would be getting their raspberry jelly filled butter cookies before me. Seriously, folks, I had some awful internal panic. I feared that the next customer picked to have their order filled would be the flighty tourist who was slyly sending telepathic signals to the clerk, and I started to fear that they (the pastry shop) might actually run out of those raspberry-jelly filled butter cookies that we had traveled at least 2 hours to get. In my head, I was already trying to mentally fill into one of those white and blue boxes that Mike’s Pastry Shop is famous for. So when the very next person behind me stepped up to the glass counter, I nearly reached across the counter for one of those cardboard boxes and started packing my own cookies.
Now I know that I’m not the first to have this experience. What do you do when the person behind you at the bank or the car dealership or the grocery store is waited on before you? Surely there is some mix-up, we think. Or we think: there had better be a mix-up! Or we walk out of the place. Or we do like the lady I saw this past week in our local post office. She perfectly chastised 2 different people who stepped before her to the counter to ask a question, while she was filling out a customs form, even though she was not yet ready to be waited upon, still had to finish the form, and the clerk had paused to help others. She clearly did not want to step aside. Now imagine that you’ve been laboring in the hot sun all day. You are exhausted, blistered, and your boss gives the guy behind you—the one who was hired last– the same pay as you.
If this story offends you… remember that Jesus is trying to point out something here about our tendency to think that people should somehow have to deserve the good or the love that happens to them. Jesus knew that forgiving the sinner and being kind to our enemies would often cause us grumble, if not recoil. Notice that we tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who has laboured all day, the deserving ones, the ones who always show up early and labor longer, better, or at least as well as the next person. We often forget those times when some kindness came our way, not necessarily because we deserved it or merited it, but because we needed it.
We also tend to think that the goodness of God is like a pastry shop— there are only so many raspberry-filled butter cookies to go around and we’ve been standing in line for ages and ages to get our turn, by golly. Not only do we begin to mentally calculate the rewards of our position in line, but also the next person’s.
Yet, I also can’t help but view this passage as a woman and those times in my life when the rewards, benefits, and sheer amount of opportunity that have been given to my brothers and not to my sisters—sisters who indeed had merited better and had similar qualifications, but who were purposely blocked because of our gender, our ability to give or refuse to give birth, or the perception that we would be “less” because of family demands—though our male peers were also parents with family pressures. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, (may her memory be a blessing) was once challenged by a professor at Harvard Law School as to what she thought that she was filling a seat that was believed to more rightly belong to a male. Passed over by New York firms, she once said, “I struck out on three grounds — I was Jewish, a woman and a mother…The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.” Add to this the hard work that Ginsburg did over a lifetime to ensure that women laborers were generously and fairly compensated and admitted to places deemed only available to males, and one can see why so many are grieving her death today.
There are many who appear late on the scene not because they are actually late, but because they are trampled on, sidelined, passed over, or prevented before they ever get near the glass ceiling, or glass pastry case as it were. There are many times when people—both male and female, white, black, and brown, who have thought quietly, “Who do you think you are?” and “Why are you creating such a stir?” and “Your place is at home” when someone deigns to voice their right to exist, work hard, and speak out using their God-given voice and talents. I am reminded of Mother Jones who wrote to Governor James H. Peabody, the Gov. of Colorado, in March of 1904 after he ordered her deported from the state for helping strikers. “Who do you think you are?” he may as well have said then. Mother Jones was in her seventies when she wrote in response, “I am right here in the capital, after being out nine or ten hours, four or five blocks from your office. I want to ask you, governor, what in Hell are you going to do about it?”  Indeed. You will not push me aside with your dogs.
And then, we remember that we have an election coming up. Those who may have never cast a vote or irregularly taken an interest in politics or resigned themselves to the same-old, same-old politics as usual, might ask themselves if they believed their vote would, indeed, make a difference in their lives by giving voice to a more sustainable vision that is more just because it is more reflective of our diverse commonweal and those who have been systematically prevented or discouraged from having a voice.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the owner asks. Envy, my friends, is a dangerous human response. It steals our energy from those situations and people that need our attention the most, and it makes us under-appreciate the gifts that we have already received. We yearn to be smarter, or wiser, or better able to handle the crisis in our lives, and we are unable to acknowledge how we’ve already been blessed in so many ways. Rather than focusing on what we don’t have, we celebrate and use that which we do have—gifts, talents, a voice, a heart, and values that have been shaped in the spirit of Jesus. The owner of the vineyard also gives to all the workers, not according to their merit, but according to their need. Some of those vineyard workers who worked all day had forgotten what it was like not to be chosen, to be unwanted, or not to have anyone who believes in you. Some of those grumblers were so focused on what they lacked that they couldn’t appreciate the weight and beauty of the powerful gift of their own hands and voices.
Susan Trott tells a story about a number of pilgrims who stand in a long line and wait to see a holy man. Each of the pilgrims brings their unique personality, emotions, and deepest desires to the experience. I have forgotten much of the story, but I remember reading about the pilgrim who became so busy helping others to move forward on the path that she stopped caring about her position in the line and on the path. The grace of simply being a part of something greater than herself kept her head to the task and the moment at hand, rather than what lay ahead.
So may it be for us.
Robert Barnes and Michael A. Fletcher, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and legal pioneer for gender equality, dies at 87,” Washington Post, September 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dies/2020/09/18/3cedc314-fa08-11ea-a275-1a2c2d36e1f1_story.html
 Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999, Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, eds. (New York: Dial Press, 1999) 33.