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Friend - September 20, 2020

by Rev. Joan Kessler

Matthew 20:1-16

I pose a question to you all this morning… what is this parable vineyard owner and its workers about? If I had given you a sheet of paper with a fill in the blank space to write your answer, what would you say? All week, this parable has gone with me and has been part of some very spirited discussion and thought-provoking sharing and reflection. If we look around at what Jesus has been talking about, the topic on his mind is our money and what we do with it.

This story is full of controversy and problems. Many of us hear this parable and we cast God in the role of the Vineyard Owner. God doles out the wages… God decides what is fair and what is just. But what do we know about our Friend in this play? He’s a day-laborer and in antiquity if someone wasn’t willing to give you any work, you and your family weren’t going to eat. He waited by the vineyard gate… from before the dawn’s first light to be first in line to get the nod from the manager to work for the day. When the shift was done, there would be no assurance that he would have work the next day. He waited in line with the other workers to have that packet of coins placed in his hand so he could stop at the market on the way home and pick up some potatoes and perhaps a fresh chicken for his family’s supper. This is one step up from extreme poverty and homelessness and his life-expectancy would be short. He is the poster boy for the working poor.

And then one day, something completely out of the ordinary happens. He begins his work in the vineyard first thing, and as the day goes on, he sees more new faces joining the crew. When quitting time finally rolls around after what had been a particularly hot and dry day, and everyone is waiting in line to get paid, our Friend notices that the latecomers are getting paid first and finally he is the last to receive his wages. The workers who were hired last are ecstatic… they’ve been paid a full day’s wages, just like the guy who was hired in the morning! Everybody earned the same this day. Our Friend is angry… this isn’t fair he says… but he isn’t going to just roll over and head home. He musters up all his courage and he goes to the landowner and he makes his complaint. The landowner chastises him and tells him he is in no position to be telling him how he spends his money. Some are happy in this story, but not everybody is happy. Friend goes home feeling belittled and discouraged. And maybe the most discouraging thing is he is going to have to get up again tomorrow and do it all over again.

This story plays out today… in the marketplace of 2020 as we try to navigate the tensions that COVID has uncovered. It has me asking the questions: What is the value of work… and if the federal government is able to provide financial compensation to everyone in one form and another, why do we have homelessness and poverty? Is it time to consider a universal income that would give people dignity and the ability to make choices? What will become of retail going forward… will there still be malls and shopping in person in stores or what I have come to call offline shopping or will we all just become Amazon customers and head to the laptop when we have needs to be met? Just this week we heard of the sale of Mountain Equipment Co-op, a BC icon to an American firm; we also learned of the Vancouver Aquarium’s decision to shutter while it evaluates its future going forward. Our landscape on so many fronts is changing.

This parable also speaks to our sense of justice… these past months since the police killing of George Floyd and other people of color, before and after Mr. Floyd, I am compelled to look at my own sense of privilege and bias and how little I know about racism. We are not all the same. We have different experiences because of our skin color. A friend and colleague shared with me this week an interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: Origins of Our Discontent. She spoke of the hierarchical, bi-polar nature of our societal organizations… a caste system centuries old, created by the colonizers that saw the white folks on the top and the Black and Indigenous people of color on the bottom. We are still living with the after effects of this system today and perpetuates and polices the boundaries of who is allowed to be where. Wilkerson added that there is now an instant recognition of where one belongs and this phenomenon feeds into the hierarchy of human values, assumptions and stereotypes.

With fires burning up the US west coast, we know that climate change is fueling this fire and we wonder what the future has in store if we don’t take responsibility for our choices and their impact on the environment. The loss of life, of livelihoods and natural habitats and wildlife is incomprehensible. Our world is in a state of flux and we wonder at the shifts that are taking place.

The parable does not have a particularly satisfying ending… people went home that day complaining and disappointed. I remember a piece of advice I received around parables and that was if you wanted the interpretation, ask yourself how did you want the story to end? Jesus told his story in plain language that his audience could all relate to…if I rewrote the ending to this story it would be that everyone went home content and happy with their wages and everybody had enough… pay that fairly compensated for their work. I happened upon an alternate explanation of this story that proposed that the landowner wasn’t God after all. Maybe God isn’t an authority figure with all the power and wealth. Because why would Jesus be advocating power and authority that discriminated against some workers and favored others. Why would God incite this injustice? Could it be possible that we see this story as a call for justice… that our Friend, the one who stood up to the landowner was drawing attention to the envy and divisiveness is the hero of this story?… that the real vision of the kin-dom is when we work in this life, in this time and space for justice and equality and not a system based on keeping people in a particular place… the real vision, the shalom of this story is a world where equality is achieved and fairness upheld…that we take only what is needed without want or waste. When we are ready to leave the vineyard, where does this story take us? Into the streets, the marketplace? Into our homes and communities? How will we be the voice of justice and fairness as we head into our week? Today, may we ask, “Who is the first and who is the last?”

Amen and Amen.

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