The Laborers in the Vine-yard

This reading of the parable, The Laborers in the Vine-yard, comes from The Gospel of Matthew as interpreted by Amy-Jill Levine in her book that several of you read over Lent, called Short Stories by Jesus[1].

“For it is like the kingdom of heaven to a man, a householder, who went out in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. And going out around the third hour, he saw others standing in the marketplace without work. And to those he said, “You go, even you, into the vineyard, and whatever is just, I will give you.” And they went.

And again, going out around the sixth and also the ninth hour, he did likewise. And around the eleventh, going out, he found others standing, and he says to them, “Why here are you standing all the day without work?” They say to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He says to them, “You go, even you, into the vineyard. When evening came, says the lord of the vineyard to his steward, “Call the workers and give to them their wage/reward, beginning with the last ones to the first ones.” And coming, those around the eleventh hour, they received each a denarius. And coming, the first, they thought that more they would receive. And they received each a denarius, even they. And receiving, they were grumbling against the householder. They were saying, “These last ones one hour did, and equal to us them you have made, to the ones having borne the burden of the day and the burning heat.”

And answering one of them he said, “Friend, not do I harm you. Did not for a denarius you agree with me? Take what is yours and go. And I wish to this one, to this last one, to give as even to you.

Thus will be the last first and the first last. (Matthew 20:1-16)

“The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” says the householder to the laborers. My husband, Guy, and I used to quote this phrase to our children, James and Hannah, on a fairly regular basis during their childhoods. It was an attempt to assuage sibling rivalry. Frankly, though, I think we sufficiently confused them in the moment so as to distract them from whatever it was they were up to. This phrase became part of our family vernacular, before the kids. We had heard a sermon preached on this scripture by our then pastor, Rev. Susan Johnson at Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago. For whatever reason the verse stuck with us – it was comforting in a way.

Around that time, Guy and I had just scraped up enough cash to make a down payment on a house in what was known as a tough part of town. Hence, the reason we could afford it. It was one of those strange dichotomies – two blocks north of our new home stood the gothic buildings of the University of Chicago. A block the other way was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, and probably one of the most segregated. We listened to gunshots in the middle of the night, gang graffiti marked territories, and kids suffered under the stress of poverty and damaging violence. Friends, I’m not sure Guy and I did the right thing in moving to this area as a young white couple. Did we cause pain to some folks by not fully understanding the consequences of our actions? We were not thinking gentrification, but to say the least, it was complicated.

Moving from the heart of Hyde Park to the Woodlawn community changed things for us. Basic things became hard. For instance, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune declared they could not deliver the newspaper to our new address. Was not this a basic right? They explained that we were not in their catchment area. Our new address was 62nd Street and Woodlawn Avenue. The university buildings began at 60th and Woodlawn (and, let me tell you, they received their morning papers!). Too, when we moved to this home, the movers would only accept cash. Initially, they had said checks were fine – but upon arriving to our new neighborhood, the rules changed.

Frustrated, Guy and I decided to do what any “self-respecting,” graduate students might do, we wrote a letter... dammit! We wrote a letter to Brent Staples, a well respected and regarded Op ED columnist for the NY times, who happened to be African American and a graduate of the University of Chicago. We explained our situation to him and we were up front about our whiteness. I don’t think we expected much in terms of outcome and we certainly did not expect a response.

But, we got one! Brent Staples left a message on our voice mail machine. He said, “I’m really sorry about this. I have spoken to our circulation manager- I was like really! They will be in touch with you soon. You should start getting the paper shortly.” We did not erase that voicemail message for years. And indeed, the NY Times landed on the front steps of our fully alarmed, bars on the windows.... home within a few days.  

“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Guy and I, then in our late 20’s, felt vindicated, cared for, hopeful... even. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, all of us will get the same.  Right. (Not. So. Much.)

 There are so many complexities embedded in the story I just shared with you, I don’t even know where to begin-- Politically, economically, theologically, and racially. Guy had just completed his dissertation, “The Social Construction of Risk in The Mortgage Lending Industry” which depicts the complexity of redlining, discrimination and neighborhood formation. “Who decides who deserves what?” What happens when some of us can’t get hired and are left on the street, hungry, tired, exploited and un-seen? Why do we buy into social constructs, like racism, that are truly evil? (Guy’s book, in case you were wondering, did not go on to become a best seller. But today is his 50th birthday, and I told him I would mention his book…. as a gift.[2])

It is a joy and blessing to lead, today, with dear friend and colleague, Melissa Bartholomew. Melissa’s insights and deep relationship with God inform my own and teach me. Melissa and I began to collaborate while at Divinity School. We connected around our senior paper projects both centering on themes of trauma, race, forgiveness and reconciliation. Too, we worked on a paper together for a Leadership course. For one class project the two of us interviewed Rev. Liz Walker, the minister of Roxbury Presbyterian Church. Rev. Walker shared with us her belief in the importance of “seeing” the whole of God’s kingdom. She discussed her own transformation while ministering in Roxbury. Initially, she explained she felt annoyed by the drunken individuals loitering near her church steps. She wanted them gone. Over time, as she listened to the stories of those in her community she began to understand with a new depth how our stories matter, and that our witness is crucial. Rev. Walker started talking with those troubled by alcoholism as they ventured near her church located near a liquor store. She told us, “Now I engage them and greet them, I want them to know that I see them.”  I see you, I care, you matter.

Right along with Liz Walker, my heroes, right now, are novelist, Toni Morrison and Emilie Townes, (the current dean at Vanderbilt University Divinity School). They both highlight the importance, indeed, the sacred nature, of truth-telling and transformative self-awareness. Returning to our parable, the householder intentionally goes back to pick up the other laborers waiting at the roadside. “Why aren’t you working,” he asks them. “No one would hire us,” they answer. The householder replies, “You go, even you, to the vineyard.”

This weekend we hold up Transgender Justice and FreedomMA. We celebrate and affirm the whole of the body of Christ – Yet, it was not so very long ago that we as a public actually used such terms as “deviant” or “perverted” when speaking of the LGBTQ community. Rev. Cody Sanders, in his recent book entitled Micro-aggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence of Every Day Church[3], names the spiritual and emotional pain caused by such devastating other-ing. He beautifully speaks of his hope of an awakening happening whereby we cease perpetuating micro-aggressive violence in our churches and beyond. These new insights, he points out, can lead to resistance and resilience in the face of micro-aggressions in the larger society.[4]

One of my Divinity School professors provided an example of societal transformation showing a David Bowie video, depicting the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, it became possible to travel into forbidden territory. “I did not know I could do that,” sings David Bowie. This new possibility of traveling to a place that once was thought to be off limits amazes him. There is a sacred moment of new awareness where we begin to understand that society and histories do not predetermine a future self, or a future world.

Emilie Townes writes, “To broaden ourselves as people we must be willing to look within ourselves as we recognize that we are also social beings in communities of communities. This is how we dismantle social oppressions…; it is how we grow and become changed.”[5] The householder creates, perhaps, one such moment by intentionally hiring those who no one would hire. True, the guys who had been working all day weren’t so happy about this generosity. Those chosen first, grumbled, “These last ones one hour did, and equal to us them you have made.” We can all kind of empathize, but of course this is not the point.

For several years as a clinical social worker, I conducted sexual abuse evaluations with children suspected of being abused. Much of the initial work revolved around correcting blame attributions and reducing the profound shame that comes with violation. In most cases, a child or youth was certain that they had done something to deserve what happened to them. These kids grappled with a deep inner sense of badness. It was our first task to tell them, “What happened to you was not your fault. In no way did you cause this to happen.” The Child Advocacy Center of Suffolk County has put together a community art project called Now We See.[6] It is a project that affirms truth telling. One little girl writes, “I am proud I was able to talk about what I went through. I want other kids to know that they are not alone. My eyes, she says, “are strong and brave.” There is such a profound and deep spiritual movement in these acts of seeing and naming, in witness and accompaniment. These photographs are now featured in various venues throughout Boston. Jesus goes with us into our deepest hell and brings us back again.  

Melissa Bartholomew traveled to New Orleans about two weeks ago. During her time there, she had the occasion to visit a Plantation (the picture is on this morning’s bulletin) – a memorial narrated through the eyes of slaves. My understanding is that it is the first of its kind, as it reflects the experience of the slaves, not the slave owners. I remember during one of the adult forum hours on race, someone spoke of the many generations that were impacted by slavery. We talked about trauma and its impact on our relationship with God. One person said, “I don’t struggle so much with the fact it happened (meaning slavery), but I do question how God could have let it go on for so long.” So. True. Where was God? What ridiculous and evil social norm were we, as a society, buying into for over 200 years? Toni Morrison dedicates her novel, Beloved, to the sixty million and more victims of slavery. It is so deeply horrifying, and our denial so profound.

I have been recently reflecting on the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus initially declines to heal her daughter because of the woman’s ethnicity. Jesus tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once. (Matthew 15:25-28) What if Jesus hadn’t immediately gotten it – what if he hadn’t turned back around, and had walked away? Instead, Jesus being Jesus shows us how it is done. He listens to the woman and sees her in a new light-- he finds his way back and understands now what he did not understand before. Jesus teaches us how to love justice– he shows us how to practice self-awareness in faith. “I see you, you matter, God loves you. Your suffering is our suffering.” I cannot help but think about the UN’s recent recommendation that the United States engage in reparations for its practice of slavery. Could it be that reparations are crucial for the healing of this nation? Indeed, for us all? Might such reparations be a sacred act of witness?

And this brings me back to Toni Morrison. At the end of her brilliant novel, Beloved, a former slave, Paul D. says to his dear friend, Sethe, “You are your own best thing.” Sethe, as you may remember, had killed her infant daughter when faced with the terrible reality of being recaptured into slavery. The idea of raising her daughter on the plantation where she had suffered the deep hell of violation in the form of rape and severe beatings seemed unfathomable. She, instead, chose death for her child, hating herself for it, but loving her child so much she could not bear the thought of her baby going through what she had. It was a heavy history to carry. Paul D. says without judgment, “I wanted to lay my story down next to hers.” He, too, wore the scars from being held in chains; permanent marks around his neck.[7] What happens when we begin to hear, to tell, and to see again with new eyes? We are all first and last, and our stories begin to merge.

Amy –Jill Levine asks an important question, “What if we saw this parable of the householder and laborers as about what God would have us do not to earn salvation, but to love our neighbor?”[8] Love our neighbor? This is hard, this is very hard, because sometimes loving our neighbor means owning our complicity and seeing our transgressions more clearly. It also means recognizing our own victimhood. As Toni Morrison once said in a lecture here at Harvard, goodness comes from self-awareness. Jesus shows us how it is done, this self-awareness that leads to change and justice. In seeing the Canaanite woman, he becomes a witness to us all. In the householder’s act of going back again and again to receive the laborers, we are reminded that we are one. “You go, even you, to the Vineyard, and whatever is just, I will give you.”

You go, even you.

In this chaotic and crazy present day 2016, I believe we are being called to a love that names the truth. This love propels us to turn back, with restored vision and understanding. It is a love that inspires a deep desire for justice. It also claims our very hearts to know that we are all seen, named and held by God. In the movement of turning back in love, we find ourselves restored to God. And paradoxically, we discover the capacity to move forward (together) into God’s new reality for us. Amen.   

[1] Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York, NY: HarperCollins) 2014.

[2] Stuart, Guy. Discriminating Risk: The U.S. Mortgage Lending Industry in the Twentieth Century, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 2003.

[3] Sanders, Cody J. and Yarber, Angela. Micro-aggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence in Everyday Church, (Nashville: John Knox Press) 2015.

[4] Ibid, p. 143.

[5] Townes, Emilie. Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 2006.

[6] The Child Advocacy Center of Suffolk County, “Now We See,” photographs of children who have participated in forensic interviews at the CAC (the photos show their eyes only).

[7] Morrison, Toni. Beloved, (New York: Penguin) 1988.

[8] Levine, Amy-Jill. Ibid.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • April 9, 2016