Summary: The rules of Kingdom living are different from the rules of worldly living.
Stories Jesus Told:
When the Rules Seem Backward
(This sermon works best if you have video capability and can show a brief clip from The Andy Griffith Show episode entitled “The Big House.” This clip is of Barney sharing the rules of the jail with new prisoners who have been brought into town by the state police. Otherwise, a description of the scene will suffice.) We love our rules. Rules help us keep things straight, as Barney says, “to avoid any grief later on.” Rules are good because they let everyone know how the game is supposed to be played, and they help us identify who is not playing the game correctly. Rules in life help us define the direction of our lives. They provide safety for our citizens, and consequences for those who don’t follow them. Rules help us in our drive toward success. We live by such rules as “No pain, no gain,” that rule which says you’ve got to push yourself, and make the sacrifice if you want to succeed. We hold up the Bible and say, “This is the rule-book for life.” We even make up little acronyms that communicate the fact:
Rules help us identify the winners and losers, they help us to avoid mistakes that carry adverse consequences, and rules level the playing field to insure that everyone has an equal opportunity at becoming a winner. Rules are rooted in our sense of justice and fairness. Without rules, there would be anarchy, and it really would be survival of the fittest. We like our rules, and the reality is, we need our rules.
One of the rules we live our lives by is “hard work is the road to success.” Meaning that if we work hard enough, are dedicated enough, eventually we’ll be rewarded. After all, isn’t that what we’re all working for? The reward. Otherwise, what’s the use? And don’t think we preachers are different either. We are just as competitive as the next person. The rules of the game are “do well, preach good, and bring others to Christ, and you’ll be rewarded with a bigger church with a bigger salary.” I mean, seriously, I’ve known very few preachers—well, actually I can’t think of any—who were called to smaller churches or smaller salaries. I’ve known a few who were sent by the Bishop, but they go so unwillingly. But never have I known one who felt called to a smaller church or a smaller salary. I didn’t say there wasn’t one, just that I didn’t know one. So, we all play by the same rules hoping to receive the reward—that is the way of the world.
In today’s parable, we find a group of workers who playing by the rules. Every day, they went to the marketplace to find work. Most laborers were day laborers and it was their practice, especially during the harvest season, to stand around the marketplace seeking employment. One of the rules for day laborers was “no work, no eat.” If your family was going to eat that day, you had to find work. So this was not an uncommon sight at all for Jesus’ disciples. Perhaps some of them had served at one time or another as a day laborer.
During the harvest, early in the morning, the vineyard owner would make his way to the marketplace in search of labor. He would make one or perhaps two trips per day early in the harvest, but as the season drew on, and the likelihood increased that part of the harvest would be lost, the owner would make increasingly more return trips in search of laborers. The landowner’s situation appeared to be dire, for he made frequent return trips to the market, and each time he hired more laborers. The fruit was rotting in the field, and it was imperative that he get more workers to save as much fruit as possible.
The owner contracted with the workers at 6:00 a.m., for a day’s wage. There was another rule—a day’s work for a day’s wage. The worker’s were happy, the owner was happy. Then, he returned at nine o’clock, at noon, and at three o’clock, and for these workers the landowner simply said, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” The workers went. They were happy, and the landowner was happy. They played by the rules.
Then, at five o’clock, the landowner returned to the market and found other workers. “Why haven’t you been working?” he asked. “Because no one hired us,” they replied. “Very well, then, go to my fields with the other workers,” said the landowner. No mention of pay, but we can only speculate that he was going to be fair with them just as he promised the others. The workers were more than willing to receive anything. All day they waited in the place that was designated and no one offered them a job. Their families would go hungry today, and it wasn’t their fault. They played by the rules, but it didn’t matter. Here’s a lesson for the church: not every hungry person is responsible for his/her own hunger. There are many people who play by the rules, but for reasons beyond their control end up broken and in need of help. The problem for the church comes when we try to judge who is hungry because they are lazy, and who is hungry through no fault of their own. That is not the lesson of this parable, but we can call it lagniappe since we are in Louisiana.