Parables: Stories that Changed the World

Here's an interesting thought experiment -- if you knew you had a finite amount of time to teach people everything they needed to know about abundant life now and eternal life to come ... how would you do it?  If we're honest, I'll bet most of us would choose as straightforward a method as possible.  Maybe contract law, or exhaustive doctrine?  Among several kinds of teaching, one of Jesus' favorites was story.  Moreover, his stories were sometimes strange or enigmatic, and he did not always try to explain them.  What was he up to?

Jesus knew that human beings are "story-formed people."  We perceive and process our lives in the form of characters, plot, conflict, and resolution.  So he used stories as a primary way of engaging our imaginations and inviting us to explore the deep truths he wanted us to know.

One such story is the parable of the vineyard, in Matthew 20:1-16.  (Click the scripture reference to read it online!)  

When reading parables, remember the principles we've outlined so far in this series, "Lost in Translation(s)."  Be aware of your own cultural lens; give priority to the historical context in which it was written; beware of creative normative commands from narratives meant to illustrate truth.

In this parable, the vineyard would conjure in the first-century Jewish mind the important metaphor of the vineyard for God's people (see Isaiah 5:7).  This isn't a story about how to do business, or about a free capitalist market, or about employing day laborers.  It's a story about God's people...especially who's in and who's out.  

Jesus often designed his parables to begin with a setup, then offer an unexpected ending.  It was a skillful way of exposing us, especially when we have hard hearts.  This parable is a classic reversal of expectations: not only does the landowner pay the last workers first, he pays them a full day's wage!  

So what is Jesus trying to get across, if it's not about fair wages or being a generous employer?   Parables aren't allegories (stories in which every element symbolizes something else -- think Orwell's "Animal Farm").  So we can't pick them apart piece by piece -- if we pull the petals off a rose, we'll lose the beauty of the whole!   Instead, the parables are illustrating truth about "the kingdom of heaven."  Jesus even starts this parable that way!  In this case, Jesus is challenging people who feel that they somehow deserve privilege in God's kingdom.  These might be people who have lived faithfully, tithed generously, even made personal sacrifices for God's glory.  In these cases, it can be all too easy to mistakenly believe we "deserve" something from God, or that there are degrees of belonging in God's kingdom.  But the simple fact is that everything we have is the result of God's grace -- a gift from our generous Landowner.  

Philip Yancey brilliantly put it this way: "God give gifts, not wages."  When we accept the fact that we are recipients of God's grace rather than earners of God's favor, we will discover the kind of gratitude that permeates the hearts of so many people we read about in the Gospels and Acts.  

And oh, how we need this gratitude today!  How we live in a cultural grace-drought!  The Church has been called and equipped with the Holy Spirit to lead the way within our divisive, petty and backbiting culture to let God's rivers of living water flow through us into this dry and thirsty land.  But it starts with remembering that we are all latecomers to the vineyard.  We are all recipients of God's scandalous grace.  We are all given more than we deserve from the One who wants us to have abundant lives.  

For reflection:
1) Which characters do you primarily relate to in this parable?
2) Do you feel like a "latecomer" to God's kingdom?  How does it make you feel to consider that you are a latecomer, rather than one of the faithful all-day laborers?
3) Do you know anyone that you would find difficult sharing an equal share of the Church?  (If you don't think of anyone, consider people who have wronged you, or wronged someone else.  Think of people who do things you don't approve of.  This is how many 1st century Jews thought of Gentiles and others they considered "unclean.")
4) What can you do to change your attitude toward the person(s) you thought of in #3?  How can you bring all of this to God honestly in prayer?

In Grace!

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