In Matthew 20 there is the parable of the workers in the fields. Some workers started early in the morning and were promised a day’s wages. Some started at noon and were promised a day’s wages. Some came just before quitting time and were paid the same wages. The ones who worked all day complained. But, they were paid as they were promised. In the kingdom, you are not supposed to be focusing on tit for tat. It is a privilege to work in the vineyard of the Lord God’s kingdom.
This story reminds us as to how labor intensive a vineyard is. The winter rains cause all oft he terrace walls to collapse and they have to be repaired. The vineyard has to be ploughed and weeded. The vineyard has to be pruned. Keeping a vineyard is labor intensive and back-breaking work. The two most labor intensive vocations in biblical times were shepherding and vine dressing. It is more than coincidence that the prophets and Jesus used these two analogies more than any others. The current terminology for labor intensive is “high maintenance.” Human beings are like sheep and vineyards; they are “high maintenance.” God is patient with “high maintenance” human beings.
In the vineyards the branches keep growing and need to be pruned. Rocks have to be moved around and placed under the vine to lift it up. The vinedresser has to know each vine just as the shepherd has to know each sheep. In the vintage season, the vinedresser has to stay in the watchtower to guard the vineyard day and night. In the summer and autumn, the grapes have to be brought to the winepress. The grapes are stomped and the juice is collected in a vat. In the summer, flies and gnats get in the collection vat and so the insects have to be filtered out, so they pour the juice through a linen cloth into the pottery jars. The jars of juice have to be stored in at least a ten foot solid rock cut basin – once you get through ten feet of rock the temperature is 59 degrees Fahrenheit year round. The wine will spoil if it is not stored at the proper temperature.
Some religious people will strain a gnat and swallow a camel. This phrase is taken from the vinedresser illustration. A gnat was considered unclean. Some Pharisees were so careful about swallowing anything unclean that if you invited them over for dinner and poured them a cup of wine, they would pull a linen cloth out of their pocket and place it over the cup before you poured the wine, just in case a gnat might be in your wine jar. Of course we do not have people like this in our churches now – people who would strain a gnat yet swallow an equally unclean but much larger camel!
The idea that those who worked longer received the same wages as those who worked few hours does not seem just at first. But all were promised the same reward. Sometimes people believe it is not fair that they have to work so many years on committees and be faithful for so long, and then a new member comes along and jumps in right away. Of course, we are all equal in God’s eyes. It is important for the person who has been in the vineyard a long time to be sensitive to the one who just arrived, but also to realize that because they have worked all day does not mean they have less or more value. Those who come to faith later receive the same reward. We need to get away from making value judgments – in money and in time. Our reward is all by God’s grace and there is no time clock in the kingdom. The kingdom is upside down in terms of human values.
In the story about the boy who left home (Luke 15), we have sympathy for the older brother who has been in the vineyard all day who did not have fun. The younger brother gets a banquet. It is not fair. When you hear this parable you are supposed to think that the older brother has a good point. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he gave this parable. There were Jewish villages in the Jordan valley and on a plateau there were distant pagan Gentile cities called the Decapolis. a “far country” does not have to be “geographically” far. There were more distant Jewish villages whose only monumental building was a synagogue that was decorated with art depicting flora and vegetables. A four-hour walk could get you to a pagan city with monumental architecture and pagan art. In a small Jewish village everybody knows everything about everybody else.
This boy basically says, “Mom and dad I wish you were dead. I can’t wait for you to die. Give me my money now.” We have asked both Palestinian and Jewish friends if they have ever read or heard in their religion about a child who had demanded his inheritance before the parents died. It is always the same answer: “No child would do such a thing.” This boy is not simply a mixed up teenager. He is a very bad boy. The boy goes to the “far” country with jingling coins in his toga pocket. It is interesting that Jesus has the younger brother leaving home. According to inheritance laws of that culture, the older brother would get twice as much as the younger brother. So Jesus used the younger brother who might have more reason to resent staying on the “stupid ranch.” The younger brother wanted his money now, to go his own way.
He gets to the outskirts of the pagan city and there is a theatre. What is wrong with a Jewish boy going to a theatre? This is where the epics of the gods are acted out. Those sitting on either side of you believe in the metaphysics of the play. And there is no national Hebrew hotdog to purchase at intermission! There was no kosher food in a “far” country. He went further into town and saw a volume of art depicting humans and animals. He was shocked by the pagan art. The main problem, of course, was that in the middle of the city there was a pagan temple. If you lived in such a city, on the emperor’s birthday you had to bow down to the statue of Jupiter. The boy had friends as long as the coins jingled in his pocket. But then a famine came to the land and the economy fell apart. The boy owed some money and was put in debtors’ prison. This is what it means when it says, “He hired himself out.” The man who paid his debt took him to work on his hog farm. At this point int he parable most people would smile – a Jewish boy working on a non-kosher pig farm! At first he just slopped the pigs but then even worse ties have him barefoot and eating what the pigs eat.
In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd looked for the lost sheep. In the parable of the woman with ten coins who lost one, she looked for the lost one. In the parable of the lost son, the parents stay home. The boy is not geographically lost, but rather he has an attitude problem. It would do no good for the parents to find him. This parable uses the style of poem called inverted parallelism – the center of the poem is the main line, the first part of the poem lists in reverse order everything that is lost, and the second part of the poem discuses everything that is restored. In the center of this parable it says, “He came to himself.” He had lost everything through the first part of the story, then he came to himself. The boy makes the decision to return home and Jesus has him rehearsing a three-point speech.
Part 1: “Mom and dad, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”
Part 2: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Part 3: “Make me a hired servant.”
The boy was afraid to go home because who does the farm belong to now? Oops, it belongs to the older brother. He may not be too worried about his parents but he is certainly worried about his older brother. His parents must be sitting in their rockers on the porch looking out toward the “far” country because it says, “From a long way off they saw him coming.” The father runs out to meet him.
The only place where God runs in the Bible is in this parable. Why does God run? He is running to welcome the boy home. But there is another reason. Jesus did not end the parable here. Everybody in the first century who heard this parable would have believed as the boy approached the village he would have been stoned to death because he brought shame to his family and to that village. He showed lack of respect for his parents and one of the primary laws is to honow one’s father and mother. The father had to get to his son first. The boy starts his speech but his parents cut him short. They are not even interested in point three – take me back as a hired servant. The parents do three things, all of them markings of being a son and not a hired servant.
1: “Bring the best robe and put it on him.” The best robe would have the tassels, the symbol of the family authority. Notice it is not just any robe, but the best robe. It might even be the father’s robe in the minds of the hearers.
2: “They put a ring on his hands.”
3: “They put shoes on his feet.”
4: “They bring the fatted calf.”
All of these things are signs of son-ship and not servanthood. This is very important. The point Jesus was making when he had the boy’s rehearsal of his speech in the parable was that the boy’s third point was going to be to make him a servant. He was not allowed to say that. The parents do three things you would do for a son or daughter, not a servant. Servants have an inner tunic, sons and daughters have the inner tunic and an outer robe. Servants are barefoot, sons and daughters have sandals. All of God’s children have shoes. That is what shoes mean – you are not a slave, you are not a servant. The boy was a barefoot hired servant in the “far” country. Servants do not have rings, sons and daughters have a signet ring. Business was conducted with the ring by pressing it into soft clay or wax. This part of the parable should upset you – with the ring, they gave him the credit card, and he has just messed up the family funds. Something is wrong with this – it is stupid! You don’t know if he is going to be responsible – he has just been irresponsible, coming back without even shoes. He sold his robe and the shoes, and the family ring. You are supposed to be sympathetic to the older brother when you hear this parable. It is just not fair what the parents have done. Then on top of it all they brought the fatted calf. Most likely the fatted calf was for the old brother’s coming wedding. People did not eat much meat back then. They had a sheep or goat for Passover and perhaps a fatted calf for a wedding feast.
The older brother is out on the back forty, plowing, working overtime since junior has been gone. The older son went to the house. He heard music and dancing which means everybody was celebrating. He called one of the servants and asked what it meant. The servant said, “your brother has returned and your father has killed the fatted calf because he received him with peace.” The older brother was angry and refused to go in.
This parable is about kingdom values. We should not compare. We al receive the grace of God. This parable has two lost sons. Some have called it the parable of the “son who strayed and the son who stayed.” Neither enjoys the privileges of being with their parents. We know this because of the two Freudian slips the older brother makes. When the father begs the older brother to come in, he responds, “All these years I have slaved for you.” Oops – might as well be a hired servant. The second Freudian slip occurs when the older brother says, “And you have not even offered for me a kid (a skinny goat) and now this son of yours (not my brother) who spent the family money on his women (Jesus never said anything about this in the earlier part of the parable) comes and you offer him the calf we have been saving.”
Jesus created this parable to let us know the nature of the Kingdom of God. In that culture the way to forgive someone was to eat a meal together. The Arabic word for reconciliation is the word for table – “sulha.” You forgive at a table. Whatever might be said about the older brother, we would have to say he is honest. He would not eat with his brother because he did not want to forgive him. Some have suggested that the son who strayed may have been guilty of “warm” sins, if the older brother was correct, but the son who stayed was guilty of “cold” sins – greed and envy.
There is a strange ending to the parable. The father is begging the older brother to come into the feast. The credits start rolling and the curtain closes. This is a brilliant ending. Luke 15 begins with “Some Pharisees observed that Jesus was eating with public sinners and tax collectors.” They were not angry about whom he was eating with, but rather whom he has forgiven. So Jesus told them this parable and leaves the older brother (who is just like the Pharisees) outside. This parable reflects kingdom values. God loves us all equally. God loves the son who stayed as much as the son who strayed. God, like the father, wants both sons to be at the banquet. There are a number of biblical stories illustrating that you forgive someone by eating with them. This relates to communion theology. How do you receive communion in an unworthy state? You do so if you have an attitude of resentment and are unforgiving. Psalm 23 says, “The Lord prepares a table in the presence of enemies.” This means the Lord helps the psalmist to forgive his enemies. The psalmist has a meal covenant with his enemies. To this very day, Palestinian villages have a “sulha” (table) committee, which tries to get any feuding families to reconcile. The reconciliation is consummated by having a table midway between the two house where the families have a meal together. The parable of the lost sons is a very important parable. Both sons were in need of reconciliation.