The bedtime story series
In this time of reflection, I invite you to close your eyes, place your feet firmly on the floor, or whatever is your best posture for contemplation.
As I retell Jesus’ story of the workers in the vineyard, open yourself to whatever comes. Who do you identify with? How does it make you feel?
It’s a cool, clear morning in late summer. The sun hasn’t quite managed to peek over the eastern lake, and the workers wrap themselves closely in their cloaks and grumble. It’s just another day selling their labour for a measly pittance, just about enough to keep body and soul together. Just enough to make it worth being out of bed before the sun is, and to be standing around waiting here.
An irritatingly dapper figure emerges out of the gloom. You recognise him – the owner of a nearby vineyard. He recognises you in turn, and beckons you, and then a few of your mates. A small crew, but a reasonably competent one, with no wasters or complete fools. The early bird gets the worm after all. And he’s a reasonable boss, as these things go. Not some tight-arse who tries to get out of paying the honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.
You trudge after him in reasonably good spirits, and get to work. The sun isn’t long in rising, and soon you’re warm enough to lose the cloak, and soon after that you’re sweating.
After a couple of hours, it’s time for the break, and so you gather at the corner of the vineyard nearest the house and pass a skin of heavily diluted wine around. It’s not too bad – you can remember harvesting these very fruit a year back. After a few more minutes, the foreman says its smoko over, so you get up, rubbing your aching back.
Something catches your eye, and, on the far side of the vineyard’s low wall, you see the owner striding down the road with a huge grin on his face, leading another collection of workers. Not a crack team like you and your mates – they seem a bit older, a bit stiffer. Still, some of them are good enough blokes, good workers in their day.
“The boss must be in a big hurry to get the grapes in,” the guy next to you grouses, but you just shrug. Maybe he thinks a storm is coming or something.
Another few hours pass, picking the grapes and carrying baskets. You’re in a bit of a rhythm with it, lost in your own thoughts, when the foreman yells “tools down!” and you head off to the shady tree to see if last night’s bread might be improved with a bit of the boss’s watery wine.
Lying in the shade of the fig tree, you’re about to doze off, when your mate pokes you in the ribs.
“He’s at it again.”
You sit up, and, sure enough, here comes the boss again, with another bunch of losers. Is one of them old Jebediah, your old dad’s friend?
You roll your eyes at your mate. He shrugs. The boss is the boss – what are you going to do about it?
Another few hours pass, and you try to ignore some of the shambles going on further up the line – have these idiots ever pruned a vine before? Wouldn’t like to be in the overseer’s shoes right now, not trying to find useful work for this lot. Still, that’s his problem. And now, time for the final break of the day. More watery wine, more very chewy bread. You wish you’d saved up your cheese from lunch.
A groan from your mate. “Not more, surely?”
But, yes, there they are. An even less impressive bunch than last time. Notorious drunks who probably haven’t worked a day all year lightly salted with the occasional beggar.
There doesn’t seem to be much else to do but to shrug. He really is an odd guy, the boss. What does he want with all these people? They are definitely not who you would pick if you had a vineyard that needed harvesting.
Back to work, trying not to brood on it. You can overhear some of the last crop of hands jabbering about how the owner said that he would pay them “what was right.” Chance would be a fine thing! Where had they been when you’d been sweating away in the heat of the day?
It’s getting towards the evening, thank heavens. It has been as hard a day as you can remember. You straighten up, and take a pull of your water skin, and you can’t believe your eyes. There’s the boss again! And who on earth are that collection of galahs? Are they even capable of working? One of them is surely blind, the boss has to lead him quite firmly towards the gate. Where on earth does he get these people? And some are so feeble that they can hardly walk!
The foreman, at his wits end, comes past, trying to assign helpers to the productive workers. You do your best not to catch his eye, but to your disgust, one of the newest crop ends up supposedly helping you.
You swear under your breath – not so loud that the overseer hears you and chucks you out for complaining, you’ve worked far too long to not get paid. But you do your best to ignore your so-called helper. But he desperately needs to talk, and seems incapable of getting the message that you don’t want anything to do with him.”
“I never get picked,” he says. “I go down to the marketplace every day, but usually I have to beg. I’m never picked. You’re young and strong, you have no idea what it’s like. And now the boss says he’ll pay us whatever is right – anything would help, even just a crust of bread.”
You grunt, and unclench your jaw a bit. It must be hard to hang around all day in the marketplace, hoping for someone to pick you, and to have to go home disappointed every night, back to whatever lean-to or shack this guy lived in.
However, there’s still work to be done, and no point standing around gassing. Not that the overseer is particularly bothered – he’s usually on our backs if he thinks we’re gossiping rather than working, but he is in a whole world of pain of his own right now, trying to organise the blind guy under the annoyingly sunny gaze of the owner.
Still, being paid what’s right eh? That’s something. Perhaps something a little extra? Your mind turns tiredly to dinner, and the possibility of maybe picking up a jar of fish sauce or a little relish for the evening’s bread.
Finally, the day is over. The sun is sinking rapidly, and if we don’t get off soon we will be staggering around the field in the pitch dark, which wouldn’t be good for anyone. The foreman is yelling and waving his arms, and so we all troop off to the farmhouse to get paid.
The boss is sitting at the counting table, with a big old chest of money beside him.
“Last people first,” he says, and, to my complete amazement, starts doling cash out to them. As they stagger away with their loot You realise that he is paying out a full day’s wage! A full day’s wage in return for an hour of getting in my way.
Does that mean he’s planning on paying us more? After all, if an hour’s light hindering is worth a full day’s wage, then what is a full day under the sun worth?
Eventually it was your crew’s turn, and you got your answer. It was worth a day’s wage. Not a cent more, not a cent less. Exactly what those clowns who staggered in for a quick hour earned. You can easily hear their joyful conversation as they trickled off to whatever they call home.
It is too much to bear, and, looking around at your mates for support, you step forward, and, as respectfully as you can, you point out the injustice of the situation.
“We worked hard all day in the field, under the full weight of the sun. And now, when it’s time to get paid, you give that collection of wasters and incompetents exactly what you give us? Surely we deserve more than them, having worked so much harder?”
“Look, mate,” said the boss. “I’m paying you exactly what we agreed. What are you complaining about? Anyway, it’s my money, and I’ll do what I want with it. Or are you jealous because I’m generous?”
How does the story leave you feeling? And who do you relate to most? Resentful like the good worker? Overjoyed like his not very effective helper? Or the owner of the vineyard, who is apparently happy to give his money away without any real concern for efficiency?
Does it all seem very unfair? Or is it an inspiring picture of grace?
With apologies to the Gospel according to Matthew (20:1-16)
We did this at Preston High Street UCA and Cafechurch / Chalice (Northcote UCA)