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March 19, 2015, 10:05 AM

Parables are Like Onions

Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion,[a] he sent them into his vineyard.
“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing.Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14  Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16  So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
Parables are like onions! Onions have layers, parables have layers.
Let’s see the clip where I borrowed this idea…(Shrek & Donkey on a quest).
Parables are like onions, not cake. They have many layers, one upon another upon another. And in peeling back those layers, sometimes it stings, makes our eyes water, causes the urge to turn away. Parables are like onions, not cake.
I didn’t realize how many layers parables could possibly have until I started peeling back layers with Amy-Jill Levine, through her newest book, Short Stories by Jesus. Amy-Jill is a world renowned Jewish Biblical scholar, much sought after for speaking engagements and educational seminars. She has dedicated herself to helping Christians better understand their own Jewish roots, and the culture and context into which Jesus comes and teaches, preaches, heals, and transforms. In her newest work, she seeks to help us understand how Jesus’ largely Jewish audience would have heard these radical stories, and through that understanding, to experience new “ah-ha” moments for ourselves, to feel those twists and turns. She helps us peel back new layers of understanding, even if it stings just a bit, and makes us want to turn away.
Today’s parable—the Workers in the Vineyard—already causes that reaction in some of us. This parable stomps all over our sense of fairness. We may not be too eager to peel back any layers. But if we don’t, there is a whole new depth of understanding regarding this ‘kingdom of heaven’ Jesus has come to proclaim.
There are two layers—two interpretations—of this parable that I have heard regularly. The first interpretation (layer) understands Jesus to be speaking about the coming future kingdom. When everyone is gathered around the “Great Heavenly Banquet” we will sit as equals, whether we have been followers of Jesus since infancy or came late to discipleship. All have an equal place at the table. This can be hard when we consider people who lived criminal lives and then repented. It is hard to picture a murderer sitting next to one of our saints, but overall this is a beautiful understanding and we can live with it.
The second layer I have experienced understands Jesus to be speaking of the community of faith. Whether we were baptized in our home church, or joined as an adult, we are equal within the community. This is harder to live out. When someone new arrives with new ideas and new ways of doing things, clashes can occur. There is a desire for the newcomer to conform to the current ways of doing things. But this interpretation is beautiful and valid as well, even if it is harder to live out.
But there are more layers to this onion, especially if we truly want to experience what Jesus is describing. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he means both the future coming kingdom AND the one we are to be living right here, right now. So this parable must also apply to the current lives of the listeners. And, Jesus loved to speak about economics. It was his second favorite topic, second only to talking about the kingdom of heaven. So when we have a parable that talks about both the kingdom of heaven and current economic situations…we need to peel the layers until we reach that economic core. So, perhaps with eyes watering a little, let’s peel.
First we have to peel away the title—Workers in the Vineyard. Jesus did not give titles to his stories and when we use a title it narrows our focus and our perception. Calling this story “Workers in the Vineyard” means we focus on the workers, and we identify with them, especially those first hired. So when we get to the stories conclusion, we are outraged right along with those hired first.
But if we peel away the title we have imposed, we begin to see that the main character in this story is the householder or landowner. He begins the story, he is the constant throughout the story, and he ends it. For Jesus’ first century listeners, any story that began with a vineyard and an owner instantly meant Israel and God.  The Hebrew Scriptures are rich with that metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God—Vineyard and Owner. Already the story is familiar and the people are drawn in.  And the opening scene is deeply familiar. All across grape country at harvest time, in every town and village, this scenario plays out. Representatives from the vineyards come to the town or village seeking harvesters. Day labors gather, ready to be hired. Each community had a standard “minimum wage.” Everything so far is happening normally—owner comes to marketplace, hires the laborers needed, the usual daily wage is agreed upon—a living wage, providing food for 2 to 4 days—and work begins.
But here is where the story starts to get strange. This householder, this landowner, keeps returning to the marketplace, over and over and over again—9 am, noon, 3 pm, 5 pm. Each time he finds day laborers who were not hired by other householders and sends them to his field. At 9 am he declares he will pay what is just or right, but no payment is mentioned for the other hires later in the day. We have no clue why this owner keeps returning to the marketplace for more workers. It is a mystery, a twist that leaves the listeners questioning. And by the way, though our English translations make it sound like those day labors were just milling about being lazy, the Greek simply states they were without work.
Finally the work day ends, it is time to pay the workers, and now the big surprise. As the paying of the employees unfolds the shock sets in, all are paid the same wage regardless of working hours. We can see this play out in our heads—the shock, the outrage, the outburst of one of the 6 am workers. “Wait a minute, we’ve worked all day in that hot sun! How can you pay us the same as those guys who just got here and only put in an hour?!?!”
But suddenly this householder, this landowner, reveals some of his motivation, as he responds to the outraged worker. “I have done nothing wrong to you. We agreed on a living wage for you this morning before you started working, and that is just what you received. Do you begrudge a living wage to these? Can I not be generous with these other members of our community?”
Here is an owner deeply concerned with his community and its people. Had he not returned again and again to the marketplace those workers would have had nothing at the end of the day—no money to buy food and life’s necessities. And he chose to make sure they had a living wage—enough to get buy. It wasn’t extravagant, but it was life-saving. These later hired will now not need to search desperately  elsewhere, perhaps even resorting to begging. The owner, by returning again and again to that marketplace, ensured income and work—life and dignity—to the day laborers and their families.
This layer of the story reminds me of a man I have had to pleasure to encounter over the last few years, Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton owns the Golden Shores Resort in Jamaica where our mission team stays while working at the school and clinic. It is a modest place by American standards, but clean, and safe, and well cared for. Mr. Hamilton cared deeply for his community. He hires locally, checks in regularly with his employees, asking after their families and friends. He invests in his employees, even sending some to the United States for further education, that they can bring back and share with the community. When it came time for First UMC to build the new school, he volunteered to be the ‘clerk of the works.’ He drove regularly out to that school, a 40 minute trip over horrible roads, to check on the work, speak to the contractor, check on supplies, ensure all was moving forward. All of this he did without any thought to payment. It was for his community. For the children who would one day be its adults and leaders. He sought to live the kingdom, right there, right in the moment.
Parables are like onions. Onions have layers. Parables have layers. May we always seek to dig deeper to hear the richness of Jesus’ word and the challenge to live the kingdom here and now.  Amen.

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