When Jesus spoke in parables, he was attempting to tell his listeners truths they otherwise would not be able to grasp. He spoke of profound spiritual realities by analogy, using familiar images that his listeners might more easily relate to. But these images only go so far. At some point, even the best analogy will fall short. Take for instance, his calling God “Father.” We all have some understanding of that reality because we all have fathers. And some of us are also fathers. The profound spiritual truth is that God is like a human father, but different. What we know of our human fathers is a helpful springboard from which we can grasp God’s fatherhood. Yet our limited experience can sometimes hinder our understanding of these deeper spiritual realities. So the reasonable yet earthbound intellect is forced to take in a far different reality than the original image it began with. We are invited to grapple with a new perspective, elusive, maybe improbable, and other-worldly. Some of Jesus’ listeners figured it out. But those who didn’t get “it” for no fault of their own were still able to appreciate the rich earthly image. They just didn’t know to take that next step toward the more profound spiritual reality he was trying to convey. And you can’t regret missing the point if you didn’t get the point. That was just the way parables worked.
So when we hear Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven, we might imagine an earthly kingdom complete with a physical territory, a functioning human population, and a fairly sustainable and orderly way of life. But if we expand on that initial image, there is a danger we could wander beyond what Jesus intended, and miss his message altogether. When we hear about the kingdom of heaven, we might picture a society much like our own, with people both rich and poor, productive citizens as well as lazy bums. But in the kingdom of heaven, members strive to live by the values of the gospel which make up the foundation upon which God’s kingdom stands. So other images we draw from our experience of human society clearly are not consistent with and can get in the way of Jesus’ intended message.
Of course we know all that. The passage we read from the prophet Isaiah once again makes that point, lest we forget. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” There is an earthly understanding that naturally accompanies all earthly reality. But when God imparts to us some profound spiritual truth, some deeper intangible reality, we will need to explore deeper for its meaning. And if we fail to take that step toward God’s way of thinking, we will not arrive at the truth that God is trying to tell us.
“A landowner went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.” We imagine the parking lot at Walmart or Home Depot in the early morning hours on some random weekday. I’m never up that early, so I’m guessing. There’s maybe a dozen men, mostly unskilled laborers, standing around waiting for a foreman in a pick-up truck to call for a few hands to hire for the day. Maybe he needs help picking grapes like in the parable, or apples, or tomatoes. A forecast of heavy rain is forcing him to bring in the harvest in a hurry. Maybe it’s a forecast of frost. Whatever the reason, the work needs to get done today. You, you, and you. They quickly agree on the day’s pay, and off they go.
But we are told it’s all just an image. He said the kingdom of heaven is “like” a landowner … yada, yada, yada. So I’m guessing the vineyard is not really a vineyard, the laborers are not really laborers, and a day’s wage is not really a day’s wage. Keep all that on the back burner, which is not really a back burner. Then the landowner goes back to the Walmart parking lot four more times that day—at 9:00, at noon, at 3:00, and then at 5:00. But it’s not really a Walmart parking lot, and it’s not really four more times that day he goes looking for laborers. Still with me? At the end of the work day, looks like 6:00, he tells the foreman to pay the laborers. They each get the same pay, the pay they agreed on at the Walmart parking lot when they were hired. But it’s not really a Walmart parking lot, and it’s not really the end of the day, and they aren’t really getting paid a day’s wage. So when the workers in the vineyard complain “No fair!” we need to shift gears because Jesus wasn’t calling our attention to an issue of fairness.
Instead, try looking at everything from the perspective of the landowner who isn’t really a landowner. God reveals himself to his people and desires reconciliation and a share in his very life for us. God extends mercy and compassion in many ways and at various occasions in our lives (9:00 or noon or 3:00 or 5:00), and we welcome him when we’re good and ready. The deal is, we are made co-heirs with his Son Jesus Christ, and given a promise of eternal life with him in heaven. Pure gift. Sweet. But we notice that some people arrive at reconciliation after us. Do we demand a better reward for arriving early? We are made co-heirs with Christ and promised eternal life. What more can we possibly want? And why would we begrudge our neighbor the same gift we received without cost, like we are more deserving and they aren’t?
From God’s perspective, our salvation is a most important priority. But we get distracted sometimes by inconsequential details, like how we’ve been Christian or Catholic longer than some people, and how we deserve a higher place in heaven for it. We have been called to work in the vineyard, and we are responsible for our own response to God’s invitation. God will deal with each one as God chooses. God can be as patient, compassionate, and forgiving as God desires. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” There is no such thing as too much compassion, patience, forgiveness, and mercy … not for us we hope, therefore not for our neighbor either. It is what the kingdom of heaven is like, we are told. God is more generous than we will ever understand. Your thoughts and your ways are not mine. The last will be first, and the first will be last.
So if I’m still running circles over your head, I hope you at least liked the story … even if you still think it wasn’t fair.
Rolo B Castillo © 2014