We are fortunate to have a community garden on our church property. All through the summer, we marvelled not only at how well it has produced, but also at how much effort was required to achieve such results. The neighbourhood families were also appreciative of a chance to learn, and teach their children about where food actually comes from. As it is, we city dwellers are just so removed from the origins of the meals on our tables. At Thanksgiving, we will decorate our church with fruits and vegetables; and around the same date, the Jews will be celebrating Sukkot -- the religious observance which requires them to build small outdoor booths, also decorated with fruits and vegetables. But what do these traditions accomplish in us? And how well are we still able to connect with the agricultural symbols, so prevalent in the Bible?
What about a vineyard? Jesus used a whole range of winemaking metaphors with all kinds of audiences, and a vineyard serves as a setting in at least three parables of his that I can recall. The first such parable appears in Matthew 20, and it is the one we read today (of the “unequal wages”). In the following chapter, the evangelist will reinforce the analogy by employing two more vineyard parables: first of the vineyard owner’s son who agreed to work in the vineyard and then didn’t, and second of the owner’s son being murdered by the wicked “husbandmen”.
Do these images still have something to say to us, who know next to nothing about the vineyards, other than, perhaps, driving past them along the way to Niagara Falls? Sure, many of us have enjoyed wine-tasting tours and understand some of the science of winemaking, but... would you go so far as to meditate on the image of a vineyard as the most beautiful, heavenly place? Or use it in a poem as the perfect backdrop to meeting the love of your life?
"Let us rise early and go to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine has budded, and its blossoms have opened, and whether the pomegranates have bloomed. There I will give you my love...” (Song of Solomon)
Or would it ever cross your mind to compare people and nations to vines and vineyards? It might, if you were steeped in the culture where, for centuries, grapes, figs, and pomegranates were not only products vital to the economy, but also the powerful symbols of the true fruitfulness and enjoyment of life that comes only from the Lord. These Sukkot booths I mentioned earlier, the ones that the Orthodox Jews build in October, are meant to recreate the dwellings built by the Israelites during their wilderness journey. As part of that journey, they came to the border of the land where they were to settle, and sent the spies in to investigate. The men returned with some grapes, pomegranates, and figs. Since then, the ancient Israelites have always connected the promise of a spiritual security found in God with the image of the land resplendent with vineyards and orchards.
And so, in the Old Testament, Israel is frequently referred to as the vine. The vine that God “found in the wilderness” (Hosea), then “uprooted out of Egypt, cleared a ground for it in the new land, planted it, where it took deep root” (Ps 80). And it wasn’t any old vine! It was “luxuriant” (Hosea), “choice vine from the purest stock” (Jeremiah), planted “on a very fertile hill” (Isaiah). The orchards and vineyards of the ancient scriptures symbolize God’s relationship with Israel, and the fruits of such relationship are peace and security, abundance and contentment, friendship and fellowship – the attributes of the kingdom of God that is to come at the end of all time, when“each person will sit under his own grapevine or under his own fig tree without any fear” (Micah).
And that is what Jesus is talking about in his parables - that mysterious, mystical concept of the Kingdom of God, which is so hard to grasp without the use of an analogy. Today, we heard Jesus tell of it to a mixed group of people, mentioned in ch. 19. Among them, there were the people who brought little children to be near him, and others who opposed it; and there was also a young man who was trying to discern the value of spirituality vs. wealth. I believe that such a context is meant to lead us away from the focus on the financial, transactional aspect of this parable; yet, we find it difficult to avoid it because our first reaction is the sense of injustice -- the way we understand it. But I think this parable is much less about the unfair wages than it is about “it’s never too late”. Don’t worry; there are other parts of the Bible that address the issues of laziness and fairness! Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” (a beloved aphorism of Vladimir Lenin!), and the Proverbs is full of similar references. But not this parable. Once we free ourselves from our own preoccupation with the material, we can have a much better appreciation of its fuller message.
And the message is, of course, about God's unmerited, unlimited grace. It is never too late to have faith. It is never too late to enter the Kingdom of God. It is never too late to begin God’s work in this world. And in the world to come, everyone will receive the same reward -- which is the experience of the full presence of God, for all eternity. God’s presence can’t be greater or smaller depending on what we do, and how early in life we come to know of it. There simply isn’t another wage to earn, and so it doesn’t matter how early you begin to earn it. Now, of course what does matter is that the earlier you enter the vineyard, the more work you can accomplish for God before your life’s day is over. More time for your garden to grow, bloom, and bear fruit.
Like Jonah in the Old Testament reading, we are oh so quick to pronounce judgement... both on other people and on God for not giving us the “right” gifts. We empathize more readily with the older brother, rather than the prodigal one; with the workers who were hired early, rather than with the ones that had to wait to be employed. But this world is more complex. There are still places where migrant seasonal workers, legal and illegal, wait at markets to be hired in crowds far exceeding the demand for work - each with their own mouths to feed at home, their own story that brought them there... Unlike us, God is infinitely merciful and slow to anger. S/he created all things, whereas we tend to forget that the land upon which we build our vineyards, our entire existence, is merely borrowed. Our spirituality, our relationships, and all the “changes and chances of this fleeting world” are the extensions of God’s presence with us -- the deposit on our full wages, so to speak. And while we might not feel particularly thankful for every aspect of our lives, we can and should always thank God for giving us such a garden to cultivate and enjoy.
Of course, even in the marvelous Song of Solomon, there is a mention of the “sneaky little foxes” that like to creep into the vineyard, gnaw at the vine and ruin the harvest. Our life’s hardships and disappointments, our jealousy of one another, the things that cause us to be ungrateful - these garden “pests” will continually try to dig at the roots of the beautiful vines that God has given us to cultivate. But let us not give up. Let’s keep saying to ourselves, “this is the day that the Lord has made”. All our days are numbered, but it is never too late to wake up and join God’s work that takes place all around and inside us. Thanks be to God.