Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
A minister died and went to heaven. You know…the usual picture: He is standing in a long line of potential saints waiting to be vetted by St. Peter at the pearly gates. He looks ahead of him and sees a strange assortment of people, in particular the guy right in front of him, a guy named Mort, a New York taxi driver. He was short, unshaven, wearing a ball cap and a stained t-shirt. He smoking a cigar and spoke very gruffly with words like “Hey! Will ya hurry it up, up there?” and “I ain’t got all day!”
The pastor thought, as a straightened the lapel on his black clerical suit, this should be interesting.
When Mort finally got to the lectern, he was warmly greeted by Saint Peter, who reached into an ornate jeweled box, and gave him a beautiful white and golden robe, a jeweled crown, and with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant!” he was led into heaven, choirs singing as he was ushered in.
Then the minister stepped up.
Peter looked the pastor up and down over the top of his spectacles, with a “hmph.” Read over the list uttering a series of grunts and clicking his tongue as he went. Sighing, he signals the pastor forward.
Reaching into a cardboard box, he give the minister a terrycloth bathrobe, a pair of worn out fuzzy slippers, and a paper crown from a burger joint. He was then handed off to a tired old angel with a flashlight who played a tune on a kazoo and then just looked at him with a grunt.
“Hey!” the pastor protests. “What’s the deal? I am a priest of the church! I preached the word of God and cared for the church! That … guy!... ahead of me gets the crown, the white robe, and the scepter…, and… and all I get is…is…this?”
Peter looks up from his book, sighs, and says “Look, here in heaven we look for results. When you preached, people slept. When Mort drove, people prayed.”
We all want life to be fair, especially to us. When we don’t get what we think we deserve, we feel cheated and resent the unfairness, the person getting what we wish we had, and the one giving out the prizes.
The essence of Jesus’ teaching today is that God gives his grace and favor equally. We learn that God welcomes those who are new to the Church and those who have observed the rules, rites, and traditions for a long time. This is never an easy lesson to hear: that the logic of country clubs, concerts, and fine restaurants, is not God’s logic. The economy of grace is different that the one we’ve grown up with.
Jesus’ story was first directed to a Christian community that was filled with Jewish Christians who carried with them both the covenant of the patriarchs and prophets and also the new covenant in Jesus Christ. But it was also a community filled with people who were new to the faith…recent converts, many of them Gentile who were perhaps unfamiliar with the heritage and lineage of Israel.
The early church had to cope with this. Much of the real estate of the New Testament, particularly in Acts and in Paul’s letters, are taken up with this question. Do the followers of Jesus who were also Jews, members of the Original Covenant People, have a higher standing in the community and before God than the new, Gentile, converts?
In our day… which is better? Us “cradle Episcopalians” or people from other traditions who’ve come to our church and tradition late in the game? Or, even more, what about those folks who come to our church “just” for the 12 step groups, or the feeding programs, or to the Thrift Store?
Well, when you put it that way… I suppose we have to admit that the doors are open to everyone. And that God’s welcome and grace extends to strangers, visitors, newcomers, and long-timers alike.
And there is an ethical component to this as well. If we are deciding who deserves or needs God’s grace and love more than others, then we not only risk putting ourselves in the place of God, but we start to neglect the health of our own souls and spirit as well.
But there is still that nagging question of fairness. We can’t shake it! We struggle with fairness in the workplace, at school, and in our daily living. And we also struggle spiritually. Some religions have a hierarchy of heaven depending on how good or well-behaved you are or believe that what you are in this life depended on how good or bad you were in the last. Some traditions, even some Christian ones, set up a kind of hierarchy of grace that will determine how quickly one can get into heaven or if you’ll be stuck in a cosmic waiting room. Whatever. We can’t seem to get past the idea that God must love us in proportion to our goodness.
But Jesus has a different idea. He says that there is plenty of work to around in the vineyard. And that it is all important work. Furthermore, there is plenty of grace to go around, too. The vineyard is big enough for all of us…long timers and newcomers both!
There is a message of comfort and hope to the late comers. So often I have heard people tell me that they wish they could pray, receive the sacrament, have faith, but they tell me, often with a sad shake of the head and a touch of resignation, that it is too late for them. But it’s never too late! What we learn from Jesus today is that whether we come to faith and come the vineyard early in the day or late, we are all called in and we all receive the same reward. It is not too early and it is never too late for any of us.
And there is a calling to and a message for long-timers: God wants all of us to share in his bounty, to apart of the family of God and community of Christ’s people. And while we are tempted to think of ourselves as more deserving or more worthy because of time served, that is not the point. The vineyard, God’s kingdom, is for everyone. Those of us who have been at this for longer than others have a job, and that is to help invite people into the vineyard before the day is done, give support and help to those who are new to the vineyard, and assist those who come after us, as well as those who are old hands, to become proficient workers in God’s vineyard.
When we help someone to pray, or help them discover their gifts, or are present to someone in trouble and when we as a community are open to the enthusiasm and energy of people who, out of all expectation, have been called into the vineyard, then we are adding measure upon measure to the riches we have already received.
Jesus teaches us that there is plenty of work in the vineyard, that we all share the same wage—new life in Christ—no matter how long we’ve been at it, and that all of us, no matter how new or experienced we are, we all have much to learn, prayers to make, gifts to share, and lives to touch as the friends and apprentices of Jesus that we are.