What a Way to Run a Garden – Pendleton Presbyterian Church & the KOA Campground, July 1969


written by Jack Crandall

Delivered at the Pendleton Presbyterian Church and KOA Community Campground, Pendleton, SC – July 1969, August 1972

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  What a crazy mixed up way of running a garden!  This guy is asking for a walkout of the hired help.  At different times during the day, the householder goes out to get workers for his vineyard and then, at the end of the day he pays them all the same wage.  No wonder the first ones hired were burning mad.  They had been burned up by the heat of the sun all day long, while the ones hired last, when the sun was low, played it cool in more ways than one and got just as much pay as the first.

What sense does it make? What happens to our tidy world of balance sheets, profit and loss, and “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage?   What has happened to just plain ordinary justice here? On the basis of this story, you might as well eat, drink, and be merry, or get after that elusive pot of money with all the wits, cunning, and training you can get, make your name and perhaps even a fortune, and then “come to Jesus” at the end and everything will turn out alright.

What’s the point?  Fortunately, some of the parables of Jesus were placed in a context which provides a clue to their meaning.  This is one such parable. Matthew places it in a series of events which lead up to it and serve to help open its meaning.

If you back up a bit into the 19th chapter, you find the familiar story of the rich young man who “turned away sorrowfully”  when Jesus pointed out that his wealth  would have to go if he were to have “treasure in heaven.” The lesson is clear. It’s not that wealth in itself is a bad thing, nor that everyone is expected to become a pauper to get in good with God. Rather it is God’s insis­tence on having every part of us and particularly that which we are least willing to give up. This makes sense. If God is God-if there is a God-obviously he’s not interested in 50% of us or 75% of us or even 95% of us; it’s all or nothing.   For the rich man, that which he hung on to for dear life, was his money and that may be true for some of us.  For someone else it might be intellectual pride, or prejudice or ambition or a secure lot in the scheme of things for his kids.  Whatever it is that we want most to hold back, that is precisely what God has his eye on.

Now Peter and the rest of the disciples were watching all this.  And they got the point; it was all too clear. And inevitably they applied it tm themselves. After all, they had given up everything:  “goods, fame, child and wife.”   So Peter: “Lo we have left all and followed you. What then shall we have?”  It was a natural question. Peter thought he had stumbled on the ultimate secret to human life and destiny and he couldn’t  resist getting it down in black and white.  Watching the young man turn away sorrowfully, Peter says, “So that’s how life operates!  Lo, we have left all and followed you.  What’s in it for us?

The answer Jesus gave did not disappoint Peter though it might surprise us. For the answer did in fact support Peter’s hunch.  Jesus was completely reassuring.  Peter was dead right, apparently. “Truly I say to you . . . when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne; you who have followed me will also sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or lands for my sake shall receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life.”  Well, there it was!  Not a bad bargain at all!  Sacrifices here, to be sure, and not cheap or easy ones either.  No such thing as cheap grace but rewards to dazzle you forever after.

If that were all there were to it, it would make a lot of sense.  This kind of operation is understandable.  To be sure, like the rich young ruler, we might not be willing to make the sacrifice.   And I doubt that the image of sitting on thrones moves you particularly or that the phrase “eternal life”, bare and unadorned, really turns you on.  But at least you know where you stand.  Quid Pro Quo.  Meet the terms and the reward, if you want it, follows.  Here we are all quite at home.  Pass the road test and get your driver’s license.  Meet the demands of term papers and exams and get the grade and eventually the diploma. Does your research, publish, and get tenure. Save your money, live within your budget, and get financial security.  Oh sure, we may try to beat the system; there must be an angle, a short-cut somewhere.  But for the most part, this is the way run-of-the-mill Americans have always gotten ahead in life. And if this is the way God operates his garden, even though his demands may be severe, at least it makes sense. It may be a hard bargain but it’s a bargain.

But . . . there’s always God’s “but.”  And after the “but” comes, this perplexing parable of the laborers in the vineyard which throws our whole neat scheme of things right out the window.  The under­standable equation of sacrifice-reward comes apart at the seams.  No wonder that first group of workers were upset.  They had entered into a contract, all neat and tidy, an agreement for a day’s wage for a day’s work.  But. . . “These last worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  The promised reward is still there. But suddenly it has turned sour and rancid.  The bargain with God turns from a hard bargain into a bad bargain. Why is this so?

Well first of all we are reminded hare that reward is part and parcel of the biblical record. We see it in the agreement, or covenant between Abraham and God and the reward of eternal life is promised to those who are faithful. The unfaithful will have their reward and so will the faithful . . . you reap what you sow.

The picture gets distorted as soon as we look at the promised reward in terms of purpose, as soon as we look with Peter’s calculating eye: “What’s in it for us?  As one New Testament scholar puts it:  “Jesus’  attitude is indeed paradoxical; he promises reward to those who are obedient without thought of reward.”  Nowhere is this paradoxical attitude painted in more vivid colors than in the parable of the last judgment with the division of the sheep and the goats. Who are the sheep? They are those naive souls who were not even aware they were doing anything particularly religious or even Christian; certainly

There was no thought of reward dangling before their noses. They were utterly taken aback at their reward: When saw we thee hungry and fed thee?  When saw thee naked?”  It was this uncalculated response to the man in need which brought the “reward”.  The goats worked on precisely the opposite principle, which is why they were goats.

Notice how the contractual arrangement with the householder in the parable distorted the relationship of the first laborers to those hired later. If the first ones hired had been the only ones in the picture, there would have been no problem.  But as soon as these others came into the picture, a deadly comparison entered too, and with it came animosity, jealousy, and the desire for “justice”.  You see the same thing happening in the parable of the prodigal son.  The elder brother worked under a kind of contractual arrangement with the other. He stayed home, minded his “p’s and q’s”, saved his money, kept his nose clean, went to church regularly, and in doing so, figured on receiving his father’s love and respect in return. But when his father threw a big party for the prodigal return, after this brother had sowed his wild oats, squandered his money, and ended in a pigsty instead of a church, the relationship with the younger brother was poisoned. It never fails. Get your tit for tat arrangement into your relationship with God, and our relationship with our neighbors is poisoned at the spring.

This is why the popular notion “what I believe is my own business” this notion that religion is completely an individual affair, is so contrary to the way the Bible reads life. What you believe about God invariably colors your relationship to other people. If your business with God is on a business-like basis, so much faithfulness and obedience equals so much reward either here or hereafter, then the neighbor becomes a competitor for God’s attention , then the neighbor becomes a competitor for God’s attentions’ and this neighbor is forced into the same tit for tat pattern. I will resent or at least secretly resent another’s happiness or good fortune.  Why should he?  When I . . .So I will resent the Negro driving around in a Cadillac when I have to be content with a Chevy-or a Cadillac for that matter!  For obviously I deserve the Cadillac. So a bargain with God on whatever terms is a bad bargain because it distorts and poisons my relationship to those around me.

But it’s also a bad bargain because it distorts my relationship to God as well. It inevitably leads me to think that I have God under my control, at least a little bit. For if God doesn’t live up to my understanding of his end of the bargain, I can throw tantrums or more probably, “lose my faith,” as we say, which is simply a way of trying to get God under my control.  Poor old God, you know, I don’t believe in him any don’t believe in him any more!  What’s he gonna do when he doesn’t have me to believe in him?  The grumbling of the first workers was not simply a matter of injustice or a distortion of their relationship to the latecomers; in effect it was their reluctance to let God be God.  So the householder replies to their griping, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what is mine?  Do you begrudge my generosity?

And that would be a crazy way to run a world, to cut God down to the size of our sense of what is right and just.  For even at best, our notions of justice are partial and imperfect. Even in our courts of law, rarely do we attempt to probe the motives behind the act!  And even if we do, as in the attempt to pinpoint “malice aforethought” in a homicide, the results are at best tentative. For who can probe the mixture of motives which underline our out-ward act? And we, therefore, should tell God how to act?  Prescribe for him what is just and unjust?

Better, I suspect, to follow Christ’s lead here as this parable is told in the context of the rich young man who turned away, Peter’s calculating question, and the promise of thrones offered to the faithful.  The remarkable thing about it is that Jesus loved the rich young man who turned away, just as he loved Peter who sacrificed everything for him but wanted to tally up what was in it for him-just as God loves us with our alternating moods of faith too little too late, of sacrifice and of calculating self-interest. And it’s that kind of love we are asked to trust here.

It all adds up to the fact that in God’s strange economy, you can’t count on anything except him and his love. Draw up your rules by which life ought to be governed, a nice calculated “tit for tat”.  Plan your strategy for coming to terms with it all, ploy your “modus operandi”, structure it in terms of common-sense justice, make it as neat and tidy as you can and God immediately, as one writer puts it, steps aside of it all laughing-not contemptuously, but with a kind of holy hilarity.  “Trust me with your obedience and don’t count the cost” which is familiar enough, “but don’t count on the results either or the whole thing will turn sour and rancid.  Make a bargain with me and it will turn into a bad bargain.  But trust me with your life and your love and. . . . well, if you’ve got your eye on what follows the “and” you’ve got your eye on the wrong place to begin with.  Listen:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire some laborers for his vineyard. . . “  A most impractical way to run a garden but the only way we are to relate to our Creator and our fellow inhabitants in the garden


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *