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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Parable Of The 5 O'Clock People - 09/24/2017

As the school year has begun, and for many of us, as our minds and energy have turned to curriculum and lessons, class time and homework, we might feel prompted to think about all the “schooling” going on as we make our way with Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew this church year. We still have a couple of months before the new church year begins and we migrate to the Gospel of Mark.

Beginning this summer, we've been hearing quite few parables … stories that typically begin “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to …” or “What do you think? A man had two sons ...” It is a story-telling technique Jesus used a lot to help us understand this radically different life he has brought to us … This new understanding of God's infinitely wide and deep love for us and God's promise of perfect salvation – a promise that is not slave to the rules and practices of the world.

We've already deepened our understanding of this in the Parables of the Sower, Weeds And Wheat and the Mustard Seed. Last week we heard again the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

And in the days ahead, before the close of another church year, we will hear the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the Wedding Banquet, the Ten Bridesmaids, and finally the Parable of the Talents.

It's an impressive course of study we have from Jesus. And since he used the form of a parable so much, I think it's worth considering how we hear parables fall into our own lives and families and communities, how they shine a light on our own understanding of salvation and God's love for us – and everyone else.

I believe one of the more important things to remember about parables is that when they were first written down on scrolls nearly two millennia ago, they didn't have these handy little subtitles that help break up the text in our modern day bibles. Those titles were added by translators and interpreters over the generations. And that ultimately means that a commonly held title of a parable is really just one angle on what Jesus was trying to get at in the story.

So for instance, think about the Parable Of The Prodigal Son. We often think of this parable as a story of a young man who gets hold of an inheritance, squanders it all and then has to make the humbling choice of returning home to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Through the story we get the idea that God, like the father, welcomes us back and celebrates our return no matter the details of how or why we turned away in the first place. It's a great story and I'm certain many of us have seen ourselves in the shoes of the prodigal son at some point.

But what if we called it the Parable of the Angry and Unforgiving Brother? Or the Parable of the Joyous Father? Or the Parable of the Slave Sent to Prepare the Fatted Calf? How would we feel the parable enter into our lives then?

And so that's much of what I was considering as I was preparing to write a sermon this week. Most bibles call this something like the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. But what if we thought about it as the Parable of the Generous Land Owner? What would we learn about how persistently God reaches out to people if we called this the Parable of the Vineyard Owner Who Went to the Marketplace for Laborers Again and Again and Again? (I know, it kind of a long title on that one, but you get the point.) Maybe those of us who are gainfully employed or comfortably retired folks with a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our bellies should think of this as the Parable of the Envious Laborers.

All these possibilities are rich with a glimpses of a God who is, as our psalmist sings today, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps 145:8)

My heart and mind, however, kept returning to this possible title for the parable: The Parable of the 5 O'clock People. These people don't enter the scene until the very end of it. The day of work is almost over, but the diligently-searching landowner finds them on his last trip to the marketplace to see if anyone is looking for work.

Can you imagine the relief they must have felt? They had probably already given themselves up in despair to another night of not being able to bring food home for their families, or of feeling like they hadn't accomplished much of anything that day. I know myself and many of you well enough to know that if we had a day like this, we'd probably also be beating ourselves up for failing.

When the land owner sees them at five o'clock, he asks them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

The fact that he knows they've been there all day, leads us to think that he must of seen them when he came to marketplace at the start of the day … and again at 9 o'clock, and Noon and 3 o'clock.  Did he think someone else would hire them? Were they trying to convince other employers to hire them at those times? Did they think they had been hired, only to find out they were being cheated and swindled and so they returned to the marketplace in hopes another employer would come along. Or had they gotten fired because the job wasn't a good fit or had they simply screwed up and lost the job?

We don't know. It could be any of these possibilities and so many more. All we know is what they say. “Because no one has hired us.” They clearly want to work, or they wouldn't have stuck it out all day long in the hopes of getting the tiniest bit of compensation for even an hour of work.

But for some reason they were invisible to all the other employers. Maybe they were different somehow from those who did get hired – maybe their skin was darker or they dressed differently. Maybe there were language barriers. Maybe they came from a people who did things that were forbidden in the religions and societies of the employers. Maybe they didn't look strong enough. Maybe they just didn't have the right connections or come from the right families or had dodgy reputations.

Whatever the reason, they were forgotten and ignored. And finally, at 5 o'clock, when it was apparent no one else was going to see these workers and offer them a chance to put a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs and food in their bellies, the landowner looking for vineyard workers hires them too.

And, O, what a ruckus it causes because the landowner continues to conduct his business in ways that are not typical or expected or sometimes even wanted. Because sometimes experiences like this feel threatening somehow to those of us who have lighter skin or dress like most others, who speak the language and know all the rules of how to behave and what to do in this part of the world we occupy. It can be somehow threatening to those of us who are strong in our bodies or strong in our faith, who come from good church-going families and work hard to network with the right folks.

These are the people who are upset when the land owner adopts what we soon realize is the way of God's Great Reversal. When six o'clock rolls around he ends the work day and calls the workers in so they can go home, have some dinner, rest and be ready for the next day of work. But he calls the last to go into the vineyard first, and first workers, he calls out last. And he pays them all a fair day's wage.

I don't know about you, but when I hear this part of the story, I think of Marian and Aaron and Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. How God heard the people complaining and worrying over their empty bellies and provided manna for all.

"This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of (the manna) as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” (Exo 16.16-18)

It reminds me also of our communion table, overflowing in the Holy Spirit, where we welcome all, no matter where they are in their individual journey of faith. We model the openness of Jesus in this way – who in the last supper broke bread and drank wine with all who where were at the table – sinners, tax collectors, fisher people, zealots and and even the ultimate “other,” an enemy. The one named Judas, who would get up from that very table and go to betray Jesus and send him finally to the brutality and humiliation of the Roman Cross.

And so you see, by re-imagining this as the Parable of the 5 O'clock People, we get a glimpse of God who, like this extra-ordinary land owner, calls the last and the least of us first, as if to say, “I see your '5 O'clock People Matter” signs and I agree. The world has forgotten.”

We find a God who sees the forgotten and ignored when the rest of the world will not or cannot and says bring them into my vineyard of life and dignity and hope. And finally, when the work day has come to an end, we see a God who sends them home first as fed, and nourished and as chosen as everyone else in the vineyard.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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