This week was the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Technically, it’s the 200th anniversary of the words of the “The Star-Spangled Banner;” the tune is a bit older, but we’ll get to that in a moment. You probably know the story. Francis Scott Key was a lawyer, author, and an amateur poet (and, by the way, an Episcopalian, go team!). During the War of 1812, that attempt by the British to retake what they thought of as the American colonies, he was sent to negotiate the exchange of prisoners of war. After a dinner on a British ship in Baltimore harbor, he and his negotiating team were not allowed to return to their own ship because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units, and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. Because of this, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombardment of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on those September nights in 1814.
At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving above the fort, and he reported this to the prisoners below deck. When he got back onshore, he was still inspired by that image, and he sat down and wrote a poem about his experience, which he called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” and it was published just a few days later in a newspaper called The Patriot. Now, Francis Scott Key had no thought that he was writing what would become the national anthem, and in fact, his words did not become the national anthem until a hundred years later, first by an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and then by Congressional resolution in 1931. And I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the reason why. Francis Scott Key had a tune in mind while he was writing his poem. It’s the tune we still sing, or for some of us, we try to sing, today, that tune in 3/4 time with a very wide vocal range including very low and that very high note at the end. It was a familiar tune of the time because it was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a popular gentlemen’s club. It was popular because it was somewhat bawdy, at least by the standards of the 18th century. The refrain of each of the six stanzas, all of which celebrate the pleasures of wine, women, and song, that refrain which we’re used to singing with the words “O say does that Star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” in the original drinking song went, “And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.” Such lyrics hardly raise an eyebrow here in the 21st century, but they were pretty racy stuff back then.
It took a hundred years, but the Anacreon Club ultimately disbanded, over time the memory of the original drinking song faded, and the tune took on the solemnity and patriotic association we have with it today. You can hear the original Anacreon song sung to the tune we call “The Star-spangled Banner” on the internet, and it is unsettling, if not a bit scandalous sounding. We have clear expectations for the tune and for the words, and it feels wrong to hear either in a different context. Another, sort of silly, example. Imagine sitting down in front of the TV flipping around the channels. You come to TV Land, that channel that features re-runs of old shows, and to your delight it’s the beginning one of your favorites from the ’60’s, starring Bob Denver, Alan Hale, and Jim Backus. There’s that island with the palm trees in the middle of the ocean, and as the title “Gilligan’s Island” flashes up on the screen, you hear: (to the tune Amazing grace)
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
Or, imagine you’re here in church and you’re asked to turn to Hymn 671, but instead of the familiar, well-loved tune, the congregation starts singing, (to the Gilligan’s Island tune)
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
In the first instance, you’re probably just confused, because the almost mournful tune of “Amazing grace” doesn’t fit at all with the light hearted comedy of Gilligan’s Island; in the second case, you may be a bit offended and have a couple of choice things to say to the rector at coffee hour.
The context in which we hear words matters a lot. If we’re singing words, the tune matters. The memory of the bawdy drinking song had to fade before “The Star-spangled banner” could become the national anthem. The familiar tune for “Amazing grace” supports the text and helps convey its message of forgiveness and redemption made possible through God’s grace and mercy, where the cheerful and bouncy Gilligan’s Island tune makes the words sound silly and trite. But even if we’re not singing words, the context matters a lot, it shapes how we hear words; the context shapes how we understand their message. Words often have multiple contexts, and that is usually the case with the words we hear from the bible. This morning we heard another parable told by Jesus, a parable sometimes called “the laborers in the vineyard.” Originally, Jesus told this parable, this story, to his disciples. He tells this parable to his disciples in the middle of a sort of simmering concern the disciples are having about what, exactly, their reward will be for faithfully following Jesus. Just before Jesus tells this parable, Peter asks that question out right, reminding Jesus that he and the disciples have given up everything to follow him; what can they expect in return? Jesus promises them twelve thrones in the world to come; pretty good deal, the disciples think, as they stand up a little taller and puff their chests out. But Jesus deflates them again when he says, “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Then he tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
That’s what happens just before our reading this morning. As soon as Jesus gets done telling this story, the mother of James and John comes up and asks Jesus to give the best the thrones to her sons, to give them the thrones right next to him on his left and on his right. Jesus pours cold water on her hopes as well, once again reminding his friends that the thrones he is talking about are not comfortable seats with velvet cushions laid on gold and silver chairs encrusted with jewels. Rather, Jesus’s throne is made out of rough wood and iron nails and is in the shape of a cross.
So that’s the original context of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, at least as Matthew remembers it when he gets around to writing all this down years after Jesus dies. Then there’s the context of the original readers of Matthew, who would have listened quite intently to this parable because it describes a situation very familiar to them. Life in Jesus’s time was a system of haves and have nots. The haves, folks like the owner of the vineyard, had all the money and property and possessions and power. The vast majority of people, though, 99% of the population, were have nots, folks like those day laborers hanging out in the marketplace hoping for work, needing work because if they don’t get any work that day there’ll be nothing to eat for dinner that night. As Jesus describes the scene in the marketplace, Matthew’s readers can picture it because they’ve been there. The sun isn’t even up yet, and everyone is still a bit groggy from sleep. They’re either achey and sore because they were fortunate enough to get work yesterday, or they’re very, very hungry because no one hired them. There are some farmers from the countryside unloading their carts and setting up their booths, making big stacks of vegetables, corralling sheep, laying out cages with squawking chickens. The laborers are looking at all of that food longingly, hoping to be able to afford to buy something later for dinner, maybe even splurge a little. Finally, as sun is just starting to peek over the horizon, a well-dressed man rides up on a horse. Everyone knows what he’s there for, and they crowd around, standing up tall, trying their best to look strong and young and like their backs don’t hurt. The guy on the horse turns out to be a landowner with a vineyard, and that’s good. Vineyard work is at least quiet and not too dirty and you’re not bent over all day. To their amazement, the landowner doesn't hire three or four men, but all of them, all ten of them standing around. This must be some vineyard, they say to each other as they follow the landowner of out town into the countryside. Thank goodness we forced ourselves to get out of bed at that ungodly hour and made it down to the market place in time. Maybe its big enough we can work for him for a few days and not have to go back that humiliating marketplace. Maybe there are even a few permanent positions here, with housing and health benefits! The day is really looking up, and the men set to their tasks with energy and good cheer.
Matthew’s readers, as I said, know this situation well, and they know the next scene as well. At nine o’clock, there are some more laborers standing around in the marketplace. These guys slept through their alarm and didn’t make it down in time for the choice jobs, but they’re still hoping to get some work; it won’t be a full day’s salary, but hopefully enough for them to get a little something to eat. Today is their lucky day, because the landowner comes back and hires them, promising to pay them whatever is right for their time. I think, though, it’s around here in the story that Matthew’s readers begin to wonder what is going on. No laborer would delay getting to the marketplace until noon to look for work, unless maybe they were hungover. There’s no point, the folks looking for workers are all set for the day. But, according this story, the guys at noon get hired. Now, by three o’clock, everyone knows the only folks who are going to be in the marketplace looking for work are the guys who were so lazy or bad at their job that they got fired earlier in the day. No one in their right mind would hire them, but the landowner in this story does anyway. And at five o’clock? The guys hanging out there at five aren’t really looking for work anymore; they’re hoping someone who did get work that day will buy them a sandwich or loan them a couple of bucks. Nevertheless, they get hired, too, and off they go to work as the sun is already beginning to set.
Matthew’s readers have some questions now about what is wrong with this landowner. He must have a screw or two loose, they figure, or maybe he realized that his grapes were beginning to rot on the vine or there was bad weather on the way and he had to try and wrap the harvest up today. In any case, they’re on the edges of their seats, wondering what is going to happen next. The landowner has his manager get the laborers to line up to get paid, but he has them line up so the guys who worked the least number of hours are at the front and the guys who’ve been there all day are at the back. This just seems inconsiderate; the guys who’ve been there all day are hot and tired and ready to get back to town and get something to eat, but now they’re going to have to cool their heels as the guys who came a couple of hours ago and have hardly broken sweat are paid first. They’re grumbling amongst themselves about the typical thoughtless behavior of the landowner, the guy who’s never done an honest days work in his life, when one of them notices something. The guys at the front of the line are laughing and slapping each other on the back and looking very cheerful indeed. The landowner is paying the guys who came at five o’clock, and who only worked a couple of hours, he is paying them, each of them, a denarius, a whole days wage! That good feeling they had early in the day comes rushing back as they do a bit of quick math in their heads. Why, if those guys get a denarius, we should get, what, maybe five, maybe even six or seven denarii! Maybe I’ll go buy a whole chicken for dinner, won’t that make my wife happy! And a bottle of wine, heck two bottles, and good wine, too, not the cheap stuff. I can pay back that merchant what I owe him for my kids’ back to school clothes, pay him back early and save the interest! And you know, tomorrow, I think I’m going to sleep in until noon, and then get up and do…nothing! A day off, at last! Man, did we luck out today, or what?!
Their good mood lasts right up until they get to the front of the line and they stretch out their hands and the landowner gives them…one denarius. One lousy, measly, denarius. Sure, it’s what they got for yesterday’s job. And the day before that. And the day before that. Any other day, they’d stick it in their pocket and head back to town satisfied, but today, it really irks them. Of all the nerve, what is the landowner thinking, paying them the same as those lazy idiots who didn’t come until five o’clock? They worked eight, ten, almost twelve hours more than those guys! It’s not fair!
The landowner speaks up, but I doubt very much that what he says satisfies either the workers, Matthew’s readers, or the disciples. “Friends,” he says, “I am doing you no wrong; didn’t we agree on the usual daily wage? Aren’t you getting what’s coming to you? I haven’t cheated you out of anything. Take your wages and go. I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” “Generous,” the guys snort as they walk off. “You’re not being generous with us!” “Generous?” Matthew’s readers ask incredulously. “How is that generous, giving more to people who deserve, no, people who have earned, less?” “Generous” the disciples think to themselves, afraid if they voice their concerns out loud that Jesus will tell another story that makes them feel even worse. “Is he saying we’re not getting thrones after all? Is Jesus going to give those thrones to somebody else when we’re the ones who’ve stuck by him all these years?” Nobody, in any of those contexts, likes this story or its implications for themselves.
Of course, we hear these words in our own context today, and I’ll put good money down that no one here much likes this story, either. It violates our innate sense of what is fair and what is not. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work is not fair. Rewarding those who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least is not fair. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are not the same is not fair. And life is so often not fair. Your boss decides that instead of merit increases this year everyone will get the same amount, because it will be better for group morale, even though you’ve worked harder than all those other lazy bums in your department. Your kid doesn’t make the varsity squad, even though she’s as fast and strong and hard working as any of the other girls; she’s just not a favorite of the coach. You’ve been caring for your elderly parent for years while your siblings are living it up halfway across the country, and really, you know it’s not worthy of you to feel this way, but when you’re all sitting in the lawyer’s office as he explains that your father has divided the estate equally among his four children, you can feel the resentment and anger boiling up inside.
As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Life is not fair, which is why it seems all that much more important that God should be. God should be the one authority you can count on to reward people according to their efforts, who keeps accurate track of how long you have worked and how hard you have worked. God should the one manager who polices the line, walking up end down to make sure that everyone stays where they belong, so that the first remain first and the last wait their turns at the end of the line.” But that’s not what this parable says.
I think our problems with the parable boil down to two issues. First, we don’t like this parable because of how we understand our context, our place within it. Who are we in this story? Why, we’re the ones who have worked our fingers to the bone and broken our back all the hot, miserable day long, only to get gypped! Everyone else has lucked out, but not us. Look at all those people ahead of us in line, riding on the back of our hard work! But here’s the thing that none of us want to do. Instead of looking forward at that crowd of lazy, lucky schmucks, take a deep breath, turn around, and look behind you. No matter how many people are in line in front of us, I promise you, there is an even bigger line behind us, a line stretching all the way down the street and around the block, three abreast, all grumbling and getting red in the face because we, you and I, got a better deal than we deserved. And the hard thing to hear is that they’re right.
Our second problem with this parable is the context in which we put God. We put God in our own context, with our own sense of right and wrong, our own sense of fairness and how things should work. But God doesn’t belong, God doesn’t fit in our context. God’s context is completely different. God doesn’t have a clipboard in one hand and a red marker in the other, God doesn’t put pluses and minuses after our names to keep track. God is not fair. For reasons we can’t understand, God seems to love us indiscriminately. God is not fair; God is generous, and generous in a way that we can’t quite get our hearts and minds around. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’d prefer that God would be fair with other people, but generous with ourselves.
It’s my job to preach the good news, so here it is in this parable that sounds like anything but good news. The good news is that God is not fair, God is not keeping track. The good news is that God pours out blessings on us all in ways that is anything but fair. The good news is that God is generous, generous with love and generous with life and generous with grace, generous beyond our comprehension, generous beyond any meaning we can put to that word. I pray that we may all remember this about God’s generosity, that we’ll remember it late in the day, as the sun sets and we’re tired to the bone and convinced of our own worth, certain of our own righteousness. I pray that we’ll remember it as we line up and watch the manager start handing out the daily bread. I pray that we’ll have the presence of mind to remember it as we watch those in front of us get more than we think they deserve, that we’ll remember that there are many, many people behind us who think we’re getting more than we deserve. I pray we’ll remember this about God’s wacky sense of fairness, God’s all-in commitment to generosity, and that when the manager gets to us, we’ll accept what he offers with good cheer and surprised laughter and a renewed sense of gratitude for all our blessings. Amen.