Vacancies in the Vineyard

Seventy million Americans have a misdemeanor or felony conviction.1 Many people with a record can’t secure employment because of a box on job applications. After filling in the blanks for name and address, previous work history and current references, applicants in many states must check yes or no: have you been arrested or charged with a crime?

After pacing by the phone for a callback that never comes- turned down for the open camel driver position, the assistant limestone mason, and the grunt shift at the fig processing plant- Galileans with blotted resumes gather at the only place left. The labor pool on the wrong side of the city gate. They hold cardboard signs pleading for hire, praying for a farm truck to pull over and load them up.

Before riding a barnyard animal into Jerusalem, Jesus gathers the disciples around the blackboard for one last parable on life in the kingdom. He’s already offered instruction on little children and messy divorces, resolving conflict and lavishing mercy, lost sheep and lost salvation. He concludes with a lesson on laboring in the vineyard. In today’s text, what is Jesus teaching us about work?

Matthew 20:1-14 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.

Congregational Responses: 

Work only becomes ministry if it is done for a greater cause than self.

Laboring in the vineyard means being made equal to our coworkers.

Jesus prefers workers labeled suspect by society.

We’re not the boss.

In 2001, I was a vagrant backpacker thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a wilderness odyssey between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Mount Katahdin, Maine. Following the white blazes north for seven months, I was serenaded by loons and accompanied by lost hunting dogs, tucked in by the stars and gently awoken by the dawn of a new day without the tyranny of time. But with every vista up in the rarified air came a roadside hustle of logistics down in the valley. Since there’s no grocery store on the AT, hitchhiking into town is the primary method of resupply. Surrendering to such a vulnerable display of need, I straddled the white line and waited on the kindness of strangers with my thumb in the wind. Sometimes for hours. Without anything to eat, I would slouch to appear smaller, untie my bandana to show more of my face, wave and smile, and do anything to appear trustworthy. With most motorists, there was a moment when our eyes would meet and they would make a split-second decision: pump the brakes or hit the gas. Over fourteen states, I had a lot of practice enduring hunger pangs. But the far more troubling feeling was being left behind, left in the dust by traffic coming and going in both directions.

While repeatedly missing a ride to the corner market often left me in a stupor of rejection, I have no idea what it’s like to hold a sign saying, “Need Work.” There are few things more publicly shaming than standing idle on the corner- bib overalls clipped, pruning shears sharpened, steel boots laced- announcing your joblessness for all to see, and getting no offers.

Forever aware of the forsaken and humiliated, Jesus knows the world may not be taking applications right now but God’s always hiring. Five times a day, from sunup to sundown, upper management drives through town, head hanging out the window, radio blaring, announcing with a smile, “The vineyard has vacancies.”

Rather than scheduling interviews, running background checks, or calling references, God relentlessly extends invitations to clock in until no one’s left without a job. Your rap sheet and the boxes you’ve checked don’t matter. According to Jesus’ teaching, everyone’s employable in the kingdom.

Hear the Good News, you’re hired! You’re hired! You’re hired for ministry in the fields. With the harvest near, get in the truck and remember that to be Christian is to be working class.

Rebecca Vallas and Sharon Dietrich, “One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2014).