Sunday, June 10, 2012
laborers in the vineyard
i was asked to speak in church this week. this is a rare occasion, so i thought i might share it with you all. you will have to imagine my vocal inflection and all of my awesome gestures (yes, there were gestures), but i've added some links to external materials, just in case you'd like to read up a little.
I should probably introduce myself and give you the reader’s digest story of my life, but I’m not going to. Instead I think I’ll just hop right into the material because it’s far more important than you knowing where I was born. If you really want to know, I'll fill you in later. I’m pulling today from Elder Holland’s “The Laborers in the Vineyard” which was given in April’s General Conference. This talk is about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard which can be found in Matthew Chapter 20. I’m not going to read the whole thing, but, Elder Holland does a much better job of paraphrasing the parable than I do so I’m gonna go ahead and read his account from the talk:
“I wish to speak of the Savior’s parable in which a householder ‘went out early in the morning to hire labourers.’ After employing the first group at 6:00 in the morning, he returned at 9:00 a.m., at 12:00 noon, and at 3:00 in the afternoon, hiring more workers as the urgency of the harvest increased. The scripture says he came back a final time, ‘about the eleventh hour’ (approximately 5:00 p.m.), and hired a concluding number. Then just an hour later, all the workers gathered to receive their day’s wage. Surprisingly, all received the same wage in spite of the different hours of labor. Immediately, those hired first were angry, saying, ‘These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.’"
Guess who fits in that angry group…yeah, I’m that person. I’ve been struggling with some resentment, most recently toward a family member whom I love dearly, but it’s just not fair! So I read the rest of the talk, and then I read it again, and again, and again, and last night, it FINALLY sunk in. I, admittedly, have some work to do here, but I did have some insight which I would like to share with you.
First off, let’s just be totally clear that these initial workers were not slighted at all. They received exactly the wage they had agreed to. They weren’t angry because they didn’t get paid enough; they were upset because they thought some of the other workers got paid too much. It is easy to look at this parable through the lens of those first workers and be inclined to agree with their resentment of the fact that someone who spent less time on the job was paid exactly the same amount. One could even argue that their anger was somehow justified. However, the householder in the parable has the perfect rebuttal for that argument. His response is thus:
“Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
“Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last even as unto thee.
“Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?”
In other words “I’ve been completely fair and paid you what I agreed to pay you. Take it and be happy with it. What I choose to pay the others is between me and them” Or, as we say work, “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”
And then he asks that incredibly poignant question, “is thine eye evil because I am good?” which roughly translated amounts to:
“Why should you be jealous because I have been generous?”
I really hope I’m not the only one who has been guilty of this because then I’d feel really dumb. I think we’ve probably all been there. We’ve felt hurt or envious when someone else receives blessings, and sometimes they’re not even blessings that we, ourselves, wanted until the other person got them. It’s kind of silly when you think about it. It’s not as if their good fortune caused us any misfortune. We’re just jealous. And this, by the way, is not a new concept. Cain slew Abel out of jealousy. Joseph (you know, the one with the Technicolor dream coat) was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. I mean, it turned out okay in the end, but it wasn’t exactly a great beginning. Laman and Lemuel harbored a lot of animosity for Nephi. And ladies, we’re not immune to this phenomenon. Rachel and Leah both struggled with jealousy towards each other. It’s a pitfall for everybody. And it’s not exclusive to adults.
I work at the Boys & Girls Club and it’s almost surprising how frequently kids argue about someone else having something they feel they deserve. They also argue a lot about someone having cut in line or run up ahead of them because everybody wants to be first. so I often find myself, in all of my adult wisdom, trying to solve the problem by telling the kids that it doesn’t really matter who gets there first because we’re all going to the same place anyway but, even as adults we’re not always as wise as we sometimes think we are. How often do we fall into the same trap and approach life as if it is a competition? “Well, I won life because I got to there first!” Right? Wrong. It doesn’t really work like that. Life is not a race against our fellow man. It is, instead, a time for us to grow and progress and prepare ourselves for the eventual reunion with our Father in Heaven. You don’t really win, because it doesn’t much matter who gets there first since we’re all going to the same place anyway.
After my 8th or 10th reading of this parable, I realized that there is a lot more to it than just this whole jealousy thing. Not that that isn’t important, envy is never a good thing, but perhaps there is a more pressing interpretation. This parable, like all parables, isn’t really about what it appears to be on the surface. Christ taught through parables for exactly that reason. He could share a deep and profound gospel truth with those who were ready to receive it while veiling the meaning for those who were not. As we read in the bible dictionary “the parable conveys to the hearer religious truth exactly in proportion to his faith and intelligence; to the dull and uninspired it is a mere story…while to the instructed and spiritual it reveals the mysteries or secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” now, I don’t know that I would describe myself as “instructed and spiritual” but I definitely would not describe myself as “dull and uninspired” so I guess I’m somewhere in the middle which means I’m probably missing something, but I’m gonna have a go at it anyway, or rather, I’m going share with you the thoughts of someone far more intelligent and inspired than I am.
Elder Holland points out that “This parable—like all parables—is not really about laborers or wages any more than the others are about sheep and goats. This is a story about God’s goodness, His patience and forgiveness, and the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a story about generosity and compassion. It is a story about grace. It underscores the thought I heard many years ago that surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it.”
It’s that last bit that surprised me, so I’m going to read it again “surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it.”
What a beautiful thought. Not only is He willing to exercise mercy He actually enjoys it!
Remember the story of David? You know, anointed by Samuel, slays Goliath, becomes king and then, after a few good years, makes a series of really terrible decisions-lusting after a woman, committing adultery with her and then arranging for her husband to die in battle. In acknowledgment of all of the wrong that he had done, he must have, at some point, felt as if it was too late, but David still recognized the merciful nature of God. As he puts it in Psalms 86:5
“For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.”
“Plenteous in mercy,” not stingy or even sufficient. Plenteous, meaning there is not only enough, but more than enough for everyone, and it is being offered to everyone. To put it in perspective, the word “mercy” appears 248 times in the Old Testament, 58 times in the New Testament, 92 times in the book of Mormon, 23 times in the doctrine and covenants, and 4 times in the pearl of great price. Now, I’m no math whiz, but I can add and that totals up to 425 times that the word “mercy” is mentioned in the scriptures. That’s a lot of times. I’m thinking that means it’s kind of important. Which brings us back to the parable. if we think about the wage received in terms of the Atonement and the forgiveness and mercy offered therein, those who were employed at the eleventh hour, the ones who had only 1 hour where the others had up to 12 we find that they were not denied the mercy and forgiveness offered the others simply because they came upon it later. Perhaps they felt it was too late for them. After all, the work day was nearly over. They might have returned home empty handed, but just as hope was running out, the householder returned and gave them a chance. They were given the time that they needed to do the work they had to do. Make no mistake, there was an effort required of them before they received their blessings. Just as there is an effort required of us if we are to partake of the blessings of the Atonement.
The scriptures are full of examples. Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of a whale. Saul of Tarsus lost his sight for a time. Enos wrestled before God. King Lamoni appeared to be dead for 2 days and 2 nights. We don’t have an exact account of what happened during that time, but I imagine it was not a cake walk. Alma the Younger lost the power of speech. It was eventually returned to him and in Mosiah 27:28-29 we read more about his experience:
“Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God
“My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched and my soul is pained no more.”
So, I don’t think it was by accident that the parable equates us to laborers. We all have a work to do and a designated time in which to do it. We are told time and again not to procrastinate our repentance lest find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having waited too long. And, while the power of the Atonement is available to all, we must participate in the process. It is not a free pass to do as we will with no thought of consequences.
The clock is ticking, brothers and sisters. The day is coming to a close, however, even now, at the eleventh hour, there is hope. The master of the vineyard has provided a way and with it, a promise of mercy.
“I do not know who in this vast audience today may need to hear the message of forgiveness inherent in this parable, but however late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.”
“My beloved brothers and sisters, to those of you who have been blessed by the gospel for many years because you were fortunate enough to find it early, to those of you who have come to the gospel by stages and phases later, and to those of you—members and not yet members—who may still be hanging back, to each of you, one and all, I testify of the renewing power of God’s love and the miracle of His grace. His concern is for the faith at which you finally arrive, not the hour of the day in which you got there.”
I add to Elder Holland’s testimony my own that God is loving and merciful and wants us to return to Him. In His infinite love and wisdom he has provided a way for us to do just that. It requires a little effort on our part, but the blessings far outweigh the sacrifice. Some of us may be coming to it a little bit later than others, but, in the end, it doesn’t really matter who got there first because we are all going to the same place anyway. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.