Late to the Vineyard

Is your eye bad because I am good?

That’s a very literal translation of the second half of Matthew 20:15, which is often translated or are you envious because I am generous? (e.g. NIV, NRSV).

I’m thinking about this story, which Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16, about several different sets of workers who end up working in the vineyard of a particular landowner.

The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire people and agrees to pay them one denarius at the end of the day. Then the landowner goes out again several more times throughout the day and hires several more groups of people, who end up starting work at different times, some as late as 5 pm.

In the evening the landowner gathers everyone together to give them their wages, starting with the people who were last to begin work, and giving them, surprisingly, an entire denarius, even though they only did a couple hours of work. The people who worked all day then expect that they will receive more than the agreed-upon denarius; but when it comes their turn to get their paycheck, the landowner gives them just one denarius―the same as the people who didn’t work nearly as long.

The ones who started work early in the morning complain that it’s not fair, after they bore the burden of the day and the burning heat (literal translation from v. 12), but the landowner replies, friend, I do not do you wrong; did you not agree with me on a denarius? (literal translation from v. 13). The landowner says, I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish among what is mine? Or is your eye bad because I am good? (literal translation from v. 14-15).

I think about this parable, and I think about the remarkable moment we’re living in, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained enormous waves of new momentum―particularly among white (and in some cases other non-Black) people who are finally waking up to the reality that all is not well in US race relations, finally gaining the will to try to do something about it.

The negative side of all this is that some people and organizations make statements, post on social media, attend protests, etc. for the main purpose of not appearing racist, of not seeming to be on the wrong side of history. They voice their support for BLM because it’s the popular thing to do in this moment but do not actually intend to change anything about their lives or their organizations to make them truly anti-racist, to make them truly just.

But on the positive side, I think―or at least I really want to think―that there really are new workers in the vineyard. In this moment there really are―on a vast, societal level―hordes and hordes of people who are finally letting their eyes be opened to the truths our Black siblings have been living and speaking about for a long, long time. There really are hordes and hordes of potential new partners in the struggle for a different kind of world, a world of equality and embrace rather than prejudice and exclusion, a world of true justice and true peace. 

People who are new to the vineyard are often not yet very good at their work. They make rookie mistakes. They have a lot to learn. Sometimes they do more harm than good.

I wish it were not this way―and yet such is the process of learning how to do a new kind of work, of learning how to work in different ways, of unlearning so many assumptions and ways of being. Such is the reality of arriving to the vineyard―beginning to engage in the work of justice and anti-racism―late in the day.

Speaking on behalf of the only people I can speak for, white people, part of engaging in the work of the vineyard is to be open to being corrected; to look for ways to figure out what we don’t know; to look for opportunities to learn, and to engage in those opportunities with open-mindedness and without defensiveness; to look for ways to follow the lead of people of color who have been doing this work for a long time―who have, truly, in their own lives and for too many generations of their ancestors’ lives, borne the burden of the day and the burning heat. It’s to honor this work that has already been happening for a long time and to find ways to join in, without needing to try to take the lead or needing to pretend that our own work is somehow equal to it.

It’s to look for resources that offer ways of listening and learning that don’t further burden our friends of color by expecting them to teach us. It’s to look for fellow white people who have been working in the vineyard longer than we have, to ask them the questions we worry are hurtful or ignorant or offensive, to work together to unlearn the racism that lives within us.

It’s to do the kinds of internal work René Velarde names so candidly and thoughtfully in his recent blog post, To my White brothers and sisters. We must ask ourselves, as René writes, what did it take for us to wake up to racial injustice and our own white privilege and begin to speak? What has kept us from speaking up and engaging before? If we dig into these things now, René says, we will be better equipped to stay engaged in the struggle for justice in the future. 

I realize that the parable of the vineyard is by no means a perfect analogy to the present moment, particularly in regard to the image of people standing around doing nothing before the landowner invites them into the work. For white people in the US, I’m not sure there is any way of standing around and doing nothing. If we haven’t been actively working against racism, we have been perpetuating it. It’s the current that we swim in and the air we breathe, and we either fight it or are swept along with it―to the detriment of people of color and to our own humanity as well. There isn’t a lot of neutral ground.

But parables aren’t meant to be allegories, where everything lines up perfectly and represents something else. They’re meant to evoke something. To provoke thought. To challenge us and help us see differently, see more clearly. And in this case I think the story of the vineyard evokes some important reflection on what it might mean for long-standing justice movements to suddenly encounter so many new people who want to jump in.

My hope is that―as lots of us begin the work of racial justice for the first time and desire to work alongside those who have been engaging in the struggle for a long time―there is room for all of us, in the different places we are in in our journeys. 

I don’t think there is room in the vineyard for people who are pretending to work, who want to hang out there because it’s the cool thing to do or because it’s a way to avoid being criticized for standing around doing nothing. I don’t think there is room for people who are in the vineyard because they want to take selfies there and post them on Facebook. 

But I want to believe that there is room for all those willing to work, those willing to learn, to try, to be humbled, to make mistakes and grow and keep engaging. Even if, from the perspective of those who have been working since the early morning, they are woefully, horribly late to the party. 

For those who believe in the God Jesus speaks of―the initiator, inspirer, and rewarder of all works of justice―this God is the vineyard owner: offensively full of grace, unimaginably patient, extravagantly welcoming. May those of us who have been working in the vineyard longer than the last couple of hours have eyes that are discerning to see the people who really do genuinely want to join the work, and hearts that are open to welcome them in. 

This vineyard needs all the workers it can get.

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