At Covenant Village, the senior living center where my mom now resides, there’s a rather large dining hall. Residents usually have their evening meals there.
Young people, between ages 18 and 22, are servers. I’ve noticed that the residents are always eager to talk with them. I think their presence is therapeutic. Here are those who are at the beginning of their path interacting with those who are near the end.
Most of these young people are students. So invariably the residents ask them: “what are you studying?”
One evening, when I was there with my mom, a polite young man served us. “What are you studying?” my mom asked.
He told us that he is studying psychology and anthropology. My mother’s eyes widened with surprise, as she turned to me and asked: “why in the world would he choose those subjects to study?”
I replied: “I don’t know. Maybe he wants to know what makes people tick.”
Have you ever asked yourself what makes people tick? Have you ever asked what makes you yourself tick?
In her book The Four Forces of Everything, Author Trish Blain argues that we have four basic drives, four core desires. First, we have a desire for connection. We want to love and be loved.
Second, we have a desire for growth. We want to be making progress towards a worthwhile goal. And we want the sense that we are farther today than we were yesterday.
Third, we have a desire for self-expression. We want to be seen, heard and recognized. This holds for everyone, even for the shiest among us.
And last we have a desire for purpose. We want our lives to count for something. We want to play a part, however small or insignificant, in something bigger than ourselves. We want the assurance that the world is a better place because we are here.
These are common to all of us. Blain argues that we organize our lives around the satisfaction of these drives. This is just how we are made. We can say that this is how God created us. And if this is how God has created us, then we can affirm that these desires are good, corresponding to God’s design for human flourishing.
We can point to the parable in our gospel lesson as proof. There Jesus tells a parable in which the theme of purpose is central.
There’s a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard.
Note that the landowner is the acting subject from the outset. This simple fact teaches us that it is God who takes the initiative. It is God who calls people into his kingdom and gives them a task to perform, a work to accomplish. To be a disciple is, by definition, to be a worker (Dale Bruner).
Parenthetically, we owe a debt to Martin Luther and the Reformers for reclaiming the dignity of all work. Luther insisted that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking the cow please God as much as the pastor praying and preaching from the pulpit (Dan Doriani).
According to Luther, vocation is not a term that applies exclusively to the clergy, that is, to those who are called to be pastors. It extends to all believers, all those whom God calls to serve him in his kingdom. All honest work done by a believer, then, is a calling, which pleases God, when it is dedicated in service to God and neighbor.
The Apostle Paul reminds us in Colossians 3: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human [employers], since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (23-24).
In this spirit, Luther encourages to go to work with the mindset, “Today, I serve the Lord.”
In serving the Lord, we find our deepest desire for purpose fulfilled.
In our parable, the first to be hired stand for those who find their purpose early in life. They agree to the terms set by the landowner, and go into the vineyard to work.
But there is still need for more laborers. Therefore, the landowner goes back into the marketplace, and finds more who are waiting to be hired. He hires them, and sends them out too.
These stand for those who also find their purpose, although theirs was a longer search. But they gratefully go into the vineyard and take their place alongside those who began earlier.
But the landowner is not done. He still needs more workers to finish the job. He finds several standing in the marketplace. Astonished, he asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (Matt. 20:6).
The language here is ill-chosen by the translators. The word “idle,” which does not appear in the original, implies reproach, as if the laborers are themselves to blame for their state. Literally, the phrase reads: “Why are you standing in the marketplace without work?”
The parable highlights the need for work and the landowner’s commitment to provide it, not the moral failure of the workers.
Their answer is honest and straightforward: “because no one has hired us.”
We’ve already mentioned those who struggle to find their purpose. Perhaps only after many years did they find the kind of work they were really suited for. Perhaps they wasted those years not even looking.
But the landowner does not reproach them. He doesn’t lecture them. He doesn’t find fault with them for their apparent laziness, as we have already mentioned.
Instead he is gracious to them. He gives to them the same opportunity he gave to those whom he hired before them. He sends them too out into the vineyard, and even though it is late in the day, they too take their place alongside those who began earlier.
In this parable Jesus lingers longest on those who are hired last. Indeed, it’s in the fact the landowner rewards them the same as he does those whom he hired at the beginning of the day that the lesson of the parable consists. Those who bore the burden of the work and the heat of the day complain against the landowner. Shouldn’t he have paid them more?
The parables work on us, because they usually leave with us an uncomfortable question like this one. It bothers us. But however we attempt to resolve it, it’s at least clear that the parable has two groups of people in view, two groups that it wants to address.
Let us return to those who struggle to find their purpose, who perhaps even waste many years in frustrated pursuit. Maybe in their frustration they abandon the search and their lives go adrift. Maybe at the end of their lives, they say: “I am too far gone. I’ve led a vain and useless, a dark and misguided life. I am worthless.”
But to that one belonging to that group, the landowner calls, even at the last hour. “You too come to work in my vineyard.”
Then that one discovers that his last hour was his very best one. All the hours that went before it fade into insignificance. He has found his purpose. He is doing that for which God created him. He’s no longer wandering lost.
To this one, then, this parable offers hope. It is never too late for God.
The landowner does not give up on the one who belongs to this group, but rather goes in search of him at the last hour.
In this connection, one Bible student astutely observed that the parable is not so much about a landowner looking for help from others as much as it’s about a landowner who is looking to help others.
To be more specific: it’s about a landowner who gathers up lost people and gives them a purpose. And seeing that this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, what we’re talking about here is the purpose we’ve been looking for, or avoiding, all our lives: God’s purpose for us.
But then there are those who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. They belong to the second of the two groups. They found their purpose early in life. When they first responded to the call to serve God in his kingdom, they embraced the gift with joy. Dedication to this cause endowed life with purpose, God’s purpose. But it has exacted demands, even costly sacrifices.
Does this account, at least in part, for their complaint to the landowner? “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us!”
They are not happy for their fellow workers, who have received the same gift as they did. They do not see their joy as a testimony to the generosity and the boundless goodness of the giver; they do not see their zeal as confirmation of the truth of the purpose to which they dedicated their own lives. They do not delight in the fact that what is true for them has also turned out to be true for others. All they can see is that these others did not work as long as they did. It’s unfair.
Maybe they have a point. But then, maybe the gift, for which they were willing to give up everything to have, lost its luster for them over time. The suffering that accompanied the sacrifices they had to make—this caused them in those dark moments of doubt and despair to ask:
“Has it really been worth it all? Or should I have looked elsewhere for the satisfaction of this basic drive, this core desire I have for purpose? Someone sure owes me for all that I have had to suffer!”
The landowner does not react defensively to the complaint. He is patient and kind. When he turns to one of them, he addresses him as friend, and reminds him of his agreement to work for him at the wage that he set.
God reminds those belonging to this second group of the value of the gift—this gift of purpose that he gives to those whom he calls to serve the cause of the kingdom. This gift does not diminish in value with time, even though suffering may make it appear so.
Who in the Bible better exemplifies this truth for us than the Apostle Paul? Why does he capture our imagination? Why does he inspire us?
There are many reasons, but not least among them is his passion. He is a man on his purpose. And never does he lose sight of this, even when he is in a dark dungeon.
In Paul’s case, this is quite literal. Many of you may know he is writing to the Philippians from a prison cell. He may even be on death row. He doesn’t know. That is why he is holding this debate within himself: “Is this the end of the line for me? Or do I have more life to live?”
Whichever of the two, I am alright: because to die is to be with Christ. But to live means that I can live out my purpose, which is to “continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith” (Philippians 1:25).
In the most dismal, derelict, and hopeless of personal circumstances, Paul can still affirm the purpose God has for his life. He does not let it go.
Let us be just as determined as Paul, whether we have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, or have just begun our work in the vineyard in the last hour.
Let us not lose sight of the purpose that God has given to each of us, whom he has put in his vineyard to serve him. Let us never take this gift for granted.
Let us keep in mind that the world is filled with people who are looking for purpose in their lives and answers to those most basic questions such as why are we are here and how we ought to live. And not looking to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for it, so many find it in distorted half-truths that promise but cannot deliver lasting solutions.
But the one who willingly serves God, because he has learned to accept God’s great love for him in Jesus Christ, finds that this whole view of life has changed. He sees his small life and all the little everyday things in it, all the obligations he has to meet, and all the people who cross his path, as fitting into a great divine plan, in which there are no mistakes, no accidents, and no dead ends.
He can dare quite simply to believe—even if he can’t see it—that he has been put in exactly the place in the vineyard where he is needed and that everything that God sends to him works together for his ultimate good (Helmut Thielicke). Thank God for so great a gift! Amen.