I woke up early yesterday morning, earlier than usual. Through my living room window I saw a lot of darkness before my place on the couch offered any signs of a sun rising somewhere behind the clouds and rain. I like these early mornings. Time moves slowly, the silence expanding into a space congenial to reflection and prayer.
It was my forty-fifth birthday, and I suppose that affected the character of my morning. Though I’ve long lost that youthful anticipation of a birthday because of expected gifts or celebrations, I think I’m someone who likes moments when a new beginning can be marked, even if only in my own imagination. So I still make resolutions (or at least set goals) at the New Year, I enjoy the sense of new beginning that September always brings, and I feel at the start of Advent a new longing for Jesus’ coming after the celebration of his kingship the Sunday before. And a birthday is a chance to rethink where I’ve been and where I’m going.
One of the passages yesterday in my daily Bible reading was Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard, from Matthew 20. In the parable, a landowner hires some workers in the morning for a certain amount of money (a denarius, a normal day’s wage for a labourer). A few hours later he hires some other workers for the same pay. He does this every few hours until at last he hires a final set of workers at 5:00 pm, just an hour before the end of the shift. These too receive the same compensation.
The workers hired at the beginning of the day are understandably a little disgruntled when they all come to collect their money. They should surely get more money than the ones who worked a fraction of the time they did. It seems only fair. But the landowner disagrees. “Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” he asks the all-day labourers. “Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matt. 20:13-15)
The parable is a pointed story, aimed at the complacent leaders of Israel, who might think that because of their birth or their grasp of the law they are somehow more deserving than the various latecomers from other nations or backgrounds. But over the years it’s become a reminder that God’s mercy is so radical that even if someone were to turn to Jesus on their death bed, this person would be welcomed into all the rewards and blessings of God’s kingdom. The “eleventh hour” is not too late.
In my birthday morning reverie I considered my own childhood, growing up in a Jesus-centred, Bible-focused Christian church and family. And I felt like I saw this parable in a different way than I had before, the other side of the same coin. The early workers thought they needed more pay than the latecomers in order to be satisfied. But if they’d been able to see the blessings and satisfactions of being at work all day long, their story might have ended more happily.
The begrudging attitude toward those who were hired later seems to be based on the idea that it would be better to do less work than more work if possible. Put crudely, it can turn into a belief that the longer I can go without serving God the better, so long as I get a heavenly reward in the end. But is this really true?
In his spiritual autobiography, St Augustine (354-430) tells about the wild experiences of his early adulthood. He had been raised by a Christian mother who prayed constantly for him, but he had never given himself to the Lord in a meaningful way. As he went out into the world, he partied and did whatever gave him pleasure in the moment. He was aware of God, even aware of the fact that his life was not pointed in the right direction, but he didn’t want to give up the lifestyle he continued to indulge in. He famously prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine wanted to put off any changes in his life to a later time.
At age 31, Augustine became converted to Jesus Christ, and from that point on he progressed in his understanding and his commitment, and became one of the great “Doctors” of the Christian church—those whose teaching and writing have become treasured guides for later generations. As Augustine looked back on his early life, I wonder whether he was thankful that he got 31 undisciplined years of living for himself in the books before he turned to Jesus, or whether he occasionally wished he’d begun his service of Jesus years earlier. I suspect that the latter is true.
Serving as workers in Jesus’ kingdom gives deep meaning to our lives. Knowing our place in relation to God our Creator and Redeemer puts us in line with the truth. The sooner we get lined up (hired for the day) the better.
Some of us who were raised in the church become disenchanted with Christianity. In terms of the institution, I suppose there are some quite good reasons why this happens. But the church was never perfect. The church was never Jesus. Yet being part of the church, growing up in the church as I did, also meant we were in touch with the stories of Jesus, the treasure of the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit’s wonderful work with this imperfect but beloved community that bears Jesus’ name and is claimed by him as his body. It meant that many of us heard the call to labour in the vineyard from pretty early in the day. I find it hard to be disappointed that I didn’t first live a wandering life in the world apart from Jesus. I haven’t always worked fully for the kingdom the way I might have, but since the age of perhaps four, when I first could articulate something resembling a commitment to Jesus, or maybe eight, when I was baptized and made such a commitment public, I’ve known that I’ve been called to work for him and found my life’s meaning in relation to that call.
Not knowing the future, I don’t know whether I’m exactly at the “midday” of my life or sometime later on. Almost certainly I’m at a point not much before noon. I’m glad I’ve been able to make something of the morning and hope that the afternoon can be committed to good work in the vineyard. I’m eager to see others join, at whatever time they come along, and happy I was called to work as early as I was, as we all look forward to the same reward at the end of the day.