The aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations and surrender to reality. Jesus’ parables are stories that help us to do that. So it is important when we read a parable that we hold our expectations lightly.
I don’t say give them up entirely because sometimes it is our thwarted expectations that give the parable its power. But we should be wary about trying to force our understanding of a parable to reflect what we’ve always believed or what we expect Jesus, or Christianity, or religion to teach us.
In his parables, Jesus can present exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives. Jesus can invite us into thought experiments to imagine a principle carried out to its extreme to see if it is really true. Jesus’ parables can be jarring and powerful, confusing, or comforting. They are not meant for a quick read and move on. Instead they are meant for us to marinate in them, stew in them over time. They are meant to dissolve the glue that attaches us to conventional thinking and ordinary prejudice. They are to open a space to see with new eyes.
I think it’s pretty much fair to say everybody hates this parable.
Over the years, as I have led and participated in conversations about it, people complain that it is unfair. People who work longer should get more. That seems to us simple justice. Don’t treat unlike cases alike. That’s simply a fundamental moral principle.
I’ve often heard this parable construed as a commentary on late in life converts, who get to go to heaven without having had to live the difficult “good life” for very long, but still get the same reward as those who spent their whole lives doing the right thing at great cost to their own pleasure. It’s not fair.
But let’s back up. As I said last week, broadly speaking, Jesus’ wisdom teaching is not about how to get to heaven. Jesus’ wisdom teaching is about how to allow heaven to emerge on earth. This is not an obscure point of theology: The very Lord’s prayer we prayed a few minutes ago says: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The prayer does not say (again Brian McLaren) may we all come to your kingdom when we die where your will is done (unlike here on earth).
This way of thinking goes along with a more general view that religion in general or Christianity in particular is really all about getting us ready to die. Brian McLaren, one of my favorite authors, suggest that much of what passes for contemporary Christianity is “Information on how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success through God. Then a small footnote about character development and a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, and a yet smaller footnote about social and global transformation.
What I would want to say is that by and large the Gospel is about having the trust or courage to open our hearts to love so that our experience of God becomes real and we become a (willing/enthusiastic) part of social and global transformation.
The denominational mission of the United Methodist Church says that somewhat more narrowly but, I think with the same force: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, a student follower of Jesus is to begin to learn how to live with and open heart. That takes faith, trust, courage, to risk love. To risk opening our hearts to love. When we open our hearts to love, the world begins to be transformed.
We can risk opening our hearts to love. The alternative is to live out of our ego.
As you’ve heard me say, our ego is the dimension of us that is in charge of getting what we need and want. Remember, of course, that the ego is not bad or evil. Our ego is simply that dimension of ourselves which manages our behavior in the world so that our safety and comfort and desires for ourselves and our loved ones are met. If we had no ego, no worldly manager, we would be unlikely to accomplish anything for the benefit of not only ourselves but for the benefit of others. But when we live only in our ego, when we identify only with our egoic self, what we might call our small self, we miss our deeper, richer, and fuller being.
As Richard Rohr says of the ego, or false self:
[It] is merely your launching pad: your appearance, your education, your job, your money, your success, and so on. These are the trappings of ego that help you get through an ordinary day. They are what Bill Plotkin wisely calls your “survival dance,” but they are not yet your “sacred dance.” 
Jesus, like the wisdom teachers of many traditions helps us see the limits of the ego, see beyond the limits or our survival dance toward our sacred dance.
When we are attached to our ego or consumed by our ego, we are driven by our needs and desires, and, in fact, the ego is generally unable on its own to wisely differentiate between our needs and what are simply our desires.
We need another guidance system, beyond the ego, to free us to more and more open our hearts to love. Open our hearts to the Spirit. Open our hearts to God.
Robert Farrar Capon writes compellingly about this parable. he retells it imagining the vineyard owner as the winemaker Robert Mondavi. He imagines the day’s wage as being $120 a day, or $10 an hour for 12 hours. In his retelling of the conclusion of this parable we see that he embellishes the story with some colorful descriptions of those recruited at the end of the day. This is Robert Mondavi talking to the complaining worker who confronts the boss at the end of the day:
“Look, Pal,” he tells the spokesman man for all the bookkeepers who have gagged on this parable for two thousand years, “Don’t give me agita. You agreed to $120 a day, I gave you $120 a day. Take it and get out of here before I call the cops. If I want to give some pot-head in Gucci loafers the same pay as you, so what? You’re telling me I can’t do what I want with my own money? I’m supposed to be a stinker because you got your nose out of joint? All I did was have a fun idea. I decided to put the last first and the first last to show you there are no insiders or outsiders here: when I’m happy, everybody’s happy, no matter what they did or didn’t do. I’m not asking you to like me, Buster; I’m telling you to enjoy me. If you want to mope, that’s your business. But since the only thing it’ll get you is a lousy disposition, why don’t you just shut up and go into the tasting room and have yourself a free glass of Chardonnay? The choice is up to you, Friend: drink up, or get out; compliments of the house, or go to hell. Take your pick.”
Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 5085-5094). Kindle Edition.
The key for me comes when Robert Mondavi points out that if the complainers mope about their sense of the supposed unfairness, all they will get is a lousy disposition.
Wisdom, on the other hand, invites acceptance of reality. We can be caught up in our ego’s frustration in not getting what it wants or what it thinks it deserves.
The ego’s world is a world based on reward and punishment. And that is the way it must be. That’s the level at which the ego works. Jesus’ wisdom invites us to go beyond that because God is, in fact, beyond that. Love is beyond that.
Hear me clearly: I am not saying that rewards and punishments are unimportant or stupid or evil. They have their place in the world. They help us to learn. They are part of our survival dance and I encourage you to learn that dance well. You can do a lot of good for yourself and for others with that survival dance.
But when we move into God’s ways of forgiveness and grace, we’ve moved beyond reward and punishment and moved into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus is trying to unglue us from the expectations of our reward/punishment ego- mentality.
This parable is like ripping the band aid off. And the ouch we feel turns itself into resentment.
There are clear situations in which we should not let our expectations go. Situations of injustice or oppression are not ok. Jesus deals with these situations in other places. But this parable does not present a situation of injustice. The early workers agreed on the fair wage.
The problem occurs when they see that the late workers got what they originally expected and that raised their expectations that they would some humongous amount.
That disappointment turned into resentment. They resent what the later workers received. The generosity of the boss hasn’t made them less well off. But stewing in their resentment makes them feel less well off.
Jesus’ wisdom? Let it go.
Again, there are real issues around inequality and injustice. There are real issues of fairness.
Jesus’ wisdom here does not touch those issues. But Jesus’ wisdom here does invite us to detach from our ego’s sense of deprivation that arises wanting more, more, more and being resentful if someone else gets it.
Perhaps it is worth paying attention to the fact that it is a fair approximation of our society’s reality to say that we live in an environment designed to breed resentment and disappointment. A consumer society is based on blurring the line between desire and need and is fueled by a mix of covetousness and resentment.
Richard Rohr said in one of his daily meditations recently he had never yet heard a sermon on the tenth commandment forbidding the coveting of one’s neighbors goods. That coveting is the beginning of the resentment in the failure to accept the reality of what we have as enough. And while there may not be many sermons about it, it is a message deeply embedded in the parable we hear this morning.
Rohr goes on to write of the way of the kingdom of this world works:
By “world” we don’t mean creation or nature, but “the system.” It’s the way groups, cultures, institutions, and nations organize to protect themselves and maintain their power. This is the most hidden and denied level of evil. We cannot see it because we are all inside of it, and it is in our ego’s self-interest to protect the corporate deception. … It’s almost impossible for an American to see colonization, capitalism, or consumerism as problematic. Our culture is built upon the idea that there’s not enough, that we must always seek more—at others’ expense. Lynne Twist calls this unconscious, unexamined assumption the “lie of scarcity.” 
And when others get more that we don’t think they deserve, our resentment kicks in. We join the early workers in resentment. We humans easily fall into jealousy and a feeling that we have been treated unfairly. Such feelings of jealousy and a sense that we are being treated unfairly are easily come by. Such feelings, justified by a supposed clear idea of what’s fair, lead to a breakdown in the trusting community as our egos fear scarcity.
Out of that fear we behave in ways that undermine trust, that undermine community. That undermines real justice. That undermines the very good that is all around us and invites our appreciation.
So here’s my suggestion as you stew on this parable. Here’s my suggestion as you marinate in this parable.
Notice your reaction. Notice your taking the side of the ones who feel cheated, whose egos have been put out of joint. There’s no need to judge that or feel guilty about that. Just let it go. Accept the feeling for what it is and move on.
Move on, instead, to put yourself in the position of the ones who received an unexpectedly generous pay envelope at the end of the day. Be happy for them. Recall a time perhaps when you received an unanticipated windfall. You didn’t deserve it. You didn’t even ask for it. It just happened. Maybe it was just an unexpectedly succulent tomato or a parking space close to your destination, or a flight delayed when you were late so you didn’t miss it.
When we can accept the blessing that falls to someone else, when we can detach from our own egos and appreciate the good that another enjoys, we amplify goodness and magnify love. We open our hearts to the wisdom of heaven.
Come and seek the ways of Wisdom.
She who danced when earth was new.
Follow closely what she teaches,
For her words are right and true.
Wisdom clears the path to justice,
Showing us what love must do.