In the Gospels, Jesus gives thanks to his Father for revealing the great secrets of the kingdom to infants, and for having hidden them from the wise and intelligent. The gospel is not philosophy; it is for everybody, and we assume that in order that it might be understood by everybody, that it is pitched at a level anyone can understand. The great example of this, we think, is that Jesus taught in simple stories such as parables. Who, after all, doesn’t love a story? Isn’t a story a lot easier to grasp than a detailed, theological point?
The parables, though, can be very bad examples of the gospel’s accessibility. When they were first told, few people got them at all, including the disciples who needed private tutoring on their meaning. Jesus even says, at one point, that he teaches in parables so that people won’t get what he is saying. They seem to blind people to what he is saying about the kingdom rather than enlightening them.
That is not surprising. Because the parables are meant to show what the kingdom of God is like, and God’s kingdom is not like the current regime, they will always seem to have things upside down. So, a point of the parables is that we are the ones who have things upside down. It isn’t a matter of intelligence. The problem is that we do not easily adopt radically different points of view of reality; that is why we do not find the parables enlightening, but strange, paradoxical, and upsetting of common sense.
Sometimes, historical explanations help to make things clearer. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, once we understand that the early church understood the prodigal son to represent the Gentiles, and the older brother to represent Israel, the antagonism that the older brother shows when the prodigal returns and is welcomed by their father is understandable; so, too, is the nature of the son’s prodigality.
A similar sort of explanation can be given to the parable of the workers in the vineyard. If we bear in mind the resentment that the Jewish Christians felt towards the Gentiles who came in so late, and who nonetheless received the same benefits of salvation, the story makes sense. It makes sense, too, when we realize that, even though they worked different lengths of the day, God had to pay them all the same wage simply because God doesn’t make change. There is one coin, and one coin only for God’s people. There isn’t salvation for a full day’s work, and a pro-rated salvation for part of a day’s work. You come into the kingdom or you don’t.
That makes sense. Still, I think we have a difficult time actually embracing this point of view. Sure, God may make no change, but deep down we cannot help but feel resentment and a sense of unfairness when we work all day and then somebody comes along and gets the same reward as we do for a lot less work. Had we known, we would have gone for the shorter day option, too. God may not be able to make change, indeed; still we feel that somehow we have been cheated. So, something more than historical explanation is needed to overcome the sense of unfairness, and if we are ever going to get what the kingdom of God is about. What we need is insight.
Let me, therefore, tell you a story that might help. Since we are a pilgrim people, the story is appropriately about a pilgrimage, a real pilgrimage, not just a metaphorical one.
Some twenty-five years ago I read a short article in The New York Times about the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where lay the remains of the apostle, St. James. Even now, that pilgrimage is walked by thousands of people from all around the world. Ever since I read that article, I wanted to go on that pilgrimage. My youngest daughter, who had an upcoming summer free, proposed that we go together. At first I balked, not knowing if I could get away for the major portion of a summer from the church I was serving. But, it then dawned on me that at my age I couldn’t really put this off, unless I wanted her to push me across Spain in a wheel chair. Thus, we committed to do it. So, at the end of June, 2010, we set off for Santiago from just inside France in the shadows of the Pyrenees.
Now, despite having wanted to go on this trip for many years, as we got closer to our departure, I realized that I wasn’t entirely clear on what it means to go on a pilgrimage. Spiritual insights were to be gained, to be sure, but I was at the age that I did not expect that a long walk would give me new, deep spiritual insights that would change my life significantly. I did have to admit, though, that I was at the age that a really long walk could do me some good. Second, as a Protestant, I wasn’t quite sure what this would amount to. I wasn’t in it for the indulgences, although the certificate in Latin for all who completed the journey was pretty cool. I did reason, however, if I was willing go out of my way to go to Lincoln’s or Washington’s tombs -- and I have -- then it would certainly be worth going to the tomb of one of Jesus’ friends and disciples. So, not entirely sure what to expect, we set off in ambiguous hope.
Neither of us were under any illusions, or so we thought, about the difficulty of such a trip. It was eight hundred kilometers, five hundred miles across Spain for about a month, a rate of about fifteen miles a day. That certainly seemed doable, even if it were during July and August. Thus, we dutifully made sure that our boots were broken in, that we had good maps and guidebooks, that we had our pilgrim’s passports that would allow us to stay in the pilgrim hostels that existed in nearly every town along the way. I spent six months learning Spanish, and Elspeth had had five years of it in high school. We expected to see a lot, and to experience a lot before arriving in Santiago.
Well, it was a lot different and a lot harder than we anticipated, and the insights, as insights always do, came in some very unexpected ways.
In good part, they came simply with the physical travails of the walk. The first day we left France and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain, an ascent of some 4,500 feet. The climb did nothing to bolster our confidence about the shape we were in. Elspeth developed and then tore blisters on her heels on that first day going up. I developed some pretty major ones on the descent into Spain and onto its very hot central plains. Looking back on it, most of our journal entries for the first couple of weeks had nothing to do with spiritual insights but simply expressed concerns about the wearing physicality of the whole thing.
But, it was in relation to the physicality that the insights came. The first was simply that this was humbling; I quickly realized that I wasn’t the fastest or strongest guy on the Camino, although I was one of the oldest. Our bodies weren’t as invulnerable as we would have liked to believe. The second insight came in relation to the first. While one might think of a pilgrimage as a lonely and solitary venture, it was a lot more like the Canterbury Tales. Along the Camino there was quite a community of people from over all the world, and, as it developed, there was a group of say twenty or so people who were walking more or less the same rate as we were. We saw them in the hostels each night and morning, and talked with them along the way. It was in that community where people helped each other that certain insights came about life with others who are also pilgrims. There was the older Swedish couple who were seasoned hikers. They dressed our blisters and taught us how to deal with them. There were others who were knowledgeable about the ways things are done in Spain and who explained them to others, and there were those who were frequent dinner companions. There was the young Italian who, when my knee suddenly inexplicably gave out, gave me his knee brace so I could make it to the next town to buy my own. There was the Hungarian who gave us earplugs when Carlos, the deep, deep snorer was bunking with us. There were the local Spaniards who, when we thought we were lost, didn’t just try to give us directions, but took us by the hand and put us on the right path. There was the Spanish guy who ran what we called the “Love Shack.” One hot afternoon crossing a very flat and barren plain we came upon an old adobe building in front of which was a tent. In it was a young guy who was giving out free fruit juice and watermelon to pilgrims. When we said, “gracias,” he said, “No, gracias a usted.” “Thanks to you.” There was the German priest with whom and with a young Polish woman, I sang Taize chants in an acoustically wonderful medieval chapel. I knew Father Kuno only a few days, but there was a spiritual camaraderie. In the end, the insights were very simple: first, one cannot finish a pilgrimage on one’s own strength, and second, therefore, we need others – we need their help and friendship, and we need to help them, too.
But at one point all that seemed to change. The problem was that, in order to get that very cool Latin certificate, you only have to walk the last hundred kilometers, not the full 800 from France. This meant that as we entered the province of Galicia, and Santiago was a mere few days away that suddenly many, many pilgrims joined the route. They spoiled everything as everything was now more crowded. It wasn’t just the extra numbers. They came in groups, such as youth groups led by priests. They had no sense of the camino etiquette that the rest of us had learned. When they arrived at a restaurant for the morning coffee and roll break, they filled up every chair outside with their backpacks, and then crowded the counter inside so nobody else could get an order in. They were loud. Spanish is a beautiful language; unfortunately, many of its practitioners falsely believe that it is improved by having many people speak it all at once and loudly to boot. They made it much more difficult to find accommodations each night, not only because there were so many of them, but because for the most part they were natives and knew how to make reservations ahead of time; some of them would make many reservations at once, just to be sure. They had no interest in talking to others; because they were in groups they didn’t need to look for companions. Their behavior seemed to affect the behavior of the locals, too, as they now were less helpful and much less interested as they watched what was now a parade.
It didn’t take long with this changed atmosphere for us to become frustrated and resentful. Finally, one afternoon, Elspeth accurately complained that the newcomers had changed everything so much, and how unfair that seemed, because it happened just at the time that we had learned our lessons of humility and cooperation. We ought to have been basking in the joy of the pilgrimage, a joy that we had earned, and that seemed to be beyond the ken of the newcomers. But as we complained, justly we thought, it dawned on me that in our complaining we were living out the parable of the workers in the vineyard. We were complaining of the injustice of having to share our reward with newcomers who had not really earned the reward, not the way we had, and who just didn’t seem to get the deep point of the pilgrimage, either.
Now, that realization gave us a very different view of what was going on. It wasn’t a matter of their right to do what they did. Of course, they had rights. Rather, we realized that what we had learned over time, they had yet to learn, and perhaps they weren’t going to get the time to learn what we had learned. That would be too bad, it really would, because what we had learned was important. Undoubtedly, they were anxious, as we once were. We realized, too, that with the youth groups, well, good for them that they were using their vacation to go on a spiritual pilgrimage, even if they were young and didn’t entirely get it. But what was most important was the realization that even if we and every newcomer got to the same place, for there is only one Santiago, that we didn’t regret a moment of the extra time and effort that we had spent on the pilgrimage. Indeed, we realized that we regarded it as a gift to have been on the road for as long as we had. Once we understood that the whole thing was a gift, how could we resent that anybody else would get it, too? How could we possibly wish that we spent less time? The time spent on the pilgrimage was a great gift, and not to be traded or wished away.
The great English theologian John Henry Newman once observed that “the world thinks faith a burden – [it] cannot understand [the] joy of believing.” The problem we have with the parable of the workers in the vineyard is that it seems unfair that they are all given the same wage at the end of the day. But that problem only arises if you think that working in God’s vineyard is a burden, something that you do the least amount of in order to get the only reward God has to offer – his own presence to our hearts. But it isn’t unfair when you understand that any time in the vineyard is a gift of great value, a gift certainly not to be resented for having it longer, and, indeed, surely to be the more enjoyed the longer one has it. Once you learn to value it this way, it isn’t then so hard to want to share it with others, even if they come lately. For if you understand truly the value of this gift, if you are deeply touched by it, you will want it to be shared with the whole world. Indeed, as you come to understand by laboring, that laboring in the vineyard, is nothing less than the joy of sharing God’s gifts with others.