the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 16, 2003
Psalm 103:8-14 The Lord does not
treat us as our sins deserve
Lord is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger, abounding
He will not always accuse,
Nor will he harbor his
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
Or repay us according to
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is his love for
those who fear him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has he removed our
transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion
on those who fear him;
For he knows how we are formed,
He remembers that we are
20:1-16 The parable of the workers in the vineyard
kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out
early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent
them into his vineyard.
the third hour he went out and saw others standing in
the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, "You
also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you
whatever is right." So they went.
went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour
and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went
out and found still others standing around. He asked
them, "Why have you been standing here all day long
no one has hired us," they answered.
said to them, "You also go and work in my
evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his
manager, "Call the workers and pay them their
wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on
to the first."
workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and
each received a denarius. So when those came who were
hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one
of them also received a denarius. When they received it,
they began to grumble against the householder.
"These who were hired last worked only one
hour," they said, "and you have made them
equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and
the heat of the day."
he answered one of them, "My friend, I am not being
unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius?
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 what belongs to me? Or are
you envious because I am generous?"
the last will be first, and the first will be last. For
many are called, but few are chosen.
Coelestia #9180 Working to deserve heaven
are people who learn and absorb true ideas from the
Bible, or from the teachings of the Church, or from
various other people, or even from themselves by drawing
their own conclusions--but they do it for the sake of
personal gain. In other words, they do it to earn
important positions, to gain wealth, or so that they
will deserve heaven. In the deeper meaning these are
symbolized by "hired servants who will come for
their hire"---that is, who must submit themselves
religious people, personal gain should be the last
priority, not the first. When it is the last priority,
it is a servant; but if it is the first priority it is
the master. People who consider personal gain to be the
first priority are upside-down people. In the next life,
they appear upside down, with their head in hell. But
people who see kindness and faith, and therefore the
Lord and the neighbor, as the first priority are
right-side-up people. In the next life, they appear
upright, with their head in heaven.
kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out
early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
we are a week later, and we're still talking about
week our parable of the kingdom of heaven was about the
great debt we owe to the Lord, which we can never repay,
but which the Lord forgives if we do our best to use
what we have been given in acts of mercy and kindness
toward our fellow human beings. In our parable for
today--the parable of the workers in the vineyard--we
have gotten to work doing just that. We have allowed the
Lord, who is the "householder" of the parable,
to hire us to work in the vineyard of spiritual life.
And the hook embedded in the parable is all about the
payment we will receive for our labors--and our attitude
both toward the rewards and toward the labor itself.
course, the most obvious zinger of the parable is that
Jesus, in telling it as he does, is blatantly flouting
the laws of fair wages and equitable hiring practices.
Obviously those who work more should get paid more, and
those who work less should get paid less. It's only
fair. And for the Lord to construct a story in which
people who have worked just one hour, in the cool part
of the day just before sunset, are paid the same as
those who have worked twelve back-breaking ours through
the heat of the day . . . well, how else
can we say it? This guy would have the labor unions
picketing his house in short order!
was exactly the effect that the Lord intended the
parable to have on his listeners, and on us today as
well. Parables are not meant to soothe us and confirm us
in the things we already "know" and believe.
Instead, they are meant to jar our sensibilities, to
shake us up, to get us moving beyond the boundaries of
our habitual ways of thinking, to expand our level of
love and compassion beyond their current smallness. The
parables are meant to be subversive. They are
intended to break up all our comfortable, habitual,
worldly patterns of life.
this parable annoys you; if it causes you to protest--to
inwardly shout, "That's not fair!" . . .
wonderful! It has done its job! It has gotten your
attention. It has found a chink in your armor, and is
worming its way into your psyche to turn things
ways of the Lord are radical and revolutionary. They are
in direct opposition to many of our most ingrained
attitudes and beliefs. They run counter to the world's
values. And the point of this particular parable is that
the attitudes common to this world will end out last and
lowest, while the spiritual principles that
"practical people" see as impractical, if not
downright unjust, will be first and highest in the end.
my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your
ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the
heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways
higher than your ways and my thoughts than your
thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8, 9)
get specific. The "common sense" attitude of
the world is, as I mentioned before, that the more we
work, the more we get paid. We earn our money through
the work we do. And it is obvious to us that if we do
more work, we deserve to get paid more.
is what those workers who were the first to be hired
thought. Notice that it says, "He agreed to pay
them a denarius for the day." This implies that
there was some bargaining, and he agreed to the rate of
pay that the workers bargained for. For those hired
later in the day, the householder simply told them,
"I will pay you whatever is right." There was
no bargaining. They simply went and did the work,
trusting that they would receive just compensation. But
not the first to be hired. They had to make a deal,
assert their rights, get the promise of a specific rate
of pay from the householder before doing a lick of work.
is where we are when we first start out on our spiritual
life. Up to that point, we have been living and working
for what we can get out of life. For our earlier,
materialistic self, the main focus is the reward, the
pleasure, the money, the power that we will get if we
expend our energy and do some work. The work itself is
just a means to that goal. And our goal is satisfied
every payday, when we get our wages and can enjoy--for
ourselves and our own family and friends--the fruits of
this is our mindset, the most important thing is that we
get paid as much as possible for the work we do. We will
take a higher paying job even if we don't like the work
as well, because more money is obviously better! And
like the laborers who were hired first, we will be very
jealous of our right to receive what we consider to be
just compensation for our work. Spiritually speaking,
this means that as we start out on our course toward
heaven, we are focused primarily on heavenly (and
material) reward for ourselves. And if we can get some
immediate benefits and satisfactions, so much the
better! The main idea for us at that time of our lives,
is that if we are going to go through all the trouble of
living according to God's rules instead of our own, we
had darn well better get handsomely rewarded for it!
speak of "having our priorities backwards,"
but in Swedenborg's colorful language, this attitude
describes a person who is upside-down. Our feet are
where our head should be, and our head is where our feet
should be. In other words, we put our own happiness and
well-being--which, for truly spiritual people, are at
the low end of the priority scale--right up at the top
of our priority list.
what should be at the head of our priority list?
We could all answer in unison: loving the Lord and
loving our neighbor. Jesus himself said that these are
the most important of all the commandments. This means
that we are not fully reborn--not fully angels--until
our primary goal in life is to love the Lord by loving
and serving our fellow human beings, and putting their
happiness before our own.
we are still materialistic in our thinking and motives,
this looks completely naïve and ridiculous--and we
think it would lead to great injustice and harm if we
were to adopt it. But the main harm we are worried about
is harm to ourselves. "If I don't stick up for
myself, who will?" That's how the reasoning goes.
And so, as long as we are in the grip of this mindset,
we continue to agitate for our own rights, privileges,
comforts, and happiness, thinking we are just being
"fair," and doing what "anyone would
notice that the Lord calls us to work in his vineyard
those morning workers bargained with the householder, he
didn't say to them, "Well, if that's your attitude,
I don't want you working in my vineyard anyway."
No! He went ahead and hired them. And in exactly the
same way, the Lord "hires" us to work in his
spiritual vineyard even if we start out with many faulty
attitudes. The point is to get us moving, get us working
toward spiritual life--and let the rest sort itself out
along the way.
let's consider the workers who were hired during the
day. Their work day was twelve variable hours, reaching
from dawn to dusk. In the summer, the hours would be
longer, and in winter they would be shorter, in order to
fill the day. The grape harvest in Palestine begins in
August, the hottest month of the year, and reaches into
October. So it spans the fall equinox, when days and
nights are of equal length.
speaking, then, the workers we have been focusing on so
far--those hired at the beginning of the day--started at
our six o'clock AM, and worked until six o'clock PM, a
full twelve hours that stretched through some of the
hottest days of the year. Then more were hired at the
third hour, our nine o'clock AM; the sixth hour, our
twelve o'clock noon; the ninth hour, our three o'clock
PM; and finally the eleventh hour, our five o'clock PM,
just an hour before the workday ended.
not only were they all paid the same wage that the
twelve hour workers, but the last hires got their wages
first, and those who had started first had to wait until
a material world perspective, this is all wrong. But it
all begins to make sense when we think of each crop of
workers as a new development in our spiritual life and
growth. As I already mentioned, those hired at the
beginning of the day represent the beginnings of our
spiritual life, when we are still thinking, "What's
in it for me?" We bargain with God, trying to get
the best eternal deal for ourselves. So as we start out,
we are still thinking of ourselves first, and of God and
other people afterwards.
notice that these workers later complain that they
"have borne the burden of the work and the heat of
the day." When we are in our natural state of
thinking of ourselves first, spiritual growth is,
indeed, hard, hot labor! We face many struggles in
overcoming our natural selfishness and our societally
approved materialism. It is a burden to us not to
think of our own advantage first, but to give others
equal consideration. We get hot under the collar at the
thought that others might get spiritual benefits without
all the struggles we have to face in order to
"get paid." Or to put it another way, we have
to face the heat of our own desires for lower
things--physical pleasures, money, and personal
power--in order to make it through to the point where we
are focused on higher things: God's love in our hearts
leading us to love and care for the people around us.
workers hired at various hours of the day represent our
progress from our upside-down spiritual beginning. Each
of them is a multiple of three. And three represents a
state of completeness, when our heart, head, and
hands--or love, understanding, and actions--are working
together. So each time we complete a phase in our
spiritual development, we metaphorically hire a new crop
of workers within ourselves appropriate to our new
far as I know, Swedenborg doesn't give a specific
meaning for each set of workers. In fact, he simply says
(in Apocalypse Explained #194) that three, six,
and twelve have a similar meaning. But the meaning he is
referring to is the general meaning of completeness.
based on the general stages of spiritual development we
go through, we could assign these meanings to the three
sets of hires:
hired at the third hour could be seen as the time
when we willingly obey the Lord's commandments,
whether or not we understand them.
hired at the sixth hour could be seen as the time
when, through working in the vineyard of learning
from the Lord and the Bible, and making what we have
learned a part of ourselves, we follow the Lord's
commandments based on an intelligent understanding
and appreciation of them.
hired at the ninth hour could be seen as the time
when we begin to follow the Lord's commandments not
from mere obedience, nor even from mere
understanding, but because we are beginning to love
doing what the Lord leads us to do.
the story, none of these bargained for their wages. In
any one of these states--acting from obedience, from
understanding, and finally from love--we are not so
concerned about what we will get out of doing the
right thing. Instead, we are concerned to do the
right thing. The work itself, and serving the
Lord and our neighbor, begins to be our first priority.
In Swedenborg's words, be are turning right-side-up by
getting our priorities straight.
we spiritually hire our "eleventh hour
workers" when at last we realize that in ourselves
we are nothing, and the Lord is everything. We are
nearing the end of our spiritual work day when we are
willing to simply listen to the Lord, and humbly and
innocently be led where the Lord wants us to go. Then
our work is light; we work one short hour, and
immediately get our reward.
that point in our lives, we are no longer trying to buy
our way into heaven. Instead, we are allowing the Lord
to spiritually buy our life from us, so that it is the
Lord's and not ours. And the beautiful thing is that
once he has bought our life, he gives it back to us with
rewards richer than we could ever have imagined. Amen.
Dream of Angels, Live in Love
© Bruce De Boer - Used with Permission