Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Parable of the Glum Bums

I'm thrilled to introduce week two of a new feature at Students of Jesus. Each Saturday you'll meet a guest-posting genius holding forth on one of the 46 parables found in the gospels. Despite popular opinion, parables were not simple stories told to make things easy to understand. Jesus used parables to shake our world view, and perhaps occasionally to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Come wrestle with us.

My son, Joe Hollenbach, is an immensely talented writer with a voice all his own. The wellspring of his rich imagination runs deep; you can find a store of refreshing stories at his blog, which has lain dormant for a season--but perhaps you can urge him onward in this pursuit, because the world will be poorer without hearing his stories.
I’ll admit it: I’m as self-entitled a person as the world has known. 
Only moments after speaking eternal promises to one another and to the Lord, I turned to my new bride as we walked back up the aisle and said, “Just remember, what’s yours is now mine and what’s mine is still mine.” Four years later and she knows I was only half-kidding.

When my Dad asked for a quick-hitter on the parable of my choosing, I hemmed and hawed to myself before admitting the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard was right up my alley.
The synopsis goes like this: a landowner goes out early in the morning looking for farm hands to toil in his vineyard. He grabs a group of guys, (presumably strapping dudes) establishes their pay and sets them to their task. As the day progresses, the vintner continues to hire more workers: some at noon, more in the afternoon, and even a few right before sundown, at which point he cuts all the hired hands a check of equal pay. This nettled those who toiled since sunrise and they caved to their frustration with fits of grumbles. The landlord tells them to quit griping as they’ve been rewarded with the payment they agreed upon, further explaining it’s no concern of theirs if he decides to be generous with his riches. Read it for yourself, though. Matthew 20:1-16. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you.
All caught up? Excellent. Let’s dive in.
The obvious (and worn) interpretation of this passage is easily identifiable. It speaks of the goodness of Jesus and his unyielding pursuit to bless all of us. Regardless of when we come to the Lord, he loves us with the same tenacity as the next. It’s an awfully good thing, isn’t it?
But there are so many layers to this parable that just get white-washed. Yes, the concept that Jesus-loves-you-and-wants-you-to-have-nice-things is killer, but what lays beneath the surface level? The part of this passage that most resonates with me is the attitude of the early morning employee. The interaction of those grumblers with the landlord speaks volumes to me, personally. It serves as an admonition to those of us that might let cynicism and self-importance cloud the larger scheme.
In life, I almost always find myself mired in the morning laborer’s frame of mind: Disgruntled, envious, and consumed with concept that the world has it out for me. Like I tell everyone, “I’m an optimist, but I do wear a rain coat.”  
If you’re like me, a hopeless Eeyore, I’d like to share what speaks to me from this parable. Trust me; there are plenty of reasons for us to be glad:
  • To live in God’s economy is to operate in generosity and prosperity – and the Lord’s currency never depreciates. It’s always a good time to buy stock in His love and provision. It’s a limitless wealth. What he gives, and the amount we receive, comes from the generosity of his heart toward us. This is a concept I still cannot fully comprehend. I doubt I ever will. Whenever someone experiences a season of success or reward, I hate to admit it but I have to remind myself to be glad for them. The Kingdom of Heaven is nothing like capitalism, thankfully. The prosperity of others does not come at my expense, yours, or anyone’s.
  • The master works hard, too - In the narrative, we see the landowner is constantly in motion, morning until dusk, finding new hands – and all of his work is to our benefit! With each addition, the burden lightens and the distribution of the work becomes less daunting for those already in the fold. We are uplifted as the numbers strengthen. This is part of the abundance of Jesus.
  • Hard work delivers a satisfying harvest – In truth, I’ve not yet found anything more exhausting than being committed to a community of fellow believers. Conversely, nothing else compares to the fruits that the Church delivers. Life is meant to be spent in communion: messy, achy, back-breaking communion. The same people that offend you and wear you down will undoubtedly inspire you and lift you up. Our identity comes into a sharper focus when in healthy communion with God and his children. There’s an inexplicable, twisted symmetry to it all. Delight in it. It’s family-living and it bears a fruit sweeter than any imagining.
  • His land is beautiful – it’s a quaint observation, but have you ever spent time in a Vineyard? It’s breathtaking. If you haven’t, no worries. Rent A Walk in the Clouds and you’ll understand the beauty. It takes a spirit hell-bent on negativity and a mind eaten alive with self-absorption to not appreciate the glory of God’s creation. To be completely practical, when I feel taken advantage of it puts me off all mirth; I have trouble doing much more than pout. I live in the central Kentucky, surrounded by palatial farm manors, thoroughbreds of dappled chestnut and misty grey, and autumns so deep with reds and oranges they leave you breathless. And yet all these arresting visuals and natural wonders fall aside when I fixate on how the world is out to slight me. When we focus on self-pity, we’re robbing ourselves of the vision of His Kingdom. 
November is a great month to re-order your perspective.  Some people prefer the start of a new year for drastic endeavors, but Thanksgiving demands reflection upon the good and decent endowments in our lives. I hope you’ll all take this holiday weekend as an opportunity to commit to gratitude and gladness.


  1. Well done Joe. I note that both guest writers in the series, so far, express something less than satisfaction with "standard" (my word not yours) interpretations of your chosen parables. As someone long leery of top down churching, your frank and personal reflections are as valuable to me as anything delivered from on high. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Let me say that your dad's obvious pride in you and your writing ability is not misplaced. And you spell better than he does. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Joe-
    I enjoyed the blog as it opened up new layers of the parable that I'd not previously considered. I hope you'll forgive focus of this comment. You may rightfully say that I have missed the forest for the trees, but I must admit getting distracted by: "The Kingdom of Heaven is nothing like capitalism, thankfully. The prosperity of others does not come at my expense, yours, or anyone’s."
    I consider myself greatly blessed to live in a capitalistic society where the creation of wealth does not come at the expense of others. We praise Steve Jobs who, through his creativity and prowess created wealth from nothing. Whatever your thoughts are on Bill Gates, he started out of his garage. That's capitalism. Wealth that comes at the expense of others is not capitalism, but fraud. And like the Bernie Madoffs of the world, those who engage in such practices, when caught, are punished. I hope you'll forgive my getting caught up on such a minor point in what I thought was an otherwise outstanding article, but after all of the "Down with Capitalism" rhetoric I see on the tiresome coverage of protests, I felt compelled to respond. Realizing that the Lord's financial system is indeed perfect, for this nation, if not capitalism, then what? I sincerely look forward to reading more of your words.

  3. Hey Don. Thanks very much for your generous compliments. I'm glad i didn't come off as a complete lunatic!

  4. Hey David,

    I appreciate your kind words. No need of forgiveness. I welcome the discourse!

    My comment is meant to empathize that God's economy is exactly as you describe it: perfect. It doesn't allow wiggle room with which the grifters and money-changers, like Madoff, can exploit the earnest and filch from the honest. I cheer for and appreciate the proverbially self-made man, guys like Jobs and Gates.

    But, as capitalism is an innovation of man, it's flawed. Things like embezzlement, insider trading, corporate fraud, abuse of tax code, etc. are a part of its fabric just as much as unlimited prosperity, charity, hard work and opportunity. Apply capitalistic tenets in 100 societies over 100 centuries and every instance will produce villains. By my reckoning, that makes it a part of the definition. The good outnumber the evil, but they're all a part of the same machine.

    Also, I have trouble estimating the worth of anything when the argument for it is "It's broken, but it's better than nothing." As a card-carrying Republican, I can attest that this mentality has lead to a decade of unpalatable candidates and complete mockery of the ideals.

    It may be too outlandish of me, but I'd like to offer this: The North American church has settled for comfort and stability even while the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven is still achievable.

    Please understand, though, I do not sympathize with those populating parks and street corners in defiance of investment banking. I admire their fervor, but ultimately they appear scatter-brained and selfish. Just my opinion.

    Blessings, David!

  5. Wonderfully written!! Thank you for the post!