It has only been in recent decades that we’ve come to speak of vocation in a secular way – like vocational schools or the job we take to pay the bills. We treat it like a synonym for occupation with all connections of partnership with God stripped away. From New Testament times one’s vocation was about being addressed by God, called by God, to a partnership with God. Whatever place or station in life, every person can be in partnership with God that entails service to God, to our neighbor and to our companions in creation.
I just guess it’s important to say that vocation is bigger than occupation, job or career. It is about a sense of self or a vision that centers our life. If gives our lives integrity, courage, meaning. It links us with God’s intention for creation and us as partners with God in it. It gets to the question of who we are. Who am I in relation to my creator? Who am I in relation to the one who heals my brokenness?
Your vocation, and mine, is tied, inextricably to our identity and our sense of usefulness in the purposes of God. It becomes enmeshed in our relationships, friendships, family, loves and our marriage. And it has its public side – our public lives – as citizens, our involvement in broader society, our concerns for justice and peace and it can’t help but inform our times of worship, study and service. And – it will include the work we do through-out our lives, whether as employees or volunteers. We are called. This is God’s intention for we human beings. It is in this relationship of living a life worthy of the vocation to which we are called that we come to taste heaven. There are a few lines in Psalm 139 that get to the heart of it.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
“You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
The Psalmist touches on a truly fascinating paradox. This God who created the whole cosmos, so magnificent and enormous, knows each of us. Because of our uniqueness, the talents with which we have been gifted, we can be employed in the larger work of God of restoring creation. Were I doing a children’s message I’d dump a 1,000 piece picture puzzle and point out how each piece is unique and yet essential for the picture to be complete. And it is in that way that God had made us and made a place for us to fit into his plan for restoring creation.
When Paul, in Ephesians 4, speaks of himself being a prisoner, it is too easy for us to see that as a reference to his many incarcerations. But there is a much richer way to understand Paul. He writes: “I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Out of his concern for unity in the meeting in Ephesus he speaks to the way Christians are to relate to one another: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And then he brings it around full circle to say: “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’”
He ties his being a ‘prisoner in the Lord’ with his own giftedness as if captivity itself were a gift. Typically, when we proclaim the good news, especially from the perspective of the school of the prophets, we speak of breaking the chains that bind, literally freeing the captives, setting one free. Paul’s imagery of being held captive seems paradoxical.
The New Jerusalem Bible correctly and clearly translates the passage this way: “Lead a life worthy of the vocation to which you were called.” As the Psalmist speaks of being hemmed in, of being unable to flee God’s presence, Paul testifies to being made captive by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. In Acts 5 Paul says that it is in that captivity that he leads a life of perfect freedom. One person said that the human heart was shaped for captivity. It is that which gives us meaning and direction for our lives that captivates, makes captives of us. Our vocation is our falling captive to the greatest investment of ourselves.
The awakening to our vocation, the shaping, forming and integration of our unique identity that incorporates our relatedness and responsiveness to God’s call, in never an individual achievement. It occurs within the constellation of gifted people of which the Church, our Meeting consists. In a process of discernment we learn for what God has equipped us, how God has gifted us and who God has called us to be and what he has called us to do. It is that set of relationship that we are fitted for our partnership with God.
What God wants for us and from us in central to what it is that we most deeply and truly want for ourselves.
Our text from Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, actually begins at the 27th verse of chapter 19. Jesus’ closest followers are concerned that they have left everything and wonder about their future. “Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
He assures them that they are on the right track—but doesn’t leave it there, doesn’t leave them thinking that they have the upper hand or that they are in some preferred position. So he tells them this parable. I’ve explored many interpretations of this text. Some see it as Jesus’ rejection of the world’s approach to economics. It’s been seen as a wonderful illustration of God’s generosity or assuring that no one is deprived of their ‘daily bread’. It has been presented as a picture of the value of employment itself. Many retirees and currently unemployed people can testify to what being employed means to one’s sense of self worth. It has been discussed as an indictment of exclusivity or inequality within the faith community and even as an excuse for greed.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wages, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day? They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the land owner, saying. ‘These last worked only one hour , and you have made them equal ato us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In reading this parable again what struck me was that the owner of the vineyard was determined that everyone should have the opportunity to work in the vineyard—every one. And the work of the vineyard would have the benefit of the giftedness of each worker. Jesus said that heaven is like that vineyard.
N. T. Wright, a senior cleric in the Church of England and hero to many conservative Christians confirms that the New Testament is deeply Jewish, and that Jews believed that though the world of space, time and matter is messed up, it remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. In his newest book he quotes from Maria Shriver’s children’s book What’s Heaven, which describes it as “a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk…. If you are good throughout your life, then you get to go (there)… When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you to heaven to be with him.” “That”, says Wright, is a good example of ‘what not to say.” The biblical truth, he continues, ‘is very, very different.”
To believe in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity. He says that never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say that Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven. However they do all say that Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do. “This” he says is “more exciting that hanging around and listening to nice music.” The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when mans are supposed to be running the garden and looking after the animals. Rabbi Shraga Simmons said that he Jewish concept of heaven is where the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure—the feeling of closeness to G-d.” Jesus, in this parable of the laborers in the vineyard calls each of us with our uniqueness and giftedness to join in the work of the kingdom. That’s our vocation, our calling, to partner with God in the restoration of creation.