By Tom Ellsworth
Jesus’ parable of the vineyard laborers who all received the same wage (despite the fact that some started at the 11th hour) has created more questions than answers for me. It just didn’t seem . . . fair.
When I talked with Kenny Ooley regarding his relationship with the Lord, he shared his struggle. He didn’t struggle with his faith; he struggled with his past. How could a perfect God love and forgive him for a lifetime of lousy choices? Could God be that generous? Could forgiveness extend that far? After all, he had wasted a lifetime without the Savior.
With his 62nd birthday just days away, he was convinced his best years were behind him. He expressed shame about being a Johnny-come-lately to the kingdom. “It isn’t fair to sneak in at the 11th hour and give God the leftovers,” he said. He was afraid if I baptized him he would somehow mess that up, too.
I reminded him that our goodness (or badness, for that matter) was not the determining factor. The Savior is good enough and generously invites us to serve in his vineyard regardless of the hour.
A few days later, with a handful of close friends joining him, he and I stood in the baptistery. He confessed Jesus as his Lord, and I lowered him into the water. When he emerged, the weathered lines of his face gave way to a joy and peace like he had never known before.
The following morning Kenny entered the hospital for what was to be a serious but routine surgery. The result, however, was anything but routine, and by week’s end Kenny had died. We buried him on his 62nd birthday.
This parable of the vineyard laborers was read at Kenny’s funeral. Never had it seemed more relevant. I was no longer wrestling with its apparent inequities; I was just celebrating God’s generosity. I thought I had helped Kenny spiritually, but instead he helped me understand the God of the harvest better. I shouldn’t be surprised at how God works—but I always am. I will be forever grateful that God’s generosity is distributed on his terms, not mine.
Gratefully, we will share Heaven with Kenny Ooley and every other 11th-hour worker in God’s vineyard. Even the parable’s punchline made sense; among those who had prayed for his salvation, Kenny was last to acknowledge the Savior but first to see his face!
Tom Ellsworth serves as senior minister with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana.