Yes, It Is Art

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2023

They grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  (Matthew 20:11-12)

Let’s begin with a fun fact from the annals of television history.  It was thirty years ago this past week when “60 Minutes,” the CBS news magazine, aired one of its most controversial segments in the history of the long running program.  The segment was entitled, “Yes … But is it Art?”  The narrator was the late Morley Safer, who at the time was a highly respected journalist and co-editor of the show.  During the twelve minute segment, Safer ridiculed the 1990s world of contemporary, abstract art.  He accused the artists themselves of being frauds, the dealers of being con-artists, and the buyers of being “victims of a trashy hoax.” 

To make his case, Safer took his viewers to a Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art, where the auctioneer didn’t know if a Gerhard Richter monochrome gray panel was a vertical or a horizontal piece.  He mocked a Cy Twombly work entitled, “Untitled,” as “a canvass of scrawls done with the wrong end of a paint brush.”  Then he interviewed a prominent collector who had purchased and proudly displayed in her gallery three urinals, much like you could find in any public men’s room, except these were not hooked up to plumbing.  Nearby was a pure white canvass by the minimalist artist, Robert Ryman.  Safer shook his head in dismay as to how an essentially blank canvass could be called art.  But he seemed to take the most umbrage with the artist Jeff Koons, who upheld a common vacuum cleaner as art, and sold one to a collector for $100 thousand.  “Worthless junk” is how Safer dismissed most of the art of the 90s. 

Please don’t shoot the messenger!  I am merely opening a time capsule.  These were Safer’s views, not necessarily mine.  What is more, you may be glad to know that the contemporary art world did not take Safer’s challenge lying down.  In fact, they rose up and raked him over the coals for months on end.  They accused Safer of being smug, disrespectful, and oblivious to the questions contemporary art was trying to raise in society.  The segment was a cheap shot, they said.  It was a lampoon that was beneath Safer’s reputation as an otherwise fair and respectable journalist.  He had abused his platform, said one artist.  For his part, Safer held his ground, and in answer to his own question, “But is it art?” his answer was a firm no.  In no way were the objects he featured worthy of being called art. 

We come now to the two readings we have heard today that are about the standards of worth.  They are about the criteria by which we judge something or someone deserving or undeserving.  In the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) we’ve heard a parable that Jesus told about a certain landowner who needed help in harvesting the grapes from his vineyard.  Back then, if you needed work, you could go to the market place and hope to be hired on as a farm hand for the day.  But you had to be prompt because the work began at 6:00 in the morning and lasted until 6:00 in the evening.  So at 6:00 a.m. the landowner hired on those who were ready and agreed to pay them one denarius each, the usual daily wage.  Then for some reason he went back to the market place and hired on more laborers, and agreed to pay them “whatever is right.”  He did the same thing at noon, and again at 3:00 p.m.  Finally, at 5:00 p.m., with one hour left in the working day, he hired on still more laborers. 

At 6:00 in the evening, all the workers lined up to receive their pay.  The late-coming laborers hired on only an hour before went first, and to everyone’s delight, they received one denarius – a full day’s wage – the wage agreed upon by the earliest laborers.  The others standing in line must have thought the landowner was paying one denarius per hour, and that they would receive much more than their original agreement.  But such was not the case: everyone received one denarius, from the earliest laborer all the way to the last: one denarius each. 

Imagine this: in a stunning overnight breakthrough, negotiators on both sides of the Hollywood writers’ strike reach an agreement, and everyone goes back to work.  How do they do it?  With a blanket rule that everyone in the industry makes one level salary – from the writers, to the stars on the silver screen, to the stuffed suits in the executive suites of the studios.  No doubt, the guy who tears your ticket in half before you head up the escalator at the Regal will be happy, but the talent will grumble and the productions will suffer.  Or try this: the news out of Detroit tomorrow morning is that the Big Three automakers have solved their labor disputes with the UAW, thus ending the strike before it gets out of hand.  How do they do it?  Again, by applying a new industry-wide standard that will govern compensation for all employees.  Everyone gets paid exactly the same: from the highest executives to the newest hires, from those who work hard to those who hardly work.  Merit and performance will be of no consequence.  Bonuses will be divided equally.  Do you think it will work?  Do you think the brightest and the best will sign on to work in such vineyards?  I don’t think so. 

It won’t work in Hollywood.  It won’t work in Detroit.  And it won’t work in the vineyard, either.  The late-comers certainly won’t complain.  But the early workers grumble to the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  How dare you make them equal to us!  How dare you lump us in the same category as these late-coming loafers!  In no way should these last be called worthy.  On what criteria is the landowner basing his judgments?  What are the standards or worth?  Perhaps it is perceived need.  The landowner senses that all workers need a full day’s wage whether or not they have earned it, so he gives it to them.  Perhaps the standard is effort: the late-comers worked really hard, so they deserve a full day’s wage, regardless of how much they harvested.  Or perhaps the standard is based on productivity.  The early workers were inefficient.  That’s why the landowner had to hire workers throughout the day, and in their short time in the field the late-comers picked just as many, if not more grapes. 

All of the speculation is to read more into the story than Jesus ever intended.  The parable is a mystery.  I suppose it can mean whatever you want it to mean.  The truth is that none of our human standards of worth make sense of it.  Obviously we have principles of justice at work in the vineyard that are foreign to our way of thinking – principles of justice that we only dimly understand.  Listen to the landowner’s response to the grumbling laborers: “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 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?”  Jesus then concludes the parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”  It seems that the only conclusion we can safely draw from the parable is that God’s justice is not our justice. 

Jesus’ parables are rife with the scandal of God’s justice.  They are full of unworthy people getting good things they do not deserve: late-coming laborers receiving a full day’s wage, unmerciful servants being forgiven, prodigal sons being welcomed home with a party, lost sheep being searched for and found.  The operating principles of these parables – that Jesus claims are the ethics of the kingdom of God, that he claims reflect the mind of God – are summed up in a word: grace.  God chooses to give to each his or her due according to undeserved generosity, unlimited forgiveness, and unwarranted compassion.  In theory, we love the grace that saves a wretch like me.  It’s just that we aren’t so sure about all those other wretches out there.  The first shall be last?  The last first?  Yes, but is it fair?  Is it justice?  We grumble. 

It’s the same story in today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah.  Jonah grumbled when God had the audacity to judge the people of Ninevah worthy of divine love.  Let’s forget for a moment about Jonah being swallowed by a whale and then spewed up on the beach.  The real story here is that the Hebrew people have been laboring to live according to God’s standards.  They judged themselves worthy before God according to God’s law.  The people of Ninevah, by contrast, were a nation of Gentiles who couldn’t have cared less about keeping of God’s law.  They’d been out plundering and pillaging and having a grand old time.  But when God ordered them to repent, at the eleventh hour they repented.  In fact, it’s comical how thoroughly they repented.  The king of Ninevah ordered even the cows to repent (Jonah 3:8).  Try to imagine a cow wearing sackcloth and ashes.  Get the picture in your mind and ask, Yes, but is it art?  Is it justice?  God seemed to think it was.  God spared the Ninevites. 

Jonah was indignant.  Jonah would rather have died than share a place in God’s eyes with a Ninevite.  He was offended that God would bend to such last minute chicanery as making  cows repent.  God was supposed to clobber the Ninevites.  Jonah had set up a lawn chair outside the city to watch (Jonah 4:5).  In Jonah’s mind, accepting such a stunt and putting the Ninevites in the kingdom of heaven along with the Jews made about as much sense as calling a vacuum cleaner art.  What is the standard?  Listen to what God said to Jonah: “And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also any animals?”  The standard is grace.  Infuriating grace.  Maddening grace.  Amazing grace.  Saving grace.  Yes, but is it fair?  Yes, but is it art?  It is art, insofar as the parable is talking about faith.  Your faith is art.  Your relationship with God is a work of art, and grace is the standard by which it is judged.  What shall we say about grace?  What shall we say about faith – yours and mine? 

First, a word about life in Christ to the late-comers.  You may fear that your medium is new, and that you will never find a place alongside people who practice the more recognizable, classic expressions of faith and discipleship.  In short, you fear that in the eyes of God you are forever “Untitled.”  What does this parable say to you?  It says, Press on.  God is trying to express the Holy Spirit through you – through all of us.  The abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock, defended his drip paintings by saying, “The modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements.  It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age – the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio – in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.  Each age finds its own technique.”  Likewise, Vincent Van Gogh.  No one today questions the genius of Vincent Van Gogh, the mentally tortured Dutch painter.  Yet in his own time people had serious reservations about his work.  The common critique was that they appeared to be done in haste.  In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh surmised that if people thought his works were done too quickly, it was probably because they looked at them too quickly.  The take-away here?  Even traditional forms once were new, so press on. 

Now for a word to the grumblers.  You are wondering: what then is the point of laboring in the vineyard?  What is the point of bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat?  What is the point of struggling with the commandments and trying to be a holy people if everyone gets the same in the end?  Well, it could be that you have looked at the parable too quickly.  Remember: without the grace of God, we are all untitled, and without even minimalist meaning.  Then consider a finer point: the Ninevites were spared, yes.  But the early laborers, if they had stopped their grumbling, might have realized that they’d spent the day working shoulder to shoulder with the owner of the vineyard.  If they’d stopped their grumbling, they might have heard him call them, “friends.”  Perhaps friendship with the landowner is the whole point, and the greatest reward. 

A humorous little poem by an anonymous author may sum it up for the late-comers and the grumblers, for the first and the last, for you and for me.  Listen:

I dreamed death came one night, and heaven’s gate swung wide;
With kindly grace an angel ushered me inside.
And there to my astonishment stood folks I’d known on earth;
Some I’d judged and labeled as unfit, and of little worth.
Indignant words rose to my lips, but never were set free;
For every face showed stunned surprise: no one expected me!