The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
19 September 1999
THE COLLECT OF THE DAY O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus said: "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. He 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 doing nothing?' 'Because no-one has hired us,' they answered. He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.' The 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 landowner. 'These men 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.' But he answered one of them, '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 man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." Matthew 20.1-16
I remember as a teenager being a newspaper boy. I would ride my bicycle to the newsagents every morning at 6.30am and deliver newspapers for an hour and half before school. Then I would deliver them again in the evening and at the end of the week we would be paid about £1 a week. I think I must have been totally insane. But that was the wage and I knew the terms when I took the job. However one day I was furious. It was approaching Christmas and I was told that the newsagent had told all the customers not to give to us our Christmas tips, but rather to give them to him and he would make sure we all got them distributed fairly. (I think not). I was supported by one of the shop assistants in my thoughts that these tips would be somewhat reduced by the time they had passed through the hands of the owner of the shop. Incidentally I understand that some restaurants are now using the service charge and tips as part of the calculations for staff wages towards the minimum wage. So if you want to tip staff, give it to them cash, otherwise you are reducing their wages. This is all a travesty, grossly unfair. So too, we paperboys (there were no papergirls then) wanted hard cash from grateful residents who appreciated our service and uncrumpled newspapers posted carefully through the letterbox. Mind you those who didn't tip had crumpled newspapers every day until the following year when they had the opportunity to redeem themselves.
It was a desire for fairness which prompted me to call the fellow newspaper boys out on strike. Every night the delivery van would arrive with newspapers and we would pull the papers off the van and into the shop. On this night the van arrived, beeped his horn but no boys climbed on the van to take the papers. More beeps from the driver 'Sit here lads' I said, knowing that soon Mr (name withheld!) would come out of the shop, see the error of his ways and probably give us a wage increase as well. On the third beep of the horn he did come out of the shop and he was angry, wanting to know what we thought we were so and so doing. When I informed him that we were all out on strike over the issue of Christmas tips he went ballistic, he gave us a specific number of seconds to get the papers off the van or we would all be sacked. I advised our small and loyal band of fellow workers that under no circumstances must we weaken, that workers united can never be defeated. As I sat alone on the wall watching the other lads run to the van and pull the heavy packs of newspapers off and into the shop, I reflected that it was probably worth loosing my newspaper round on a matter of such principle. These are important lessons to think about as we are growing up, about justice and fairness.
And so we come to today's reading and these images of justice and fairness seem to be challenged. We have to think about the parable of the labourers to understand whether God is fair or not. Is he a capricious despot, arbitrary in his favours, can we trust him to be fair with our salvation.
What is the parable about?
I have spent some time reading what other preachers are saying about this reading this week and I will begin by sharing some general thoughts about parables and the teaching of Jesus. Jesus had a way of communicating which gripped his hearers because he told them great stories which they could remember and think about. The message behind these stories were provocative and challenging, never simplistic but and yet they could be understood. In this he was very different from many of the preachers of today. When we read this passage we would do well to remember the ordinary people who listened, probably in a relaxed and rather unsophisticated manner as they ate their sandwiches and cursed the flies. Some of the suggested complexities of what Jesus was teaching, as suggested by modern preachers beggars belief. To analyse parables like this one to the extent of what each grammatical construction is used and why, what each detail means, is to radically miss the point. It perhaps also goes a long way to explaining why so many of our sermons are thoroughly boring, whereas the messages of Jesus captivated his audience so that they remembered them and passed the stories around.
I want you to try and imagine what the powerful messages were which Jesus was putting across. What themes do you think would have stood out as people listened? Well let me suggest a few things which stand out to me and see if they make sense to you also
1. The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven
At the very beginning of the story Jesus says, 'the Kingdom of Heaven is like........' So much teaching about this passage suggests that Jesus is teaching about the idleness of the workforce, just conditions of work etc. I really do not think that he is making a political point about labour relations, the right to work, socialism or any of the other myriad of political suggestions which people seem to imagine. The parable is about God, we must not reduce Jesus teaching by using it to support our views on socio-economic reform. Now let us be honest we all have a tendency to use scripture to support what we want it to say. Scripture was used to give justification for the slave trade and more recently also apartheid. In the debate which raged in the Church of England (which many still fight) concerning the ordination of women, there is an equal use of scripture to support opposing arguments. The same is true for the debate over remarriage of divorcees in church, acceptability of homosexuality. There is a message of caution here for all of us. To treat scripture with respect is not to weave into it all the interpretations which fit neatly with our views.
2. The teaching deliberately challenges our views of justice and fairness
If we had been the landowner we would have bargained with the ones who did not work so long and offer to pay them less money. However all the labourers are paid the same, irrespective of what they had done, and this seems to be unfair to us. The workers who had worked the longest day said 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day'.
When we put these two points together in a simple and straightforward way we have the essence of what Jesus was teaching. God does not have a system of justice which is anything like a human one. God does not give to us according to what is fair or what we deserve. When we arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven, God willing, humanly speaking there will be people there who do not deserve it. In that respect God is totally unfair, God gives in a way which defies business sense, it is irrational and it goes against everything which we think of when we were calculating reward. God's love and acceptance of us has nothing to do with fairness, it doesn't have anything to do with what we deserve. That is the wonderful thing about this parable, it runs a coach and horses through any notion that we can ever earn or contribute towards God's favour. Not one single one of us deserves God's love, if Heaven were about what we deserve, about what was fair, then it would be empty. The beautiful reassurance of the Gospel is that God treats us according to our needs and not what we deserve. We often hear people demand human rights, and quite rightly the Gospel is often used to support this. But - there is a sense in which this undersells the gospel. In Jesus we learn that God is not working according to our rights. He simply loves us because that, not rights, is what is at the heart of God's being.
This parable like the parable of the prodigal son, and so many others, tells us that God turns human values of fairness, of rights and wrongs upside down. Yet we can trust God totally, knowing that we all will receive from his goodness. It is interesting that the workers complain and moan, not saying 'we want more money', but rather 'you have made them equal to us'. The parable is concerned about the generosity of the landowner, not on the hard work of the labourers. We like to think that we are really better than others, they need forgiveness more than us.
There is a radical, uncontrollable nature about God's grace, by human standards God's forgiveness has insanity written all over it. It is not predictable, and might I carefully say, perhaps some of our theologies of redemption 'who will and who not be saved' do not allow for this kind of a God. Just recently we have seen hurricane Floyd at work in the Caribbean and across the East coats of America. In a calm sea we can set parameters for where the tide will send the sea. Walls can be constructed which will encompass the ocean and set limits. However when nature is uncontrollable and unpredictable like in a hurricane, these boundaries are removed and the sea goes where we think it cannot go. We sing 'there's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea' this parable could have been written for that hymn. We are not going to sing it today though, why?, because the truth is that it resonates with the teaching of Jesus throughout the whole of the New Testament. We would be singing it every week. This is not an isolated theme, it is in fact the essence of what Jesus came to say and do. To preach the forgiveness of God which was not deserved by human effort, to hold out his arms wide to encompass an ungrateful race, whose only response to God's goodness is to spend time trying to decide who else should not receive it. In this we are envious and greedy just like those workers who wanted it for themselves but denied it to the others who were less deserving.
We have images of the Kingdom of God as a happy time with the faithful few enjoying the benefits of the well deserved feast. The stories Jesus told about the Kingdom were very full of conflict and challenge. Perhaps we need to be reminded, like those workers, that we may be disappointed too. We may find that there are 'latecomers' those who we resent and think don't deserve it. Perhaps we just need to be grateful that for ourselves we can trust in God to keep his promise.
There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind
Frederick William Faber (1814-63)