Old Testament Reading: Psalm 16.5-11
Gospel Reading: Matthew 20:1-16
(Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘That’s not fair!’ is a phrase which parents are very familiar with. If one child gets a bit more cake, than his brother, of if little sister gets to watch TV while big sister has to tidy her room, we hear the plaintive cry, ‘That’s not fair’. Children soon develop a find sense of justice- especially if it’s an injustice to them, as they see it.
I think most children would ask of our Gospel parable today: ‘Is it fair?’ For it is a story about a strange kind of fairness. Jesus tells us of farmer who hires men for the day to work in his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace early in the morning and hires some men for the day. And because, presumably, he needs more of them, he goes back at nine o’clock and twelve o’clock and three o’clock and even at five o’clock.
This seems a strange situation us, but it is probably how things were done in Jesus’ day. As he often did, he’s telling a story based on what his hearers were familiar with. Scholars say that much of the detail in this story is very accurate. The men standing around in the marketplace, waiting to be hired, were not lazy, sitting around hoping something would happen. They went to the marketplace because they had their labour to offer- it was the labour exchange, the Job Centre, of its day. Palestine in Jesus’ day was a poor country, and so the situation Jesus describes was typical- unemployed agricultural labourers, waiting in the marketplace where employers would come to find them.
And the landowners would hire men when they needed them- perhaps for the harvest, or to dig ditches or do whatever work was needed done that day. Within living memory, even farm workers in Scotland were often hired and fired in this way- taken on for a fixed period of time, and paid off when the job was done. And perhaps its coming back, with zero-hours contracts, where employers pay people for only the time they need them. Maybe this isn’t such an unfamiliar concept to us today after all.
But what will seems strange to us is the conclusion of the story- and this is where the question of fairness comes in. Regardless of what time they started, the landowner pays each of them the same. In the evening, the men who started at five o’clock are paid a silver coin. And so is everyone else. Those who worked all day- from early in the morning- complain to the employer (there’s a lot of complaining going on in today’s Bible readings!). ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun- yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ And there is absolutely justice in that complaint- why shouldn’t they get more for all the extra hours.
But the landowner had contracted at the beginning of the day with the early morning workers that the pay would be one silver coin. It happens that he said the all of those he hired, at whatever time of day. ‘”Listen, friend,” the owner answered one of them, “I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?”‘ Seen from that point of view, the landowner seems, indeed, generous. The men who worked for an hour still had to wait for work all day. He’s given them enough to live on. This is no zero-hours employer, but someone who thinks everyone deserves a full day’s wage.
And after telling this story, Matthew says that Jesus said: ‘So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last’ (a phrase he’s used before (Matthew 19.30). God’s grace is not given out in different quantities. God makes no difference between us. God’s grace is generous grace, more than enough for us. As the Psalmist says: ‘You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need (Psalm 16.5). All we need- why would we want more.
Yet just as the workers in the parable complain, so we, too are apt to complain, as children do, ‘it’s not fair’. Well, it’s fair from the point of view of the landowner- he made a contract with each of the workers, and he pays them what seems, to them, their due. But the workers who worked all day compare themselves to the others- the ones who only worked an hour, and yet who were paid exactly the same.
We’ve seen that this story is based on the actual economic conditions of Jesus’ day- it was how agricultural workers were hire. But we need to also explore the theological reasons for this story- what was the issue that led Jesus to tell the story? Well, recall that Jesus spoke to all kinds of people of the love of God. There would be room, he said, for prostitutes and tax-collectors in his Father’s kingdom. The very religious people- people like the Pharisees- were put out by that. For they taught that the way to make ourselves right with God is to keep the rules, live a respectable life, make sure you do all your religious duties. And were they not, also, Jews, members of the chosen race? If they had always kept the faith, weren’t they due more of a reward?
But Jesus- who even had kind words for Gentiles- put all that into question. For he taught that anyone who turned to God, in penitence and faith, would be immediately accepted by God, on the same terms as anyone else. Jew or Gentile, Pharisee or prostitute- if you turned to God, God would reward you equally. And so Jesus tells this parable in order to say- how can you argue with God? If God wants to receive everyone who comes to him on exactly the same terms, who can you complain? In the parable, each labourer gets enough for themselves- a fair wage. And that is how God is treats those who do his work, says Jesus.
And if this story was directed against the Jewish religious authorities, it might also have been a warning to his disciples. There’s no doubt that those who first heard Jesus, and who collected his stories, were honoured in the early church- they even had a title for them ‘apostles’. But perhaps he’s speaking to them as well, saying to them, ‘there will be others who will respond to my word, when you tell them my stories. But don’t think because you were in on the ground floor, God will treat them any differently from you. All of you in the church are the same, as far as God is concerned’.
And so this story has a timeless application. For it is ultimately saying to the church of today, all of you are worth the same to God. God has dealt generously with you. But just because you have been in the church a long time, or just because you have tried always to be respectable Christians, that does not give you the right to compare yourself with others, to think that God owes you more than anyone else. There is no hierarchy of grace. God pays us al the same- we are all equally accepted and love by God. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the church for years, or of if you just came to faith yesterday. We are all loved and accepted equally.
Why is it we must always be comparing ourselves to others? How do we come to think that, for whatever reason, other people are worth less than us? When people start to think that their god thinks some people are worth more than others, terrible things can happen. At the extreme end of that way of thinking are people who drive others out of their homes, shooting and raping and beheading those they believe that the heretics and unbelievers are worth less to their god.
But the God of Jesus Christ has no favourites. Our God is a good and generous God. He treats us all, not as we deserve- because we really don’t deserve very much from God- but with generosity- that unfailing grace which is like spiritual food, the bread of life, to who believe. But whoever we are, whoever long we have been part of the Church, God has said yes- an unexpected, generous yes- to each one of us. We can do nothing to earn God’s grace. And we don’t get to set the amount of grace we get. But in way, God’s grace is boundless, overflowing, overwhelming, much more than each of us needs. So it’s pointless to compare ourselves to others- we should just rejoice in what we have!
I come back to the Psalm: for the Psalmist had the right idea: ‘You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in your hands’ (Psalm 16.5). These are words of profound faith, and it’s worth picking that saying apart, for it seems to me that the Psalmist is saying various things here.
The Psalmist says that God has given him all he needs. Yet sometimes we are tempted to feel that God has not given us all that we need. We worry that our faith might fail us- or even, if God will perhaps fail us. As the worries, pressures and concerns of life mount up, we wonder if it is all enough. We worry about the future, forgetting that it is all in God’s hands. We might sometimes wish that God had given us more, and sometimes, naturally, we will almost envy those whose faith seems stronger and richer than ours. But: it is enough- all we need. Why would we want more?
But before the Psalmist says that his God gives him all he needs, he says something which, in a way, is almost more profound. He says, ‘You, Lord, are all I have’. Now, these are strange words for those of us who sometimes feel we have more than enough. My wife thinks I have too many shirts. I like shirts, buying a shirt occasionally is a wee luxury for me, but when I look into my wardrobe I do feel a prick of conscience sometime when I recall that Jesus sent his disciples off to preach and told them to only take one shirt with them (although according to the translation it might have meant a tunic of a coat, and I suppose it was generally hotter in Palestine than it is here) (Matthew 10.10). Still, I have- and most of us have- too much stuff.
But the Psalmist says, ‘You, Lord, are all I have’. And when it comes to faith, that is all I have- or that you have. We do put our faith in other things- in family, in friends, in money, in our talents and abilities. And to some extent, that’s OK… but ultimately, all we really have is God. Not even the church, or the Bible, can replace the God of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, we are all in God’s hands- the one from whom we came and the one to whom we will return, one day. It’s God, or nothing. God is all we have.
And if God is all we have, and if God is all we need, then we can confidently say that to God, as the Psalmist does, ‘my future is in your hands’. Later on the Psalm, he says, ‘You will show me the path that leads to life’. When we discover faith in God, we will know that we are on the path that leads to life. Both a fulfilling life in this life, but also life that leads on into eternity. God might be all we have- but we cant’ complain, because that’s already more than enough- it’s all we need. And God has our future in his hands, and he leads into the paths of life.
Right at the end of the parable, we hear words of Jesus which Matthew, in fact, puts in a slightly different form at the head of the parable as well. ‘Those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last’. This is a strong affirmation of our equality before God. There are absolutely no favourites in God’s eyes. Each of us is worth more than we can know to God, and so we don’t need anything else- we have God’s grace already. Not only is it fair- is more than enough for each of us!
Ascription of Praise
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be forever, Amen.
BCO 1994, p586
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo