Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 24th September 2017
Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
They’ve been there all day, standing in the hot market-place. If they get no work, there’ll be no food tomorrow. It’s harvest time, the time when there is most work available for the casual labourer.
But the chances are that these are the ineffective, the slow, the ones who are perhaps a bit idle, the more infirm, the older, the weaker. And yet still they stand in the hope that someone, just someone, might take them on.
They were here first thing at 6 a.m. when the first workers were picked. And then their hopes were raised again at 9 o clock when someone came back to hire some more grape-pickers. Not them, though. But wait – he’s back again at 12 noon. This is a surprise; surely we have a chance now? But no.
So what should they do?
Go home to a wife and children that they can’t afford to feed?
Return as so many other days filled with shame because they can’t get anyone to hire them?
Or stay away as long as possible so at least they don’t have to face the family knowing they’ve failed?
At least in the market-place they’re with the other failures, not getting under the feet of the family. And they’ve failed not just on this one day, but as they do every day. It’s the same old story. Someone else always gets picked. No one wants them.
I wonder whether you have ever had an experience like that.
Have you ever been in a place where you feel hopeless, useless and worthless, ashamed of your own inability to make a success of life?
Have you ever had that feeling that nobody wants you, that you have nothing to offer?
Have you ever been in that place where you always feel like an outsider, where you’re on the edge looking in, where you don’t feel a part of anything any more?
That’s those workers.
And that, sadly, is the position in which many people find themselves in our world today.
Just in this country, it’s the people who have to use food banks to survive.
It’s the ones who can’t get benefits paid because their lives are so chaotic they’ve missed an appointment and are therefore penalised.
It’s the homeless ones who sit in the streets while everybody steps over them or writes to the Dorset Echo to complain about them.
It’s the people whose lives have become a wreck because of drugs or alcohol abuse.
It’s the children who know only family breakdown or care and have never had a stable home life. It’s the ones who go for job after job and never make the grade.
It’s the ones who fail their GCSEs, when the only message they have heard is how important they are and how you must get them if you are to make anything of your life.
It’s the people in zero hours contracts, where others can pick them up or put them down as they will because money matters more than people.
This parable Jesus told may be more than 2000 years old, but it is as relevant for today’s world as for then.
I wonder where you see yourself in this parable.
When we first read it, many of us think that’s so not fair. The workers who’ve worked all day have a right to more pay than those who have worked only for an hour.
I remember being really miffed once when I had plucked up the courage in a job to ask for a pay rise – which took a lot I can tell you – after another colleague had told the office how she’d got one. My request was rejected – why was I upset? Not just because I needed the money, but it seemed unfair that she who earned more than me anyway and didn’t work nearly as hard was the one who achieved the rise.
It’s reminiscent too of the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son. His attitude when his younger brother comes home after first wanting his father’s money more than his father and then wasting it all on wine, women and song, is perfectly understandable. I’ve been here all along working hard for you, and what do I get – nothing – when this wastrel brother of mine gets a party and the fatted calf.
We think we know so well what is right and just.
But who decides that bankers are more important than nurses?
Who makes the judgement that a Premier-League footballer is worth more than a road-sweeper?
Who grades lawyers as more important than teachers?
Who puts the business owner top of the tree while the workers without whom he or she would have no business are scraping to get by?
When we put it like that, that makes no sense either. We live in a world that sadly shows its respect to those who earn most money, a world that says you’re successful if you’re rich, a place where power is held in the hands of the strongest and wealthiest.
Thank goodness for Jesus.
Thank goodness for this parable that seems all the wrong way round but is actually more meaningful than any of the messages our secular world gives us.
Because the parable shows us what God’s values are. In God’s eyes, no one is worthless, no one is unvalued. The vineyard owner, though he offers them jobs at different times, doesn’t ultimately exclude anyone – all those waiting in the market-place receive that call to go and work for him. And at the end of the day the landowner’s wages – his gift to his workers – has no discrimination with in it. Everyone is offered the same.
It’s very difficult to go against the culture that is all around us that says services rendered lead to a reward and the more we do the more we should get.
But we don’t even get that right.
Who’s to say that a celebrity pop star works any more or less than the people who work in our shops or empty our bins?
We have a strange way of grading the value of people when we do it in economic terms.
So what a good thing God’s generosity is not like that. All the workers in the parable were paid because all are valued, all have a place in the vineyard’s harvest.
We live in a very selfish world, where we can easily be caught up in the cry of those who worked all day – it’s not fair, I’ve worked harder therefore I should get more. Like the first workers rather than looking at the gifts we’ve been given, we look at what others have and complain.
The first workers in the vineyard were not hard done by – they received the payment they had agreed. A day’s pay for a day’s work. They were undone by their jealousy of those who were given the same for less.
God has given us so many gifts, why is it that we find it easier to be envious and jealous of others than thankful for all that we have received?
Why is it that we are quick to point out injustices against ourselves but so much slower to offer our generosity to the weak and poor?
Why is it that we can look at our lives and bemoan what we haven’t got – whether that be health, fitness, money, beauty, family – so much more quickly than celebrate what we have?
The kingdom of God is like . . . the king of that kingdom is the one whom we claim to follow as Christians.
This is a king whose values are love and mercy and forgiveness and generosity.
This is a king who loves indiscriminately.
This is a king who gives far more than we can ever deserve.
This parable that Jesus told only works because it goes against the grain.
Its theme is not fairness but God’s generosity. The initial workers had been given a gift – the opportunity to work for pay. Our callings from God are gifts not burdens – but so often we don’t see it like that.
It is a privilege to serve God, but often in the church those of us who have been doing the same things for many, many years, and get tired and disillusioned forget that. It’s all too easy to focus on the time and energy and money we’ve given, rather than on the fact that God has given us a gift – the gift of service to our king, Jesus.
That is the most amazing privilege. The workers who waited all day were waiting for that gift – the call to serve. Yes, they were doing so for wages, but God gives us incomparable gifts.
God longs for us to lift our eyes to God’s generosity not to keep them down looking at what we haven’t got.
Those first workers weren’t able to celebrate their wages because they were too busy comparing themselves with the last to be hired and concentrating on what they perceived they were missing out on.
How far are your attitudes governed by human dictates of merit and service? How far are your attitudes shaped by God’s generosity and love?
This parable is a call to reshape our lives according to the generosity of God which values all. How hard are we listening?