Based around Matthew 20:1-16.
One of the more enduring creations of the comedian Harry Enfield is the surly teenager, ‘Kevin’. Indeed, on more than one occasion I’ve heard a young teenage boy described with the word ‘He’s a right Kevin’. When we first meet Kevin, he’s a polite, 12 year old boy on the eve of his thirteenth birthday. Midnight chimes, and Kevin undergoes a transformation in to the grumpy, surly, bad-tempered, work-shy, rebellious teen whose main observation on life is that ‘It’s SO unfair!’
I hope I wasn’t too much of a Kevin; but I was known to say ‘That’s not fair’ to my mum when confronted by a maternal decision I disagreed with. At which point my mum would give me one of her ‘looks’ and say ‘No son, it’s not fair, it’s a circus.’ And that would be the end of the discussion.
This morning’s Gospel readings give us an insight in to how the parables of Jesus turned the generally accepted ideas of fairness upside down.
Prior to today’s reading we have the parable of the rich young man, in which a young man is told that to get in to the Kingdom of heaven he must give away his goods. We’re told that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven. And ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’. It’s generally a series of stories in which the world is turned upside down for the people listening to Jesus.
It should be pointed out that the parable of the vineyard is not a business management lesson, or a lesson in economics, but is more surprise twists and challenges to expectations. Let’s take a look at some of the ‘high spots’ from the parable – follow it on the hand-out if you like!
- A price is only agreed with the workers who come in at the start of the day; we’re told that the labourers agreed the usual daily rate. The later groups of workers are simply told they will be paid ‘whatever is right’.
- The landowner goes to the market place each time during the day – the landowner – not a foreman or a messenger, but the fellow that actually owns the vineyard.
- Why do people stay there all day and not go home?
- We see truly extravagant generosity in how the labourers are paid – the same rate – the whole day rate – goes to a man who has only just arrived!
- The landowner pays in reverse order – so that the early comers get to see what the latecomers are getting! The last are first in getting their reward, and the first are last.
- And as for the grumbling workers – It may appear unfair to the chaps who started the day – but they agreed the terms. This would be a direct challenge to the legalistic arguments raised against Jesus; law doesn’t matter; what matters is what is right.
What can WE draw from this? I’d suggest the following :
- Christ’s immediate followers – the early workers at the vineyard – were told explicitly the way to the Kingdom – their wages, if you like. Those of us who have followed are told that our rewards will be based on whatever is right. And for Christians, that will depend upon our faith.
- God – like the landowner – comes to find us where we are. Just as the landowner came to where he could find workers for his vineyard, God comes to where he can find us. We may not be found by God immediately – we may not have faith, or have heard the words of the Gospel – but He will keep coming back in to our lives until we hear Him.
- Whenever we come to God – no matter how late on in the day – whether at our birth or in our dying moments, whether 2000 years ago or now – we all have the reward of the Kingdom of heaven to look forward to provided we have ‘done the right thing’ in our lives – that we have shown faith.
- If you begrudge the generosity of God, you don’t belong in the Kingdom. Those grumbling workers, with their legalistic arguments have missed the point. Because of God’s grace, his generosity, we are all on the same footing – whether we were first or last to the party, so to say.
The disciples – who were first – would soon be followed by many other believers – other Jews, gentiles, freemen, slaves – all the way down to us here in St Mary’s this morning. Right now, we’re amongst the last in a long line of workers pulled in to the vineyard, and we will be given God’s the same portion of God’s grace as those who sat at Christ’s feet to hear the parable when it was first told.
There is much in life – in God’s creation – that we might consider to be unfair. Earthquakes and storms devastate already poor communities. A mother is killed when she’s driving to work one morning and her car is struck by a stolen car driven by a couple of teenagers who flee the scene, leaving her to die. A toddler develops an inoperable cancer and his parents have to watch helplessly whilst he dies. Each one of us can look at our own daily lives and find things that may make us question ‘Why them? Why now? Why me?’ And when we look out in to the wider world – well, enough said.
It’s hard for us as Christians, with faith in a loving God and belief in salvation through Jesus Christ, to come up with an answer to others – and to ourselves – about our life experiences that doesn’t sound like platitudes or excuses.
But this parable isn’t about our daily life here in the world; it’s about the coming Kingdom of God. It’s not about being spared from sudden and tragic death, natural disaster, the cruelty of our fellow man or sickness and lingering disease. Our faith in Christ offers us no ‘Gold Ticket’ to a better life, no angelic ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card.
What our faith does give us is the knowledge that despite what is happening, God is with us, God is in our lives, that we may be assured of his generosity and grace.
Whatever befalls us, God is with us. We may feel that it would be helpful if the yoke we carry were lighter, that our life were easier, that those around us suffered less – but God is with us, and in the end our entry in to the Kingdom of Heaven by virtue of our faith and God’s grace is assured.
In Psalm 103, we read : “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?”
Can any of us turn to our Saviour and say ‘I’ve lived a sinless life; I’ve done everything you asked of me.’ – I know I can’t. But by His generosity and grace we will be forgiven and receive our reward.
As my mum might have said – and as I had shared with me recently as part of my ministerial development – “No son, it’s not fair, it’s grace.’ Thanks be to God!