The Labourers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)

“It’s not fair” - I think every parent who has had children has heard that complaint. And the accusation of something not being fair is one we can all too easily feel, even if we do not say so out loud. Here in this next parable of the kingdom Jesus tells a story which perhaps a certain amount of sympathy in us. Was what the owner of the vineyard did fair? Should those who had worked all day get more than those who had only worked the last hour?

One of the things this parable does is show us how difficult the concepts of fairness and equality can be. Equality is one of the buzz words of the present age. We even have an equality minister in the cabinet. And yet true equality is almost impossible, because so much depends on your perspective because there are so many variables. We see this clearly in this parable. A denarius was a generous wage for a  day’s unskilled labour. Now from one point of view those who work the longest hours should get the most pay. If you work eight hours then you get eight hours pay, if you work one hour you get one hour’s pay. Surely that is what it would mean to be equal. Ah, but, suppose we approach this issue from the point of view of what people need to live on. Each person working needs a day’s living wage on which to live, and if they have not been able to get work until the last hour does that mean they should not get enough money to live on. If we give everyone what they need to live on, is that not treating people equally? And there is no way you can come to a compromise. Sometimes to treat people equally means you have to treat them differently and I think most parents work like this with their children. We recognise that each of our children is different and what they need from us as parents will be very different at different times in their lives. Often precisely because we love them the same, we have to treat them differently. And that is how God is with his children - in this parable the Vineyard owner recognised that each of his employees needed a decent living wage and so he generously gave it to them, regardless of what they had done for him.

Let’s move on to look at another thing that emerges from this parable, and that is the problem of envy. One of the things that is quite clear in the parable is that those that first went to work in the vineyard were really happy to get the work and were perfectly happy with the offer of a denarius for the work. The parable talks about the owner going to the market-place to look for workers. This would be the equivalent of our Job Centres. The men would go there first thing in the morning and hang around in the hope of being hired. As I have already said a denarius would have been generous pay for unskilled labour. But they agreed to this quite happily. I am sure that they would have been really happy all day, until they saw others getting the same pay for working fewer hours than they had. It was in looking at others that they became envious and miserable. Envy is one of the so-called seven deadly sins. Looking at what others have got and letting that make us jealous. It can happen with material things - the neighbour gets a new car or three piece suite and suddenly ours, which we had been perfectly happy with, looks shabby and we want something better. We can be perfectly happy with our smart phone until a new better one comes out. We need to recognise when we are being envious of others and turn to God and repentance because envy will always make us miserable and cause resentment.

In the kingdom of God
But this parable does not just show us some general truths about life, This is a parable of the kingdom. It is telling us about the community which lives under God as their King. And part of the point of this parable is that life in the kingdom is not life in the world. In the real world employees are paid by the hours worked. This parable comes after Peter says to Jesus (19:27), “We have left everything to follow you! What will there be for us?” Jesus first assures them that there will be blessings for them but then continues with this parable. Tom Wright says that this parable is a warning to the disciples, “don’t think that because you have been close to me so far, you are now the favoured few for all time”. For every Christian there is the gift of God’s grace - and it is not earned, it comes from God’s generous heart. We all get the same blessings from God, regardless of how long or short the time we have become Christians and none of us should expect special treatment from God - God has no favourites. We cannot ‘earn’ anything. Too often people still think that getting to heaven is about being ‘good enough’. That isn’t how it works. Getting to heaven is about responding to an invitation. ‘Come to me’, ‘Receive from me’ says Jesus, I have died on the cross for all your sin all you need to do is say ‘sorry’, put your trust in me and let me be  the one you follow through life. And all of this is summed up in that little word ‘grace’. As we sing ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see’ - that is the voice of one who has understood this. And if we have really grasped this we won’t compare ourselves to those of other Christians, we won’t wonder what we will get out of it, we are here to centre our lives on Jesus out of deep gratitude for his love for us. This has all sorts of implications for us. It means we shouldn’t come to church ‘for what I get out of it’, we come because we want to praise God for his love for us. It means we won’t resent new Christians coming in and changing things because we are all part of one family and all have the same right to belong because we have received the same grace. 

The nature of the kingdom of God is not like the nature of the world. Let me read a paragraph from Tom Wright.

“God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to shore up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else can only a little. The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually,, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his over-flowingly generous nature.”

I think getting this into our heads and hearts is difficult for all of us, because the world constantly tries to get us to think it’s own way. All of us need to pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to know what is means to live in the light of God’s generous grace. I believe the more we can, the more we will know peace and joy, and be set free from envy and jealousy.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011