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Sermon for Ordinary 25 Year A

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Sermon for Matthew Chapter 20 - Ordinary 25

"For 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 marketplace 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." 

The life of a day worker at the time of Jesus was not a happy one. They were often unemployed, and many slaves enjoyed a better standard of living because their owners had a reason to look after them and make sure that they were fed, because they were property and they wanted their investments in human beings protected. Day workers could be more easily exploited. The workday was long, about twelve hours, from sunrise to sunset.

In Leviticus there is teaching about how to treat the poor, about not harvesting the edges of the field but leaving the edges of the field for the poor to gather, and not taking all the grapes that fall in the vineyard but just going overt he ground once and any that you miss could be taken by the poor.
There is also a telling statement about these day workers, it says in Lev 19:13
‘“Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
In Deuteronomy 24:14 it says
Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.  Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

The point is that they were very poor and they needed their money to be able to survive from one day to the next. There were no payday loans, if you were not paid you went short. We are told in the parable that they were paid a denarius and that was the average wage for a days labour, but it was a subsistence level of pay. This was what you absolutely needed to survive.  The rich had much more than this and like in every society the disparity between the richest and the poorest was extreme.

And so Jesus uses this context in which to speak about the Kingdom of heaven. It would not however have come as a complete surprise to his hearers. The Jewish teachers used a similar set of circumstances, about day workers in a field to speak of the day of judgement. In their version - Israel had worked hard and would receive high wages. The Gentiles who had laboured little would receive little.
Jesus takes this story and he changes it. Instead of the ones who work longest receiving most, everybody receives the same. The outcome to this generosity of the owner in paying those who had worked not as much the same pay - was grumbling from those who had worked the longest.

Once again Jesus the mechanism of surprise to reinforce his teaching.
If you had been a Jewish teacher then you would have been upset at this reversal.

The parable has been seen as teaching a whole range of things, including

1. The rejection of the Jews and the acceptance of the gentiles. There is no doubt that there was a real reversal here of what his Jewish hearers would have expected.
2. The grace of God in salvation against the salvation of works. This feels somewhat contrived!
3. Some see it as a lesson in socialism, Jesus objecting to the abuse of the peasants by the wealthy landowners. There can be no getting away from the fact that Jesus frequently challenged those who had status in the world. Jesus promises that in the world to come God will redress those who have been oppressed in this world. Clearly Jesus would also not like the exploitation of workers, he put himself on the side of the poor from his first sermon at Nazareth. He taught the parable of the rich man and Lazarus

However it is important to remember that Jesus starts the parable by saying that ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like’  and we must also see this parable in the wider context of Jesus teaching in Matthew
1. Parable of the prodigal son. The son is resentful of the father’s generosity 
2. The request by the mother of James and John for them to have top jobs

A few verses after this parable we are told of the mother of James and John who comes to Jesus asking that they be allowed to sit on his right and left. She wants the best positions for her children. She is a pushy parent and is ambitious for her sons. Only the best will do, she wants then to share in the power of Jesus.

Jesus speaks not just to her but addresses the disciples and tells them that what he wants is not those who seek to lead, not those who want to have the tope seats, but rather those who serve, those who take the lowly positions. This is a complete reversal of who we regard as the VIP’s.
Hence the disciples try to keep away from Jesus the children, they were considered insignificant, yet it is these that Jesus blesses.
The teaching of Jesus is that if you want to be great you must be the servant of all. This wasn’t just an idea which Jesus had for his followers, this is the lifestyle which Jesus adopted. He was the one who washed the feet of his disciples, he led by example.

This parable teaches us that the Kingdom of Heaven is
Unexpected - The way in which the labourers are paid does not conform to the rules
Unfair God’s ideas of reward my not be the same as ours.

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'.

Many understandings of salvation involve theories which revolve around ideas of justice. However God’s justice is not the same as ours. God does not give to us what we deserve and his justice is not constrained by what we regard as fair. God’s love is not fair, because God does not give anybody what they deserve. God gives us according to our needs, not what we deserve. If the people who entered God’s kingdom were the ones who deserved it then God’s kingdom would be empty. 

The complaint of the workers is not that they were treated unfairly, they got what they were promised. The complaint is one of envy and jealousy, others were given what they did not deserve. The workers did not say, ‘we want to be paid more’, they wanted the other workers to be paid less!   They said ‘You have made them equal to us’.

I am told that in some examinations the number of A grades and B grades is calculated by doing a gaussian curve, looking at everybody who took the exam and then giving so many percentage of the students the top grades, such a percentage the B grades. This is the normative referencing. Obviously this is not how they decide if you can pass your driving test, here you are required to be able to know and do certain things. You can’t just let the best 40% pass no matter how they drive, they need to know and certain criteria.

Anyway this is not what God is like, he doesn’t look at us and think the tope 20% have all done really well. The truth is that we have all failed the examination, not one of us has not gone astray, all have fallen short of the pass mark, but God in his mercy gives us a pass grade anyway.
This is what we are all like, we compare ourselves to others and use them as a standard to mark ourselves. God on the other hand sees that we have all missed the grade and we are passed by God’s generosity, not by our hard work.

We might like to think that we have done our bit and earned our reward, God sees us all as in need of forgiveness, which he freely offers. It is human nature to want to say that we are better than some other group or type of person. That God loves us more because we have earned it.  There has been an expectation that some people will be treated better by God when they reach the pearly gates because of what they have achieved on earth in their lives.

These ideas do not allow for the fact that God is not nearly that predictable. God opens wide his arms of mercy to the least expected and we must be careful not to be envious like the workers who wanted to restrict the generosity of the owner, which is exactly what our ideas of God’s salvation often do. Often we see the Kingdom of God as place where those who have done well in this life are justly rewarded by a grateful God, won over by our commitment and hard work. There we will enjoy the promised feast we have earned. The parable teaches that around the table will be those we never expected.

But the teaching today is not about the pearly gates, it is about God’s Kingdom and that has already begun. The parable reminds us of how we are to live now. There are messages here about how we should think of others. We are not to be envious, jealous or greedy. There is a human tendency to think that we deserve a little more.

We should not compare ourselves to others and our goal should not to first but rather to seek to serve. we are to be willing workers in the vineyard, getting on with the work and not looking around wondering who is doing less and getting a share of what we think we should have for oursleves. I leave you with a prayer which is from the 16th century from Ignatius of Loyola, which sums up much of what this parable is saying.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.