A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 23rd August 23
Judges 9: 6-15; Ps.21:1-6; Matthew 20: 1-16
Our readings today are in different ways about Kings, Kingship and Kingdoms. The one from Judges and the psalm are important as they provide the scriptural background to Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven which his hearers would have shared. They show just how surprising and radical his teaching was.
Let’s start with the one from Judges. It is part of the story of the wicked king of Israel, Abimelech, who killed all his brothers (all 70 of them we are told!), except for one who escaped, and it is this surviving brother’s speech we have heard read. It is in a literary form common at the time, to teach by analogy. Here a number of good and useful trees were asked if they would be king over all the trees, and they all refused. Only the worthless bramble accepted the invitation. Abimelech came to a sticky end, felled by a woman who hurled an upper millstone on to him and crushed his skull. He was so appalled that he might be known as a king who was killed by a woman that he asked his armour bearer to kill him instead. It is a story about violence and grabbing royal power by whatever means for one’s own gratification. By contrast Psalm 21 is what is often called a “royal psalm” perhaps sung at a coronation or a royal anniversary. It speaks of good kingship in the eyes of God which in turn brings down divine blessing on the king himself. In Hebrew thinking, good kings were those who listened to the voice of God and his prophetic messengers, and used their power to defend and protect their people, and particularly to protect the poor. But as we know even kings such as the greatest of them all, David, were not above moral reproach. He used his power to seduce the wife of one of his soldiers and then arranged for him to be placed in the battle where he would be most likely to be killed. So the chequered history of kings and their use of power would have been present in the minds of those who heard Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is little surprise that even his closest disciples found his teaching so hard to comprehend.
Our gospel is the well-known parable of the of the employer who recruited day labourers to work in his vineyard, but paid the late-comers exactly the same as those who had worked throughout the whole day. This was an unexpected act and one of profound generosity; and perhaps it was no wonder that those who had laboured all day were angry. You can hear them grumbling and saying that this just isn’t right, it’s not the way the world of employment works. Those who laboured longest should get the greatest reward. This is an eschatological parable – describing how God will treat those who follow him when the end times comes. It describes a kingdom of welcome and generosity beyond human imagining.
The parable is in stark contrast to the two stories which come immediately before and after it in Matthew’s gospel. His placing of the parable is no coincidence. At the end of chapter 19 we hear Peter, always prone to rush in, asking what he and the others who have followed Jesus will have as their reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. Then immediately after the parable Jesus is shown starting the last fateful journey to Jerusalem, and trying to explain to his disciples what will happen to him. In the middle of this the wife of Zebedee, and mother of James and John, comes and asks a favour from Jesus – that her two sons might sit on his left and right hands in his coming kingdom. Not unreasonably the other ten were very angry at this attempt to upstage them. They just hadn’t got it, hadn’t understood what God’s Kingdom is like. Jesus then patiently explains that the Kingdom of Heaven is not like this. “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be you slave; for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Luke places this saying at the Last Supper after describing how even at that most significant meal the disciples were disputing about which of them was the greatest. (Luke ch. 22) John’s account of the Last Supper shows us Jesus enacting this reality – doing the work of a house slave by washing his disciples’ feet.
Jesus has turned the idea of kingship, power, greatness and authority on its head. Loving generosity and service are the hallmarks of the new kingdom. As we ponder today’s gospel we might ask ourselves what it says to us and to our church.