A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 24th September 2023
I wonder if you, like me, on hearing the parable of the workers in the vineyard, are left thinking that it is in some ways odd and troubling. It seems contrary to our expectations about fairness: we expect people to be paid in proportion to the number of hours worked rather than at exactly the same rate, regardless of how many hours work are done.
So, to begin with, may there be a clue about the meaning of this parable from its context? Matthew gives no clear contextual clues about how he intends us to view it. It does not appear to fit into the surrounding passages. It is odd that the final verse “the last will be first, and the first last” appears in the other synoptic gospels but in neither case is it attached to the parable.
So, maybe the characters in the parable will take us deeper. The land owner is wealthy enough to afford day labourers. But he is not rich enough to be able to be an absentee land owner, and he does not have slaves, whose basic wellbeing would be his responsibility. Day labourers are the cheapest way of getting agricultural help, and are among the least well off in their society, with no guarantee of work from day to day. Sometimes their lives are indeed very precarious. And then we read of the manager who does not hire labourers but pays them at the end of the day.
The implicit pattern of work in the vineyard is for a 12 hour day, starting at 6 a.m.. This means working during the scorching heat of the day for much of the year. The labourers would line up daily in the market square at 6 a.m. in the hope of work. We can imagine the sense of increasing desperation felt by the workers who are not hired at the beginning of the day, waiting and available in the latter part of the day, when all hope of work will normally have dried up. We might feel that those workers who only work one hour but are paid for the whole day are lucky. The word idle here simply means unemployed. Are these just lazy, or unfortunate men without work? Maybe they are not hired because they have a reputation as slackers. Or maybe they are old, or infirm, or disadvantaged in some way. But it seems clear that they want to work. And when hired they go to work, desperate, even if only working for one hour. Work gives us dignity and security, purpose and challenge, and without it, life can be soul-destroying. Those hired in the morning have to bear the heat of the day while the last bear the insecurity of not knowing if they will be paid anything to support themselves or their families. Seen in this light, the complaints of those who worked all day, secure in the knowledge that they would be paid, take on a different light.
It seems that this parable is about justice, and possibly about generosity, though one denarius is hardly a generous wage and nowhere near the overwhelming divine generosity we find mentioned elsewhere. The vineyard owner makes it very clear that he fulfills the verbal contract he has made with each worker, regardless of when they begin work. So justice is served. And he is free to make a contract on his terms, with whatever level of generosity he choses.
The gospels show us that justice and generosity are hallmarks of God’s kingdom, but the particular kind of justice we see in these texts is uncomfortable for us. Fairness is comparative. We know what is fair by comparing what we have with what others have: we use our own rules to decide what is comparable. But this parable gives us a completely different view of fairness. Choosing to be more generous to one person than to another does not diminish fairness or justice. Here justice lies in the fact that each person earns enough to live on. Had those hired at the end of the day been paid at an hourly rate they would not have had enough to live on. So this parable might be called ‘the parable of not comparing yourself with others’.
It is at this point that we need to bring grace into our thinking. God’s grace is entirely undeserved and cannot be worked for, even one tiny bit. It is interesting to note that “Amazing grace” is among the most sung hymns in the church worldwide, often with a degree of romanticism, or sentimentality. This passage is about the radical nature of this grace. Firstly, shown by the relationship between the vineyard owner and those who work all day, and who grumble when they receive only the agreed wages. As I have said we think of equal pay for equal work. Our world would be chaotic if that principle were not operative. The owner disturbs normal societal order, but he is just. Divine grace does not work on the merit system. And without the merit system we tend to rebel or at least grumble. Maybe grace undermines the whole reason for being good, for observing standards, for keeping rules, for living justly.
The second set of relationships reveals the abrasive character of grace further. The first group of workers are envious of the generosity shown to those who start work near the end of the day. They cannot accept the beneficence given to the latecomers. The grumblers are not so much against grace but against the grace shown to others, and what that may imply.
This is an old story. As we heard in our first reading, Jonah sat in the shade outside Nineveh and was angry that God spared the city. The elder brother thought his father was an old fool when he invited him to join the party celebrating the prodigal’s return. The Pharisee at prayer thanks God that he is not like the sinful publican. Divine grace is a great equalizer. Privilege is totally and devastatingly replaced by putting all recipients on a par. This is hard to accept in a world where we are burdened with a merit system and expect a reward for our labours. This is hard to accept when we discover that those guilty of wrongs we have long opposed, such as racism, sexism, or colonialism, are sisters and brothers to whom the divine generosity has also been shown. So divine grace no longer seems to be something to be sentimental about. It blows where it wills. It destroys human reckoning and presumption. But it is a transforming gift of God, for which we give our deepest thanks. Amen.