A sermon preached at the Evening Service by Andrew McKearney on 20 September 2020
The culture we’ve created in the West is sometimes referred to as a meritocracy. The public philosopher Michael Sandel, whom some of us may have read or listened to, has written his most recent book on the subject.
Meritocracy assumes that people are self-sufficient and that success is self-made, earned through skill and hard work. But what meritocracy fails to take into account are factors such as the families and the circumstances into which we’re born, what opportunities come our way and our innate abilities.
So what a culture of meritocracy creates is winners with hugely inflated opinions of their own worth, and losers who are humiliated. The winners have supposedly got there solely by their own merit and the losers have no one to blame but themselves. It’s a harsh, unattractive, divisive and dehumanising ideology.
The spiritual life that the Christian church promotes is based solely on the mercy and grace of God; and the outworking of that in terms of social teaching leads to the promotion of what is often called the ‘common good’.
Hence the title of Michael Sandel’s recent book: ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?’
In this context, tonight’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard is particularly apt. It’s a parable in which the radical nature of the mercy and grace of God leaves us deeply offended, because our natural understanding of the spiritual life is tainted by the ideology of merit – that somehow we can earn the mercy and grace of God, and some of us deserve more of it than others!
This parable only appears in Matthew’s gospel and when you hear it you can see why some see it as Matthew’s equivalent to the parable of the Prodigal Son which Luke’s gospel alone gives us.
At the centre of both stories there’s a tension between ‘just deserts’, on the one hand, and on the other the exercise of a generosity that seems to undermine our whole system of reward and achievement. Worse still, in both parables generosity does not seem to be applied even-handedly!
The details in Matthew’s story, reflects the times that Jesus lived in. There are two familiar locations in the parable, the public marketplace, where most of the discussion takes place, and the vineyard, which is the focus of the negotiations.
The time of year would have been known to Jesus’ hearers, because it was only at that time of year that unskilled labourers gathered looking to be hired in the marketplace. It’s the same time of year that our farmers today take on seasonal labour – at harvest time.
Again, the terms of work and the wages were in fact the going rate – a denarius for a full day’s work.
And it was laid down in the book of Leviticus (19.13) that casual workers were to be paid before nightfall, insisted on so that casual workers could afford a meal and a bed for the night.
So a perfectly coherent, recognisable picture is painted, right the way up to pay time at the end of the day. And then cutting across this comes a very different order of things when the employer tells the manager to pay those who were hired last, first.
The last, those who have worked for only an hour at the end of the day, are paid a full day’s wages! Perhaps those who have worked for longer will also get much more than their fair-share? But no, they too get what had been agreed when they were hired.
So not unreasonably they begin grumbling:
These last have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day, and the scorching heat.
Remember the complaint of the elder brother when his father killed the fatted calf to celebrate the return of the prodigal younger son. What’s he done to merit that?
Remember too Jesus’ answer to the penitent thief dying on the cross beside him: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’
What’s he done to merit that?
What Jesus puts his finger on is that far from rejoicing at the mercy and grace of God showered on someone else, too often we end up feeling devalued by it and asking ‘What about me?’ To which comes the reply: ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’
And the answer, of course, is: ‘Yes’!
God’s mercy and grace completely overturns our human ways; it tears down privilege and puts us all on an equal footing. And we don’t find that easy to accept.
We imagine we’ve been toiling away bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat; but the spiritual truth is only one person has ever done that and that’s our Lord.
For the rest of us we’re labourers hired not in the early morning, neither at 9 or noon or 3, but late in the day at 5 with the close of day just one hour later at 6.
That’s the spiritual reality, and we find it uncomfortable.
Saint Augustine in his book ‘The Confessions’ speaks for us all when he writes:
Late have I loved you,
O Beauty so ancient and so new.
And he repeats: ‘Late have I loved.’
5 o’clock is late.
We are all 1-hour labourers overwhelmed by the mercy and grace of God!