The Labourers in the Vineyard

Labourers in the Vineyard 24th September 2017   Madingley

Exodus 16:2-15   Philippians 1:21-30     Matthew 20:1-15


Last Sunday the Gospel reading was the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, with the challenging insight into God’s generosity, showing that his idea of what is fair is very different from ours. Today, as we continue to read more of the rich store of Jesus’ stories as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, we have moved on in time during Jesus’s ministry, and he is getting close to Jerusalem and the events which will bring his life on earth to an end. Yet far from restraining himself and trying to ingratiate himself with his critics, Jesus seems to say, “You thought that last story was a challenge? Listen to this then!”


And so we hear about the man who owns a vineyard where the grapes are ready for picking. Those listening to Jesus would have been aware that the concept of the vineyard was used frequently as a way of referring to the nation itself, and so they knew Jesus was probably speaking about God as the owner of the vineyard, and themselves as being the workers.  The grape picking has to happen speedily, and so in this story the owner goes out first thing in the morning to where day labourers are standing waiting to be hired, and comes to an agreement with them that they will work for him for the usual daily wage. A rule set down in the book of Leviticus in the OT ensured that workers would get paid at the end of the day – there could be no delay in receiving their due for the day’s work.


Just as last week we saw that the parable could have been seen as completed half way through the story, so here we have another double-edged parable. The first part deals with the hiring and payment of the workers, and the second reveals the indignation of those who had been hired first when they realized that everyone, however many hours they had worked, would be paid the same amount.

There is no doubt that Jesus was addressing his critics who complained about him spending time with those who were considered to be outcasts, who did not keep rigorously to the religious Law. The critics, the religious leaders, would have viewed themselves as those who had been working all the day long in God’s vineyard, and no doubt thinking that they deserved his approbation and extra pay, as it were, for all their labours. But here was Jesus, painting them as being in the wrong for expecting to receive what they perceived to be their just desserts.


And let’s be honest; don’t we have a sneaking sense of, if not indignation, at least sympathy for them at the way they were treated? Once again, our usual notions of what is fair are challenged by Jesus. Surely if, as those first hired labourers say, they have borne the heat and demands of a whole day in the vineyard, they do deserve to be paid more than those who have only been there for 3 hours, never mind those who came during the last hour?


On the other hand —-

If reinforcements had not arrived during the course of the day, those who were hired first would have had to work extra hard to gather all that needed to be picked that day. And they had agreed to be paid the correct amount for their work; the owner of the vineyard was not under-paying them.


In complaining that they had been out in the heat all day – so had those who were employed later, and had had to stand about worrying that they were not going to be able to earn anything that day. The day’s wages were only just enough to feed and clothe a family; those who were hired later in the day, if they were paid less, would have known that their dependants would not be properly fed that day, if at all. Did the first hired really consider the consequences of their grumbling, and wish the others to go hungry?


Or did they fear that this was the thin end of the wedge, a sign of the slipping of standards which they had grown up with and which they felt held the fabric of society together? That if people felt that here was an employer who would pay you a full day’s wage for only an hour’s work, no-one would work for anyone else, and  would come to the market-place an hour before the end of the day, hoping always to be selected to work for this profligate landowner? Applying that, as Jesus intended, to our service of God, that would be an encouragement to live a high old life, just ensuring that we repented of it all just in time before dying!


There’s a couple of things wrong with that way of thinking. Firstly it suggests that those who put in a full day’s work were miserable while doing it, whereas in fact they would have been delighted at being selected first thing in the morning to go and work in the vineyard, because it meant that they had the assurance of their day’s pay at the end. Their day, while involving hard work, has been secure and peaceful. The others who were only chosen later had spent a long time worrying where their next meal was coming from, and unsure of how everything was going to turn out for them and their families that day.


It’s not the first time that Jesus has introduced characters into one of his stories who react negatively to the generosity of the  main character. And, where we know we are not supposed to sympathize with their niggardly and mean response, yet we cannot help feeling that they are justified. Remember the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when that black sheep of the family is welcomed home with open arms and a celebratory feast, and the elder brother who has remained on the family farm, working himself to the bone, is less than delighted to see his younger sibling treated to the best of everything? Of course, there is an answer to his feelings of mistreatment, and the point of the story is not the two brothers and their behaviour, but the extraordinary love and forgiveness of the father, who behaves in a way no human father would.


In the same way, the emphasis in today’s parable is on the remarkable generosity of the landowner, and of the benefits of working for so generous an employer. Clearly Jesus is saying again, “This is what God is really like. Generous to a fault, full of concern and compassion for the poor. Are you really going to say you wish he was not like that; that he acted with what you consider to be the correct levels of fairness and justice?” As the Dean of King’s, Stephen Cherry, has written, “The ways of God are always much less sensible and prudent than we dare to think.”


As we get to know him, we develop an awareness and appreciation of His overflowing love and generosity. When he calls us, like the workers in the vineyard, to work for him, we don’t need to worry about whether we have the skills to do the job in the way that he would demand, but know that he will generously give all that we need to do the work. All that we have to do when asked to work in his vineyard, is to say, “Yes. PLEASE.”