All over the world this week, in cities in almost every country, men and women will line up in queues with the hope of securing a days work. It doesn’t matter if they are in Australia waiting outside a construction site, or in India on the edge of a tea plantation, they will be waiting and hoping for the opportunity to work, in order to gain the minimum wage set by those who are hiring for the day.
That is the story of the people who Jesus speaks about in our Gospel passage this morning. Men and women, waiting to be hired for a days work, for casual labour. But in the parable which Jesus tells there is an important twist.
The landowner of the vineyard doesn’t just go out in the morning to hire workers, he returns to those who have not been hired at midday and mid-afternoon, and even in the late afternoon to hire them as well. Indeed, the story creates the idea in our minds that by the end of the day everyone who was looking for work had found it in that vineyard. All those waiting to be employed are given the opportunity to use their gifts and skills. A t the end of the day, in the story just like in real life for many people in this situation today, everyone receives payment for what they had done. But what’s so surprising is that whilst those who worked all day receive the agreed wage for a full day’s work, those who have worked less than a full day, (and in some cases for just one hour), also receive the same.
Needless to say, those who had worked all day feel that they have been cheated because others have received the same money that they were given, even though they themselves received the wage that was agreed. So they challenge the landowner about what he has done. And the heart of the story becomes clear in the middle of the landowner’s response to them.“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me,” he says, “or are you envious because I am generous?”
It may be that I am the only one challenged by this story, but I think that there is the potential for its implications to ruffle the feathers of all those of us who toil and labour for the Kingdom of God. I hear stories from friends of mine who are priests, about congregations where it is abundantly clear that the power resides with those who have earned it by being in the church for many years, and who are jealous to keep it to themselves, and not to share it with more recent arrivals in the community. It is possible for all of us at times to be like that Pharisee who prays in public in order for others to see him, and who Jesus warns us not to imitate. So I ask us this morning, “are we envious because God is generous?” Or to put it another way, like those labourers who have toiled all day long, would we rather that God rewarded those who had worked hard for the church and in society, rather than welcoming all humanity on equal terms regardless of what people have done and achieved?
If it is indeed true that in the last hour God will call to God’s self all those who are still not in the Kingdom, and bring them into it as if they had always been there, (which I think is what Jesus is trying to suggest through this story-language, this picture language) then how do we respond? Part of us I suspect will be enormously relieved to remember that we worship a loving God who longs to bring all humanity together as one. But part of us too (deep down inside) will wonder why we have spent so long doing all of the things which we have done in the church, and elsewhere for God, if we are not going to receive some kind of special credit for it all in the end.
It is hard for us in the Christian tradition to imagine that God really sees everyone in the same light. It is especially hard for those of us who are Anglicans and who have been taught the good news of Jesus through the lense of a church which has often valued important people more than everyone else. We only have to look at pictures of the interior of Westminster Abbey to see who the institution of the church has wanted to celebrate, and who it has forgotten. There are not many people like you and me who are remembered in that building, alongside the kings and queens and lords and ladies of former generations. Yet despite what Christians may have done in the past, and despite ideas which we may continue to perpetuate, even unconsciously, the story that we heard this morning really does encapsulate a central pillar of our faith – that God loves everyone (not just those of us who labour away in church), regardless of how much or how little we do for the Kingdom here and now.
I have said before, within the context of baptism, that Christianity is not first and foremost a heavenly insurance policy. We don’t come to church, and do all that we do here, out of the fear that if we stay away then we will be damned to hell. We are members here because we believe that living in community, and sharing love and care with one another is the best and most fulfilling way in which we can live our lives. Regardless of heaven, regardless of what is to come, we live as Christians because we find in the way of Jesus simply the most exciting expression of true humanity.
Which is why I love the story that Graham Johnson (the Senior Pastor of Subiaco Church of Christ) tells about a man he met in Argentina who was a committed follower of Christ, but who had only heard half of the good news of our faith, and who was living out his faith full of excitement without knowing anything about the hope of life after death. I remind myself of that little story often because I need to remember regularly that if the faith that I believe in and hope to share with others is not good news here and now, as it was for that Argentinean man, then I am telling the wrong story. Coming to church isn’t just about what might happen when we die, its about living life to the full here and now.
I don’t say these things to disturb us, I say them to liberate us! Because I think the consequence of all of this is that if we find ourselves thinking “O no, I’ve got to go to church today to do the flowers, or to copy the Crossovers, or to do the cleaning…” or whatever it is, if we find ourselves living out our commitments within this community with a heavy heart, then we have not fully understood the nature of Christian living. I don’t believe that there is any ministry in this church which needs to be done by anyone who doesn’t feel joy when they do it. We do all of the individual ministries in this community because God has gifted us for the task, and because we enjoy doing them, not because we somehow feel that we have to.
The parable is a response to a question, the question is in the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and so we didn’t hear it this morning. Peter says to Jesus, “Look we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” He’s asking Jesus whether the disciples – the first to follow him, and to give up everything for him – will receive more in the Kingdom of Heaven than those who come afterwards. We know elsewhere that the disciples are keen to know where they will sit in relation to Jesus and whether for example they will be on thrones. And this story is Jesus’ response.
If you are anything like me, it will cause you to begin to examine internally why it is that you do what you do for the church and for God, because Jesus seems to be very clear that there isn’t going to be any more reward for us in the Kingdom of Heaven than for those who turn to God at the very last possible moment, having done none of them. But if we focus on the labourers in the story, we are at risk of missing the central point, because this is not a story about the labourers – its not a story about how much or how little we do – this is a story about the landowner – it’s a story about what God does. And the point is this (if you haven’t got it already!): God’s love for all people is so abundant, God’s generosity for all is so extravagant, that no one will be excluded, and that no one (because of what they do) will be given a greater priority in the heavenly kingdom.
Philip Yancey, in his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” puts it like this, “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more – no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less… Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”
God loves us entirely and absolutely, there is nothing we can do to lose that love, and there is nothing more we can do it extend it further. It is already at maximum, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and that is where it will stay.
We find echoes of that generosity in the first reading which we heard this morning as we continue to track the progress of the Hebrew people on their journey through the wilderness. They are moaning and grumbling as usual – in fact they don’t deserve anything from God – and yet God provides for them out of abundance. They are fed with quails and manna from heaven, a picture of God’s generosity to us all, even though we don’t deserve it.
When we gather around the altar in a few minutes time, we do so as equals – living in the presence of God is an essentially levelling experience, nothing can separate any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So as we serve God in this church and in the wider community, we do so from the generous resources that we have already received from life in Christ, and not in order to try and gain some other reward. Which means that if anyone in this community feels that they are ministering out of necessity, because they “should” do it, rather than because they want to do it and feel called to do it from the very ground of their being, then this is a chance for you to be free. We have not found freedom in Christ in order to be shackled by what we feel that we “should” be doing.
The grace of God cannot be earned whether we labour from the first hour or the last. The one who stretched out his arms on the cross for the whole world will ensure that that is so. Which is a great relief for us all, because none of us could earn God’s love, even if we tried as hard as we could. So strive for the Kingdom, but do so knowing that we are loved by God more abundantly than we could ever imagine. And rejoice, because that love which is offered to us extravagantly by God, is offered through Christ to all humanity as well, without price or pre-conditions – to the first and to the last.