Labourers in the vineyard - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Labourers in the vineyard

Matthew 20: 1-16

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20 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.

And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,

And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.

Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.

And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?

They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.

So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.

10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.

11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,

12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.

15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

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I once saw a Trade Union official almost apoplectic with indignation in response to the parable that we have just heard in our Gospel reading.  And it was both fascinating and instructive to observe his response, because you can bet your life that when Jesus first told the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, the reaction of his original hearers would have been pretty much the same. 

These days many of us are so familiar with these well-worn biblical stories that they have lost their power to shock - which is a pity, because that was precisely what they were intended to do.  One of the reasons why Jesus was such a phenomenally powerful communicator was because he startled his hearers into listening - and then subverted all their expectations by turning the story round, and connecting it with their own lives, in ways that they could not have seen coming. 

So, imagine yourself a poor agricultural labourer in first-century Palestine hearing the following story: a landowner needs to hire some workers for his vineyard.  He goes out early in the morning and hires some labourers.  He hires another group at 9.00 am.  He returns at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and hires more workers, and almost at the end of the working day, he goes back and recruits yet another band of them.  And then - blow me down - not only does he pay them all exactly the same amount - whether they had been slaving away for many hours or had only just arrived in the vineyard - but to add insult to injury, the landowner then instructs his manager to pay the last lot first, leaving the poor so-and-sos who have been slaving away all day in the hot sun, to receive their wages last. 

It is absolutely outrageous - it is a story that violates all our fundamental convictions about justice and fairness.  And yet, Jesus tells this story as an illustration of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like!    What?  Little wonder that my outraged Trade Union official retorted: 'Well, if that is your idea of a just God, I don't want anything to do with your kind of religion'. 

So, what on earth is going on here?  Having been startled into listening, it seems to me that there are two rather important messages for us all in this rather peculiar, and very challenging parable.

Firstly, we need to remember that Jesus is not of course presenting us with any kind of blueprint for employment practices.  Rather, as he tells us in his opening phrase, he is talking about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, which is a very different matter altogether.  Because God deals not in wages, but in love.  And love functions in a very different way from wages.  Indeed, most significantly of all, love does not - cannot - ever function as any kind of reward.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a mother who has ten children does not love her tenth child proportionately less than the amount that she loves the first one.  Because love - even human love with all its limitations and frailties - is not finite in substance or quantity.  It is not like a cake that we have to divide up, deciding which child deserves the biggest slice.  And if that is true of human love, how much more is that the case with the infinite, all-embracing love of God, which is unbounded and profligate in its generosity. 

The priest and poet John O'Donohue once wrote: 'In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.'  And incidentally, remember that, in our parable, it was the landowner who actively went out and sought the labourers, who had no hope of being engaged as the day wore on.  To quote O'Donohue again: 'we do not need to go out and find love; rather, we need to be still and let love discover us.'

But there is a second, equally important point to this parable, which concerns the response of the labourers themselves to the situation that unfolds.  You see, as the landowner points out at the end of the story, the labourers whom he had hired first were perfectly content with the agreement that he had made with them, which is why they all trotted along to undertake the work in the vineyard, entirely happy to do so.  It was only when they discovered how much their fellow labourers were being paid, for less work, that the trouble arose. 

Again, remember that we are dealing here with the Kingdom of Heaven, not with employment practices.  Because the sad truth is that I suspect we have all either experienced, or observed situations, where an individual appears perfectly content with their lot in life - until suddenly they discover that someone else, whom they regard as less deserving than they are, has got a better deal.  At which point their former sense of contentment can suddenly crumble into turmoil and resentment.  And all that was previously good and life-giving can be lost altogether. 

There was a clergyman I knew in a previous Diocese, who was fairly new in his parish, where he was doing a really good job that he very much enjoyed. And then he learned, within the space of a couple of weeks, that two of his contemporaries from theological college, neither of whom he had had either respected or rated much as students, had both been given senior appointments: one had been made a Suffragan Bishop; the other was appointed a cathedral Dean.  The clergyman was both outraged and resentful at the news - and he was also determined not to be outdone by them.  He immediately embarked upon a quest to secure a more senior post for himself.  And the sad thing was that, during the course of what proved to be a lengthy, and ultimately fruitless campaign, he lost all heart for the job that he had previously loved; he became increasingly distant from his parishioners; and his life became overshadowed by disappointment and resentment, as his longed-for promotion never materialised. 

The point about the journey of Christian discipleship is that God knows and loves each one of us.  He knows us better than we know ourselves; he loves us more that we can possibly imagine.  And in the task of being ourselves, we are not in competition with anyone else.  As John O'Donohue puts it:

No one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself; you are its custodian and entrance. No one else can see the world the way you see it. No one else can feel your life the way you feel it. Thus it is impossible to ever compare two people because each stands on such different ground. When you compare yourself to others, you are inviting envy into your consciousness; it can be a dangerous and destructive guest.

Which is also why above the desk in my study I have a quotation from St Catherine of Siena that reads: 'Be who you were created to be and you will set the world on fire.'

We are here today to celebrate, and to give thanks for the life and work of this amazing church - because we are all part of the family of St Bride, whether we are regular worshippers here, or the most occasional of visitors.  And it is the calling of every individual church, not to look over its shoulder at what other places of worship are doing, and whether they are doing them better, or more successfully - but rather to discern its own distinctive calling; to strive to excel at that; and to celebrate all that is good in its life.  And the longer I am here, and have the privilege of being the Rector of this extraordinary church - the more I discover we have to share and to celebrate at St Bride's: our history, our building, our ministry to the world of journalism, our amazing music, and above all our wonderful people. 

Because the vocation of a place of worship echoes the vocation shared by each one of us on our journeys of faith:

Be who you were created to be and you will set the world on fire!



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