By Anna Matthews
When I was at school, I was something of a swot. I didn’t get into trouble. I worked hard and did my homework. I revised for tests and participated in extracurricular activities. In the subjects I was best at, I would often be top of the class. In the ones I wasn’t so good at, I worked hard to maintain decent results.
Except for PE. I was not good at PE and didn’t care. I found objectionable my school’s habit of making us do cross country running through the mud and the rain in bitter northern winters; one report said I might be better at netball if I didn’t spend so much time chatting on the sidelines. If teams were being selected, I would always be one of the last to be picked, the competitive, athletic team captains weighing up the difference between me and the kid with bad asthma.
I tell you this because it helps me think about how to hear the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading. If I hear it as the hard-working, diligent, committed student who puts in extra work to do well, I find myself grumbling with indignation. It’s not fair. It’s preposterous that those who have worked for only an hour should be paid the same as those who’ve toiled through the heat of the day. If I hear it as the kid who gets picked last, whom no one wants on their team, I start to hear it as good news.
The parable is about day laborers. These are people with no fixed work; people who have to set out each morning, hoping that someone will employ them. If they don’t work, they have no means of support. Even slaves were often better off in terms of economics and security. Early in the morning, the landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard. Because it’s a vineyard, and because Israel is often called God’s vineyard, we’re meant to hear this as a parable about the people of God.
Jesus doesn’t give any detail about how the landlord makes his choice. But common practice is that employers would seek the number of workers they needed, and of those available, would want to pick the best: the hardest workers, the strongest, the most reliable. Over the course of the day, the landowner goes back to hire more workers, and again, and again. By the end of the day, those left are either those no one else wants, or those who were too lazy to get up early and be picked first.
When he employs the first workers, the landowner agrees a wage with them: a denarius is fair pay for a day’s work. When evening falls, and it’s time to settle up, the workers queue up to be paid. Those who arrived last, who did the least work, are paid first, and receive a denarius, a whole day’s pay. We can imagine the effect on those waiting in the queue behind them: if they’re paid a denarius for an hour’s work, how much more will they be paid for the hours they’ve put in in the heat of the day?
But they get paid a denarius, too. And immediately start grumbling about the injustice of it. They’ve worked harder and longer, therefore they should get paid more. But as the landowner points out, he has not been unjust: he has paid them the wage he agreed with them. Back in the cool of the morning, they’d thought a denarius a fair wage. He hasn’t paid them less than a fair wage. He’s just paid the others more, if it’s calculated at an hourly rate. ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ he asks. And the answer is that, well, yes, they are.
They grumble because the others seem to be getting more than they deserve. What’s the point of all that toil, with the sun beating down on them, if they could receive exactly the same pay for a fifth of the work?
I confess that I immediately identify with the workers who’ve done a whole day’s work in this parable. It’s not fair. I work hard and am committed and put the hours in and I try to be good and I say my prayers and I try to treat others well and why should someone in the church who doesn’t do all that get treated the same as me?
Hmm. It turns out you don’t have to dig too deep to find that justification by works is alive and well in me. The reason I find myself sharing the workers’ complaint in this parable is because there’s at least a bit of me that still seems to believe that we can earn God’s grace, or that being given it is a reward for long hard work in the heat of the day. I am so used to thinking, usually subconsciously, that I have got where I am by hard work, that I am too often oblivious both to the privilege that has got me where I am and to my dependence on the grace of God.
I have worked hard. I hope I’m committed. But it’s absurd to say I haven’t also benefited from being white, middle class, straight, and well educated, and from having come from a home where I was supported and encouraged. All of that gave me a massive head start. Am I going to begrudge those who didn’t have that?
And while we’re at it, do I really think that I’ve got where I am by my own efforts? Has not ministry taught me over and over again that on my own I’m pretty clueless, that any ability I have to offer pastoral care, or to preach, or to preside is not from me being a thoroughly kind or good or bright person, but from the gift of the Spirit that God stirs up within me? When I speak about the grace of God is it because I read about it in a book or because over and over again God has picked me up when I’ve fallen, and done the dizzying, disorienting work of reconciliation in me? When it comes down to it, what on earth makes me think I’m at the front of the queue for the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus’ parable tells us how grace works. It’s a parable for the church, whether it was originally a way of helping the church to welcome Gentiles (those who have worked only a short time in comparison with the people of Israel) or those who have been recently converted and have not undergone the trials of the earliest followers of Jesus. God loves them all alike.
And this is good news. You can’t get more of God’s love by working harder, volunteering more, being on every rota, or even suffering more persecution. And you don’t get less of God’s love if you’ve done less, if you’re one of those who never gets picked first, if you have gifts the Church doesn’t know how to recognise or use, if you’re always left till last. The grace of God does not depend on you.
This parable is sandwiched between Peter asking Jesus what the disciples will get for having given up everything to follow him, and the mother of James and John asking Jesus for the best seats in the kingdom for her sons. Like most of us, they think that there must be some reward for their labour. But in Jesus’ kingdom we’re not loved because we deserve it. We’re loved because we’re his.
Look around. There are people here who’ve served God faithfully for decades. And there are people who’ve come to faith very recently. They’re loved the same. There are people who give to the church sacrificially in terms of time or money or gifts, and there are those who just occasionally come for a service. They’re loved the same. There are some people who’ve lived lives of faithful integrity, and some who’ve really screwed things up. They’re loved the same.
Is it fair? Perhaps not by worldly standards that measure reward by productivity. But those are not God’s standards. In God’s kingdom, we’re none of us loved because we deserve it, because we’ve impressed God by our commitment and discipleship. We are loved because we are his, and because it is God’s nature to love, and a community which takes that good news to heart will be one where it’s not necessary to jostle for the best seats, or to expect greater rewards for service, but one in which we recognize with gratitude the work of grace in us and in each other. And where we don’t automatically assume that we’re the ones who’ve worked hardest and longest; where we don’t begrudge the generosity of God because we’ve remembered that when we didn’t deserve it he has already been generous to us.
The Rev. Canon Anna Matthews is vicar of St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge, U. K.