Matthew 20: 1-16
The feelings created by this story of the workers in the vineyard and its landowner are the same, I think as our reaction to the story of the prodigal son and our inclination to stand with the older brother. He hears the sounds of the party and realises his brother’s return is being celebrated – and this is not fair!
Consequently, there are four reflections I want to share with you this morning.
The first is the idea the words ‘first and last’ are about timing; and it also about hierarchy. The expectation and sense of entitlement individuals and groups have about who should be first and what is due to their position, power, wealth or righteousness. There are no limits to the reasons we give ourselves to justify our entitlements.
The second matter for reflection is the issue of justice. I’ve sat in many meetings with unions and staff discussing entitlements and who is paid what, what is just, appropriate and equitable and who should have more and why. People coming in at the last minute and receiving the same in such circumstances, is simply not acceptable.
The third matter for consideration concerns envy and generosity. The owner thinks about the reasons for the workers’ grumbling and discontent; he wonders if this is more within themselves, than it is with his decisions and actions.
And finally, our attitude to those who have less, who are vulnerable, the poor, women, children, and whether we see, hear and understand Jesus’ story.
So let’s start with the concept of the first and the last.
Jesus says in 20:16: “the last will be first and the first will be last”, repeating his words said immediately before the start of the reading in 19:30.
This repetition of the phrase points to the emphasis Jesus is placing on God’s generosity and our unwillingness to realise in God’s Kingdom, status and timing are irrelevant. Early or late, all are welcome.
Our capacity to justify our sense of entitlement is limitless. There is no end to our personal justifications for our claims. Our own status, where we fit in the hierarchy and who has power or not tells us how we fit in relation to them. Any challenge to such an order outrages us. We do anything to restore the order so we do not have our worldview disturbed.
We justify our sense of injustice when we don’t get our own way, and hold tight to the belief money and consumption will fix the issue. We have no real sense of how things might work in God’s kingdom.
I look around our world and cannot believe how often this sense of entitlement tips people into corruption, greed, abuse and violence. Blindness and deafness afflicts their senses so they do not have to see or acknowledge the consequences of their decisions and the impact on others. Politicians, unions, the church, the RSL leadership are all in the news currently for just this issue.
Jesus’ story turns all this on its head. Jesus points out there are no entitlements, you don’t earn your place in God’s kingdom, you don’t have a reserved seat, you are not privileged with the world’s standards. Instead, God gifts God’s Grace to us, all of us and a place in the Kingdom if only we want to accept it. There is no earning, no hierarchy and no power games.
Even Peter questions this challenging offer as he says in 19:27, ‘look we’ve left everything for you, what will we have?’ Jesus promises them eternal life and also adds (19:30): “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” You simply can’t get around this fact.
My second point is the quality of justice Jesus highlights, which is equally confronting. The automatic reaction to those who come at the very end of the day getting the same wage as those who’ve worked all day, is one of outrage. Those who’ve been there longest, worked hardest should get more. And yet, not so.
I’ve listened to people’s stories who have stood in the marketplace waiting for someone to hire them for the day. They’re up at 4 or 5 am in the morning, they stand all day waiting for work, knowing if they aren’t chosen, they and their families will go hungry. And it’s the same thing the next day and the day after. How is it just for those most powerless?
It is instead an economic structure enabling the wealthy to pick the best, to set the rates of pay, not having to offer stability of employment for the worker, and knowing always, who has the power to choose or reject. It is essentially slave labour. The fact the landowner knows this and deliberately does something about it is remarkably radical, disturbing the status quo and our immediate assumptions.
How hard it is for us to accept there is another version of justice and equity not based on power bargaining, negotiating, claiming entitlements, with winners and losers. In this story, the description of unearned grace is profoundly confronting and not everyone likes it or really believes it works.
We see Jesus’ generosity by the way he deals with others; but our insistence on always relating it to ourselves is our undoing. We find it very difficult to be completely happy for someone else when they are blessed when we compare them to ourselves.
Then the landowner talks about envy and generosity. “Are you envious because I am generous?” The landowner has agreed the rates of pay at the start of the day with the first who are hired who accept the terms.
At the back of the line, the workers only find it wrong when they see others they believe are less deserving getting the same as themselves. We stand at the back of the line stewing in bitterness, resentful and ungenerous, demanding our rights and a better deal.
Our outrage on their behalf needs a second look.
It is small minded and mean spirited. Are there not enough resources to go around? Do we not trust the landowner or God with the resources? But how dare something be given away that we might have. If the owner is going to play favourites, we want to be the favoured ones. The landowner’s generosity becomes a source of envy.
The problem is not the owner’s generosity, but our point of view. However, there is another way to look at this. If we wait long enough and watch closely, we realise the only way we come to know and see the goodness of God, is as it is given to others. We can see God’s goodness very clearly in the lives of others.
Standing at the back of the line offers a perspective. God acts in a completely unexpected and radical way. God is entirely fair and lavishly generous which flows together as an unbroken circle; it is not a corrupt ‘either or choice’. God refuses to play fairness and generosity off against each other and such behaviour is almost impossible to imagine in today’s world.
You and I as disciples, accepting the Gospel message must take on the values of God’s kingdom, which profoundly contradict the values of our dominant society.
In this story, God’s kingdom values are generosity, mercy, and love. And when we follow God faithfully, it means we reject envy. We also reject the unjust structures protecting our precious status quo and we welcome God’s unfailing consistency and lavish generosity in welcoming those who come later than us, who work differently to us, who are not like us; as to do so opens our own hearts to God’s grace and the formation of the same generous spirit in ourselves.
Finally, when we think about that unending Gospel generosity to the last, the least, the poor, the vulnerable, women and children, the hungry, the dispossessed, the refugee and imprisoned, the broken and marginalised: how generous are we in truly sharing God’s kingdom here on earth, without reserve, resentment, judgement or excluding entry criteria. How welcoming are we to God’s children in God’s name? Can others see God in our lives and if so, what sort of God do they see? A cold, critical, judgemental, excluding, envious, greedy and uncaring God? Or, a warm, open, compassionate, generous, inclusive, patient, forgiving and loving God?
The Lord be with you.