Sermon: Just Deserts?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at a United Reformed Church in Essex in 2009

Jonah 3: 10-4: 11; Matthew 20: 1-16

Well, he’s a grumpy old so-and-so is Jonah. Don’t you agree? Most of us, all of us I think, if sent by God to preach a message of repentance to shower of sinners such as inhabitants of Nineveh would be over the moon if we got the response Jonah got. “The people of Nineveh”, we are told, “took to heart this warning from God” (3: 5) The king of Nineveh himself ordered the people all to put on sack cloth and ashes; to pray with fervour to God; and to “abandon the wicked ways and injustice” (3: 8) they have practised up to this point. What more could you want or ask for?

Well as far as Jonah is concerned it seems you would want to ask for something completely different. Having observed that God has withdrawn the threat of punishment now that the people of the city have mended their ways Jonah complains bitterly, praying in anger to, declaring that he just knew it would turn out this way, and claiming his initial decision to run away from God’s call had always been grounded in the conviction it would all turn like this. After all if you can’t trust the God of the Old Testament to mete out terrible, gruesome punishments to all and sundry, who or what can you trust? It just doesn’t make sense. It offends Jonah’s view of what’s right and what’s wrong.

I wonder what Jonah would have made of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. It is another one of those parables to which we are indebted to Matthew’s Gospel for our knowledge that Jesus told the story. I can just imagine Jonah in conversation with Jesus. ‘Oi you, Nazareth Boy, what sort of story is that? How can you end up with the good guys receiving less? Well ok, they receive the same amount, but in relative terms the same amount of money for a greater amount of work is really less, isn’t it?” I suspect Jonah would not be alone in voicing that sort of response. How is that those who work longest and those who work least end up with an identical reward? If Jesus’ parables are designed to give us an insight into how God is and how God works then how can we work with a God who operates with such a strange set of values?

Or so it appears at first glance …

But first glances can be deceiving and the first glance is deceiving here because we view the parable from the perspective of those we think are more deserving; we identify ourselves with the people in the story we feel are more worthy (and is that perhaps how we see ourselves?). If that is how we see ourselves then Jesus has a rude surprise in store for us: God responds to people on the basis of their need, not on the basis of human worth or worthiness. We feel it ought to be straightforward to identify who is most worthy of reward but often it turns out to be less straightforward than we had anticipated. To take one example, are not people facing terminal disease more than worthy to receive medicine that will provide them with one, two or three years more years of life?

This was the subject of a television documentary last week. I don’t know if any of you watched it. Briefly, it followed the debate about a very expensive drug, produced by an American pharmaceutical company that prolongs the life of people with a rare form of cancer. Without the drug death will follow within months for some of those affected. In England the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) had ruled that on cost grounds the NHS should not offer this drug to patients. The presenter and researcher introduced us to families in heart-rending situations, people, for example, wanting the chance to see their grandchildren grow up but refused treatment which might allow them to do so.

What started out as an apparent tale bureaucratic inefficiency and heartlessness, however, soon transformed into a complex medical and ethical conundrum. With finite resources, for the NHS to spend the money on buying this drug means that they must take away money from elsewhere in the service. Who should receive less so that this small group of patients should receive more? An NHS executive took us on a tour of part of the West Midlands where they wish to spend money on services to reduce their above-the-national-average child mortality statistics but must now, following a political intervention, channel money to buying anti-cancer drugs instead.

At least we don’t have that worry in Jesus’ parable. There is enough to go around for everyone. The owner of the vineyard (representing God) is able and prepared to pay everyone a full day’s wage for the work they have done. This is true whether he picked them out of the line of unemployed workers at the beginning of the day or towards its end. It might not make good sense if you want to hang on to as much of your money as possible but then who wants a God who doesn’t want to share? It might not be a practice to commend in management magazine or a best-selling, “how to succeed in business” book but then who wants a God who runs the world like it is a huge corporation rather than a loving work of cosmic creation?

If only the NHS and its funding issues had been around in Jesus’ day perhaps a medical version of this parable would have been less difficult to understand. If the NHS Chief Executive (also known as God) is able to fund the right treatment for everyone you would not expect her say that some patients have not got sick enough in order to justify the full treatment. Everyone would get the treatment that they needed in order to make them well. No one needs to receive more than 100% healing simply because their condition is worse than someone else’s any more than any of the workers in the vineyard needed to receive the full day’s wages that would keep them (and their families) alive until the next day; to know, to quote a well known prayer, that they have received their daily bread.

All I need from God is to receive forgiveness for all the times and ways I have let God down and the opportunity to live my life as a follower Jesus. This is true for everyone else as well, whether they are repentant doers of injustice like the inhabitants of Nineveh or reluctant prophets like Jonah; whether they have been coming along to church from the early morning of their lives or only showed in the twilight years. If forgiveness and salvation can be portrayed as a transaction then it is a very simple one; no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, nor for how long you did it, God is ready to 100% forgive you.

Personally, I don’t really like this idea but then that’s no surprise as I’m the equivalent of one of those who were hired early in the day: in church from childhood; publicly acknowledging my Christian faith since young adulthood; church worker, voluntary and then paid, for many years. All that and still no bonus payment on top of what is on offer to everybody else, not even though I’ve agreed to be the Minister of the United Reformed Church. Just be grateful that God’s in charge of your spiritual remuneration, not me.

Now that I think about it, this peculiar parable of Jesus’ invites me to re-think not only my relationship with God but my relationship with other people as well. It makes me realise how deeply ingrained within me is the spirit of competitiveness with my fellow human beings. Last week was junior school sports day and I did my parental duty by going along to cheer my child on. Several parents commented that they liked the atmosphere because it was not competitive in the way sports days had been during their childhood and youth. I agreed up to a point but noted that the score was being kept in order to determine which of the four school “houses” had won. If it is only about taking part, why keep the score? And why did I feel disappointed when my son’s house came second, only a few points short of total victory?

From the comfortable perspective of middle class existence I might kid myself that I am able to remain above the fray but I know that I am always comparing myself with others and hoping that my child will excel, which of course means that they must come in ahead of most of the others (though being ahead of all of them would be particularly nice).

How sobering to be reminded that God, thank God, does not look at us in that way. Just because there are people who pray more then I do; people who read and understand their Bible more than I do; people who apply what they read in their Bibles to their lives more than I do; people who do pretty well anything better than I do it – none of that matters as far as God is concerned. God will only love them with 100% love in the same way that God has loved me with 100% love. And if that is how God sees things, which is how Jesus tells things in this parable, then that is how I am called to look at the people whom I meet in my life.

Church goer or not; educationally committed or not; born in Belfast or not; come to morning and evening services or not; I’m called to love them and you all to the same extent – because this is how God loves; this is how Jesus loves. I know this, because here, in a parable of vineyard workers, the Bible tells me so.

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