Complaints, complaints, nothing but complaints …
There’s no shortage of complaining in today’s Bible readings.
First, there are the Israelites, grumbling about the good old days, back in Egypt, when they were slaves(!), and ‘we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.’ (16:3) They must have stopped complaining, for a while at least, when God rained down upon them fancy food like quails, and everyday sustenance like bread: manna in the wilderness.
I imagine, though, that the vineyard workers in Jesus’s parable were less impressed with the response of the landowner to their complaints.
In this parable, these are day labourers. They have to turn up at the market place each day in the hope that a landowner wants workers. If not, they just have to sit there, hoping something will turn up.
Maybe we think this belongs to the past, or is confined to places far away from here, as in this picture of migrant workers in today’s Middle East.
Let’s not be overconfident that all the workers in our fields are as well treated as they might be.
Still, back to Jesus’s story, misleadingly, sometimes called the ‘the parable of the labourers in the vineyard’.
A landowner goes out in the morning to hire some labourers, agreeing on the usual daily wage. Additional groups of workers get hired at nine, at noon, and at three and five in the afternoon – almost at the end of the working day. As evening comes, the manager pays the labourers, starting with the five o’clock crew, who receive a full day’s wage, though they only worked for an hour. Those hired in the early morning expect to be paid over and above, but only receive the normal, agreed amount: ‘these last worked for only one hour,’ they complain, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (20:12)
You can see their point of view, or would do if you identify yourself with the early group, instead of putting yourself in the shoes of someone fortunate enough to be hired on at five o’clock, just when you thought you (and maybe your family) were about to endure a day without money to buy food.
This is parable. It’s not a business management textbook or guide to industrial relations. Primarily, Jesus is talking about something else: ‘for the kingdom of God is like a landowner …’ the parable commences. So, concentrate on the landowner; on what they do and say, expecting that to tell you something about how God works in the world.
This landowner takes on everyone, treating all with equal generosity. Some may think they have a bigger call on the landowner’s generosity but it’s the landowner who makes the decisions: ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ (20:15) Jesus seems to be saying that God’s approach is to take on everyone and treat everyone with equal generosity, even up to the point where ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (20:16)
All of that sounds good until you consider that this means that you will get nothing extra from God for turning up to church this morning.
God works by being just as generous to the others; those who chose to go to other churches, to follow a different religion, or no religion at all. God is going to be just as generous to those who have stayed in bed this morning, who are in their garden now, or who have just gone for a walk. Among we who have turned up here today, there will be no divine bonus for stewarding and chair cleaning, for manning the tech desk or playing the music; not even for writing and preaching a sermon.
Whether you come to faith early or late in life; whether you come to faith at all; whether your life is full of virtuous activity or notably lacking in it, you still receive God’s unconditional love. The clue’s is in that word: ‘unconditional.’
The thing, as Jesus’s parable indicates, is not to be envious of this good fortune of others, but to focus on God’s undeserved generosity to you. Think of the most deserving person in all the world … and know that God loves you as much as God loves them, for in the kingdom of God the last will be first and the first will be last. Amen.