A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, September 24th 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube (although a technical fault caused it to cut out before the end of the sermon)
Back in the 1930s, my grandfather had finished his apprenticeship as a joiner. He could not get a job in Belfast, so he left his wife and young daughters behind and found work at the Cowley car works in Oxford. Then he got word that a job was coming up in the shipyard in Belfast, but he would have to be there on the spot if he wanted it when it became available. So he came home and waited, with no household income to sustain him and the family. Times were hard, but after some weeks the job became available, and he was in the shipyard for the rest of his working life.
His waiting for work reminds me of the situation facing the agricultural workers in Jesus’s parable. Both situations seem so far away from today’s world, unless, for example, you’re employed in the “gig economy” or on a zero-hours contract, at the beck and call of your employer. Or think of those guys on bicycles, delivering takeaway food, having to hang around until the call the comes.
This was how things worked in the world of agriculture in the time of Jesus. Labourers were employed on a day to basis. They had to wait around in the market place, making themselves available to potential employers, who might give them a job. Jesus’s parable, though, is not about the workers, and it’s not about economics, or about good business practices, though what it is about may have implications for all of these.
Despite the popular but wrongheaded title – “The parable of the workers in the vineyard” – Jesus’s story is about God, and how God works: it begins, ‘for the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner …’ (20:1)
What’s God like? That’s a good question.
Today we have two Bible readings – this parable from Matthew’s Gospel and the story about complaining people in the OT Book of Exodus – which tell us about what God is like. They tell us about God’s generosity, and they tell us about God’s kindness.
Many years ago, when I was a school prefect, I had to take my turn on the rota to read the Bible passage at school assembly. I read the parable that Lisa read for us earlier, After assembly a fellow pupil thanked me for reading the story so clearly that they were clear that they really did not understand it. Why should those who worked less get as much as those who worked longer? It just seemed unjust, so why would Jesus tell it that way?
I think their response is the one that many of us have when hearing this parable. Those who have been toiling away since nine in the morning only get as much as those who started at five in the late afternoon? Many or most of us will understand and perhaps sympathise with their response: ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (20:12)
What we have done here is to identify ourselves with those who were chosen at the start and worked the full day. What, though, if you identified with one of those who was left in the market place. What if you are stuck there, waiting for an employer to come along to rescue you and yours from hunger? What if, having waited all that time, only a single hour’s work is on offer? Well you would take it, but an hour’s pay will not buy much food for your children. And then, come the end of the of the day, the landowner gives a whole day’s wages for your one hour’s work. How do you feel about the landowner? What if this what God is like?
What if God decides to treat us not upon the basis of who we are or what we have achieved, but upon the basis of God’s generosity? As the landowner puts it to a grumbling worker, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage … or are you envious because I am generous?’ (20:13, 15) God is generous.
And God is kind. Consider the case of another lot of grumblers – Hebrew people in the Book of Exodus, from which Liz read to us today. If, as many people do, you are determined to hang on to the view that God in the Old testament is wholly or mostly a God of violence, vengeance and wrath, then you know what to expect from God when the Hebrew people start complaining.
And boy, do they complain: ‘‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (16:3) Granted, things are not easy when you are travelling through a desert wilderness, though already, when things were dry, God had provided them with water to drink. (15:22-27) Now, they are complaining about the lack of food, and misrepresenting the situation in general. They portray life in Egypt as all sweetness and light when, in fact, it had been an existence of miserable slavery from which God had rescued them.
What will God do with such an ungrateful shower? Perhaps thunderbolts from heaven? Fire and brimstone? None of that as it turns out. Faced with the gross ingratitude of this group of humankind God responds not with thunderbolts from heaven, but by raining down bread and meat upon them: quails (no less) in the evening, and bread (manna) in the morning. (16:13, 14) And there was enough for everyone for each day, just as every worker in Jesus’s parable received wages for the day.
I said that Jesus’s parable was not about good business practice, or a guide to economics, and that still holds true, but consider the implications of accepting that God is generous and kind in God’s treatment of us. The good things we receive from God do not depend upon, or vary according to our own goodness. Personally, I find that really good news, because I’m not sure what I would receive if my lot in life (this and the next) depended upon my goodness. If how God treats me, and how God treats others, is marked by kindness and generosity which does not relate to our goodness, then what does that say about how I should treat others in life?
Does it not suggest that I should seek to treat others with generosity and kindness, even when I don’t think they really deserve it? Wouldn’t that the godly sort of thing to do – in my social relationships, and also in community, political, and economic settings? That’s easy to say but hard to do. Thank God then, that even when I fall short in my treatment of others, or in my relationship to God, God chooses to be kind and generous to me, just as God has been equally kind and generous to you.