September 20th 2020 - Trinity 15
Deuteronomy Chapter 8 verses 7-18
Matthew Chapter 20 verses 1 - 16
Maggie Cogan - Reader
Have you ever been jealous? Have you ever watched as someone else received the recognition or reward that you expected to get? You had to smile and congratulate someone who you knew didn’t deserve this prize any more than you did, while inside you were wishing you’d been the one getting the pats on the back. Been there? Sometimes, life just isn’t fair. Sometimes we have to watch as someone else gets what we think we should be getting. And it’s no fun. Our human nature wants to see the pie divided evenly. We want everyone to be treated fairly, but we especially want to be treated more fairly than anyone else. And when we have to stand aside and watch someone else get the glory, or the money, or the nice house or the best car, it gives us pain. We get what the Greeks called the “evil eye” – that green-eyed monster, envy. The one that ruins
So, I’ve got a question for us this morning. What did we really want to do when we grew up?
In the time of Jesus, some people had permanent jobs, but lots and lots of people were day labourers. They didn’t have a regular place of work. They just turned up in the town square in the morning, and someone who had some work for them would give them a job for the day. And that’s what’s happening in our Gospel reading today. It’s a great reading for a Harvest service, because it’s all about bringing in a harvest. Jesus tells the story of a man who has a harvest to bring in from his vineyards. So what was he going to gather? Grapes! The story is all about grapes, and harvesting the grapes. So very early, the man went to the square to hire some workers. It was 6am, and he agreed to their wages for the day 1 denarius. In today’s money, we’ll say £150, for the twelve hours work. So off the workers go, into the vineyard. But as the day went on, he realised that he had so many grapes, he needed more people to help with the harvest. So he went again at 9am, saw some other people standing about looking for work, so he hired them as well. ‘I will pay you whatever is right.’ The day went on, and he hired more workers at 12 noon, and again at 3pm. What-ever is right, I’ll pay you at the end of the day. Now, at 5pm, the eleventh hour, when there was just one hour of work left in the day, he went out into the square and found some people still standing around. They hadn’t done any work all day, no one had hired them. So the man told them to go and work in his vineyard as well - for the last hour. At 6pm the working day was over. The grapes had been gathered. It was time to gather up, and get ready to go home. But first, the workers had to be paid for their work.
So, the workers who had only been hired at 5pm, and had only worked for one hour came forward. They were given a denarius. They were given £150. And then the other workers came forward. They had worked for longer than these ones, and so they expected to get even more money! But for each group of workers the three hours, six hours, nine hours and twelve hours, they all got what? Exactly the same A denarius or £150.
Now, how would we feel if we were one of those long working people? Would we be happy that we’d received the same as someone else, who hadn’t done as much work? No we’d be shouting about it. We might even say ‘That’s not fair!’ There were grapes, and now there are gripes - complaints, and grumbling. That’s not fair! We can sometimes feel the same way. We might think to ourselves - I’ve been working hard at something for ages and ages, and then someone else comes in at the last minute and gets the same amount of credit and praise. But Jesus is teaching us something about what God is like here. He starts the story by saying that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner’ this is a story about God and his vineyard, the church. Are there times when we might grumble against God and say, that’s not fair! That we’ve been used in the Lord’s service for a long time, and then new people come in and we think that’s not fair! Or that God gives people the same promise of eternal life if they only trust in him on their deathbed?
Could we be the people who have worked hard, and yet feel that God isn’t fair? If so, let’s see how Jesus ends the story. What’s the answer of the landowner to these gripes about the grapes? ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Remember at the start of the story, the all-day workers agreed to a denarius. That was what a day of work was worth. They got what they agreed to, and what they deserved. But the landowner decided to give the other workers the same. A denarius was what was needed to survive, to pay for food for the family for the day. And what word does the landowner use to describe himself? It’s the punchline to his speech - ‘Are you envious because I am generous?”
Who are the firsts, and who are the lasts? The firsts would include Israel—and the Pharisees—and the Elder Son—and the apostles—and those who are born into the church and serve Christ all their lives—and ministers of the Gospel—and pillars of the church. Why would such firsts become lasts? Perhaps because they have become prideful, perhaps because they have given their alms on street-corners so that others might marvel at their generosity. Perhaps because they sought to pave the way to heaven for themselves and their families with little consideration for others. Maybe because they spent their lives praying, “My will be done!” instead of “Thy will be done.” But there is also the possibility that the firsts will become lasts simply because God has willed it that way. If so, the firsts won’t have lost anything. They will receive their full due—and probably a grace-filled blessing as well. The lasts would include Gentiles and most of us are among the Gentile lasts, and the son who wastes his inheritance and comes home with his tail between his legs, and others who live wanton lives before turning to Christ and those who find Christ on their deathbed.
We might cringe at the prospect of sharing our heavenly neighbourhood with these undeserving lasts but let us instead give thanks that God has chosen to include them. If he has chosen to forgive their grievous sins, then we can believe that he will forgive our grievous sins too. This is what God is like. He’s more than fair, he is generous. He gives us far more than we really deserve. And there’s another word for generous, a word that we use to describe this in relation to God - it’s the word grace. It’s when God gives us what we don’t deserve. You see, whether you’ve been a Christian for a long, long time; or if you’ve only been a Christian for a few weeks; or even if you only decide to become a Christian today - God is gracious to us, and gives us the very same gifts of eternal life, and forgiveness of sins, and peace with him, and the hope of heaven, and so much more!
In our reading today we see grapes bring harvested; we hear gripes about unfairness; and we rejoice in the grace of our God, who gives us far more than we deserve. That grace is seen all around us - in the flowers and fruit and vegetables and foods that we enjoy; in the beauty of the creation seen in mountains and seas and fields and sky and sunrises and sunsets. But that grace is seen especially in Jesus, who gave his life so that we might live with him. God offers us his grace today, as he calls us to serve him and follow him. It’s far better than being fair - it’s God’s generous, free offer of grace. So will we praise him today for his grace? Will we rejoice in all he has given us, and will give us?
Thanks be to God for his great mercy, we certainly need it