All over the world this week, in cities and towns and villages, men and women will line up in queues with the hope of securing a day’s work. Whether they are in Australia waiting outside a construction site, or in India on the edge of a tea plantation, they will be waiting and hoping for the opportunity to work, in order to gain the minimum wage set by those who are hiring for the day. Without any glimpse of certainty for the future, they will be in those lines (as they may have been for years before), hoping for work for one more day. That will be a real experience for people all over the world this week.
It is also the story of the people who Jesus speaks about in the parable which he tells to his friends, and which we have just heard in our Gospel reading this morning. It is a story about men and women, waiting to be hired for a day’s work, for casual Labour. It would have been a powerful story for the first people who heard it, because they would have known the experience of being utterly at the hands of rich landowners,(and we should remember that it remains a powerful story for those who have experienced unemployment and the job queue in our own society today). Because, as with so many of Jesus’ stories, there is both a common experience, and a wonderful and surprising twist.
The landowner of the vineyard in Jesus’ story doesn’t just go out in the morning to hire workers (which would have been the experience of his hearers), he returns to those who have not been hired at midday and hires some more. And then he comes back again to those who are desperately waiting for work in the mid-afternoon, and even in the late afternoon to hire men and women for work at those times as well.
As I hear this story, my imagination says to me, that Jesus intended his hearers to believe that by the end of the day anyone who was available for hiring had indeed been hired. Ultimately everyone who was looking for work had found it in that vineyard. All those who were waiting to be employed were given the opportunity to use their gifts and skills. At the end of the day, in the story, just like in real life for many people in this situation today, everyone received payment for what they had done.
But what is so surprising is that whilst those who worked all day received the agreed wage for a full day’s work, those who have worked less than a full day, (and in some cases for just one hour), also received the wage for a full day’s work as well.
How would you feel if that happened to you? If you worked for 8 hours and received the wage which you were expecting, but then found out that someone who had worked for just one hour received that wage as well? How would you feel if you worked all day at the Parish Fair and received the same thanks as someone who had just popped in and helped for ten minutes?
I am a novice brother in a Christian Community in The Episcopal Church, which has brothers around the world, but mainly in America. The community is called the Brotherhood of St Gregory. We are bound together by a common understanding of life which is expressed in a rule which we live by. Some of my brothers in that community have lived by that Rule for many years, and some like me are just at the beginning of the journey. I have been associated with them for just five years now.
One of the principles which we have agreed to live out together in that community is a commitment to all work being equal in the eyes of God. In our rule we say this: “All labour is equal in glory, honour and importance and the work of a brother should share these qualities. Keeping in mind that all talents are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the work of all brothers must be to the greater glory of God… We must therefore give the best that we can offer.”
I think that it is hard to believe that sometimes. Our society wants me to believe that those who have the most power, or the most money, or both, live lives which are much more significant than mine. But as I hear this story again, of the labourers out in the vineyard, I am reminded that God sees the world very differently to me. All labour, and energy and effort, regardless of its quantity (and even of its quality) is of equal value in the eyes of God, when we give the best that we can, in faithful response to his call. Whether he calls us for the whole day, or just for one hour; whether he calls us for what we consider to be a major task, or what we consider to be a minor and unglamorous one: whatever we are called to do, we are asked simply to be faithful, knowing that God sees all of these tasks as equal in his Kingdom.
But getting back to the story… those who have worked all day feel that they have been cheated because others have received the same money that they were given, (even though they themselves received the wage that was agreed, so they did not receive anything less than they had expected). In my reckoning, as I read this story, God is the landowner, and we in the Church are probably the people who have worked all day, especially those of us who have been in the Church for the whole of our lives.
So the challenge which the longest-working labourers make is our challenge to God. We want the greatest reward because we have been the most faithful. Yet the landowner’s response is quite different from what we might be hoping for. Listen again to what he says: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me,” he says, “or are you envious because I am generous?”
This will be a challenging story for many of us. We may be challenged by the assertion that God sees all of our efforts as equal, even when we know that we work much harder than anyone else. I am challenged by it. We may be disturbed by the idea that God makes no distinction between the work which we do inside the Church and the work which we do outside of it – it is all equally wonderful for him. Sometimes many of us would rather that God rewarded those who had worked hard for the church and in society, rather than welcoming all humanity on equal terms regardless of what people have done and achieved. But Jesus, in this story, invites us to rejoice in God’s generosity, not to sit in envy because God’s system is not fair.
There is another aspect to all of this as well. Some scholars suggest that through the picture language of this story, Jesus is teaching that in the end everyone (everyone in the whole world) will come to work in his vineyard, even if a great many of them will arrive at the very last minute. Every now and again I meet someone in one of our congregations who reminds me that some Christians come to Church as a kind of heavenly insurance policy: they are here to guarantee their entry pass in to heaven. I do not want to dismiss the faithfulness those people for one moment. Part of us I suspect will be enormously relieved to remember that we worship a loving God who longs to bring all humanity together as one. But part of us too (deep down inside) will wonder why we have spent so long doing all of the things which we have done in the Church, and elsewhere for God, if we are not going to receive some kind of special credit for it all in the end.
It is hard for us in the Christian tradition to imagine that God really sees everyone in the same light. It is especially hard for those of us who are Anglicans and who have been taught the good news of Jesus through the lense of a Church which has often valued important people more than everyone else. We only have to look at pictures of the interior of a great building like Westminster Abbey, or any of our cathedrals around Australia, to see who the institution of the Church has wanted to celebrate, and who it has forgotten. There are not many people like you and me who are remembered in the great buildings of our denomination, alongside the kings and queens and lords and ladies of former generations. And even so, despite what Christians may have done in the past, and despite ideas which we may continue to perpetuate, even unconsciously, the story that we heard this morning really does encapsulate a central pillar of our faith – that God loves everyone, and that all that any of us do is seen as of equal value to him.
We do not come to Church, and do all that we do here, out of the fear that if we stay away then we will be damned to hell. We are members here because we believe that living in community, and sharing love and care with one another is the best and most fulfilling way in which we can live our lives, gathered around the Sacraments.
The story that we are reflecting upon this morning is actually a response to a question, the question is in the previous Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and so we did not hear it this morning. Peter says to Jesus, “look we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Peter is asking Jesus whether the disciples – the first to follow him, and to give up everything for him – will receive more in the Kingdom of Heaven than those who come afterwards. We know elsewhere that the disciples are keen to know where they will sit in relation to Jesus and whether for example they will be on thrones. This story is Jesus’ response. Jesus is not saying that the disciples (people like you and me), will not have a special place – he is saying that everyone will have a special place.
So if we focus on the labourers (alone) in the story, we are at risk of missing the central point of what all of this is about. Because ultimately this is not a story about the labourers – it is not a story about how much or how little we do – this is a story about the landowner – it is a story about what God does. The point is this: God’s love for all people is so abundant, God’s generosity for all is so extravagant, that it is not fair. It does not fit into any of the models that we know of how life operates. God does not have our sense of hierarchy, God does not understand some tasks as being of greater value than others. God has no sense of super stars or super powers. God loves us entirely and absolutely, there is nothing we can do to lose that love, and there is nothing more we can do it extend it further. It is already at maximum, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and that is where it will stay.
We are engaging in a process of mindfulness at the present time in the life of this congregation. Under the banner of “Gifting with Grace” we are celebrating the many gifts which God has given to each one of us. Over the coming weeks we will be exploring these gifts further, particularly through the stories of some of the members of our congregation, as they have come to understand the calling which God has placed on their lives, often in very quiet and simple ways. God has given to this community sufficient gifts for what it needs to be the Church, to be the body of Christ here in this area. There are no primary or secondary gifts, there are not some glamorous ones, and some un-desirable ones. These gifts and skills and talents are distributed to individuals, but we share them together – they are what makes us the Church. Over the coming weeks we are going to be exploring more about what kinds of gifts God may have given to us, and to those around us and what we might do with them.
When we gather around the altar in a few minutes time, we will do so as equals. Living in the presence of God is an essentially levelling experience, because nothing can separate any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The grace of God cannot be earned whether we labour from the first hour or the last. The one who stretched out his arms on the cross for the whole world will ensure that that is so; which is a great relief for us all, because if we had to, none of us could earn God’s love, even if we tried as hard as we could.
So let us strive together for the Kingdom, knowing that we are loved by God more abundantly than we could ever imagine. And in the coming weeks let’s rejoice in the gifts which he has given to us to be the Body of Christ living and growing here in Merewether.