Sermon, Proper 20 Year A

I seem to be starting all my sermons these days with the words ‘this Gospel passage is very difficult to understand’. Today’s gospel passage is definitely not easy – it’s hard to make sense of it. Our understanding of economic justice is that if you work longer hours you get more pay than others in your occupation who work fewer hours. That is what we consider to be fair, or ‘just’. 

This story, told by Jesus, suggests something different. That the ‘usual daily wage’ mentioned in verse 2 is to be given to everyone, whether they have worked 12 hours or only 2 or 3. This is Jesus’ idea of justice.

Let’s try to understand this story better.

First, it is always assumed that this story is an allegory and nothing to do with real life. So God would be the landowner. Who might the first hired workers be? The Pharisees who spent all their lives obeying the law and didn’t like Jesus welcoming all those badly behaved outsiders? Maybe people of the Jewish faith objecting to non-Jews being told God loves them? Maybe the disciples who enjoyed being Jesus’ chosen ones and didn’t like all the riff-raff who followed after them? Well ‘possibly’ is the answer to all of these. We don’t really know the answer because the parable isn’t explained at the end. Only at the beginning are we given a clue: in verse 1 we read ‘the KIngdom of Heaven is like a landowner.’

So here are some ideas:

First we might consider that Jesus is actually talking about workers and their pay. In this case the landowner is a man with a concern for those with not enough to feed their families. He agrees a ‘living wage’ with those who are chosen first. Maybe he hopes that, by the time he returns to the market place, someone else will have hired those waiting there, giving them work and a wage which will enable them to feed their families. But he finds people still waiting, and he returns again and again, until there is no-one left. If the landowner’s main concern is that everyone will have enough to live on, then the same pay for all of them begins to make sense. And he clearly doesn’t want anyone to be humiliated by treating them like beggars – he allows them dignity and he pays them for their labour.

As I hope we all know by now, the KIngdom of Heaven isn’t simply to do with somewhere we might go after we die. Jesus’ stories make it clear that the KIngdom begins with him, and it is something we seek in our lives here and now – it is something around us now, dawning bit by bit, reaching its completion sometime in the future when God’s reign on earth is full and complete. In this case, we can deduce from this parable that God has a concern that everyone has enough to live on and feed their families. It isn’t God’s intention that people go hungry, don’t have enough work to look after their families. Is is OUR problem that our sense of justice leans towards getting what you work for rather than getting what you need. This is not how God sees things, is what this parable suggests.

Secondly, there is something very odd about this story. In the ancient Middle East, a landowner wouldn’t have gone out to hire workers if he had a steward to do it for him – which most would. The odd thing is that there IS a steward in this story, but he turns up only to pay the workers their wages. There is something about the Incarnation here: God has stewards – that’s us! Right at the beginning of the Bible humankind is given stewardship of the earth and its resources. But here the landowner wanted to see for himself who was left, waiting in the marketplace hoping for work. And we follow Jesus, who is ‘God come to see for himself’ how we’re doing with our stewardship. He found all sorts of poor, outcast people about whom society had forgotten, or whom society refused to see. This story gives us a clue about Jesus’ impression about how we were doing.

What might he say to us, if he told us this story now, about  those across the world who have no homes, no food, no hospitals and whom we continue to make unwelcome? Or about people in our own community living on a little over £100 per week?

Thirdly, we must note that the first workers to be hired did get their pay. This isn’t a story about God throwing his faithful workers out into outer darkness. It is about God’s generosity – we call this ‘Grace’. It’s noticeable that the wages are handed out in public so everyone can see what everyone else is getting. This puts it in the same vein as last week’s story and the requirement to be generous in forgiving as God has been generous to us in forgiveness. It’s the same with grace – having received grace we need to be gracious with others. In popular terms this is like winning millions on the lottery – you wouldn’t then be upset about anyone else winning millions because you already have much, much more than enough. That’s how it is with the things God gives us in abundance – forgiveness, love, eternal life, hope. We have an abundance of these things and we probably take them for granted. Let us be joyful when others find these things – even if their way of faith is different from ours, even if they are latecomers to the table.

It’s a challenge to offer grace as we have received it, to love as God loves, and to do what we can to make sure none of God’s children go hungry. Amen

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