Reading Matthew 18.21-35
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
One of the earliest observations we make in life as we encounter our parents’ quite unreasonable behaviour is, ‘It’s not fair!’ It’s a statement we continue to refine for the rest of our lives, constantly broadening its application. What starts off as a small-scale domestic protest against relatively trivial things like, ‘Eat all your greens, or there’s no pudding’, or ‘Why do I have to go to bed now when she gets to stay up late?’ morphs into complaints about employers, politicians, or ‘the system’ in general. And thus it extends to bigger global issues, such as the gap between rich and poor, unpayable debt owed by developing countries, why the innocent suffer, and why the world is so arbitrary and random? It isn’t fair. We learn to cope with unfairness, and to live with it, but it still offends us.
This morning’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard has a particular slant on all of this. On one level, to find unfairness enshrined in the gospel could be the last straw! But looked at in terms of what this story tells us about the nature of God, and the relationship between God and humanity, the big idea here is grace – a Christian theological concept often defined as ‘the undeserved favour of God’. That’s what the parable is essentially about, but it takes some shifting of our usual human perspective to see it. I guess most of us would naturally side with the workers who were on the job first. They toiled all day, yet ended up with exactly the same pay as the Johnny-come-latelies. It isn’t fair. Well, no, it isn’t. But this story is not so much about employment practice. It is more about the grace, extraordinary generosity and sheer extravagance of God’s love, given without qualification or limit to all.
In the early church, the parable was taken as an image of the equal value between Jewish members – the people Matthew is addressing here in his gospel – and Gentile members. The Gentiles enter the church later than the Jews, yet they receive equal treatment. From a Jewish perspective, that is hard for a people who considered themselves ‘chosen’, exclusive, with whom God had made a covenant centuries earlier. But Jesus is painting a picture of a vineyard owner who takes a broader and more inclusive view of the covenant between God and humanity, who obviously isn’t hiring people because of what they can do for him, but because of what he can do for them.
What we are being presented with here is not a model for running a workplace. As such it would be manifestly unfair and you would have big problems with the unions! Rather, Jesus says here that this is how God works – generous to the point of absurdity. What this means is that we don’t get our just desserts – and thank goodness! If there really was a tariff system for the kingdom of heaven and our place in it, well, I tend to think we’d all be in trouble. Try as I might, if the quality of my living and loving were the criteria, I’d be trying urgently to renegotiate terms. If my resentments, jealousies, dubious motives and darker thoughts were all on the table before the judge, I’d be preparing my appeal already. And I suspect most of us would say the same. But this parable tells us this is not how God works. God employs a personal approach to justice, not merely an abstract theory about it – full pay, full forgiveness, as much grace as we can take.
But – and it’s a big but – what if we don’t like it, that undeserved generosity, just like the labourers who toiled all day? In a narrow economy of rights and contracts, that is understandable, but in a free-flowing economy of grace, isn’t it rather sad that generosity to others has to be seen as somehow demeaning me and my worth? Must I be so mean that I can’t appreciate my own good fortune – my ‘full pay’ – unless others are doing worse than me? Because that’s how it seems, both in the parable and in real life. ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ asks the landowner. ‘Yes’, is the answer, and the attitude echoes down the ages. It’s the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son all over again. ‘I don’t want my brother to receive grace unless it’s a lot less than mine.’
But the invitation of God – and the good news of the Gospel – is to recognise the personal, relational nature of God’s grace and love for all. In this Kingdom, where our presumptions and expectations are turned upside down, the good news is that God’s love is for you, for me, for everyone, totally and without limit. That doesn’t mean we should stop yearning for justice in the world. But it does mean, to use an image I once encountered, that justice and mercy are partners on the dance-floor of the Kingdom of God. The poet and academic Ruth Etchells once wrote that it is an essential principle of God’s activity that ‘in his domain, mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Humans struggle with such an idea of equity’, (It isn’t fair!’) she says, ‘but in the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s the law of the land.’ Jesus makes it clear that mercy is not optional. God’s love is inclusive, all are welcomed in his vineyard, and all are entitled to the divine generosity. Of course justice matters, and the things we do to resist and frustrate that generosity also matter greatly. We frequently turn our backs on this amazing grace, but this story tells us the landowner does not turn his back on anyone. We cannot ignore or forget the intoxicating grace of the vineyard.
But what then? Well, having received, we are clearly being urged to practise this way of living ourselves – in gospel terms, to ‘go and do likewise’. Just imagine the difference there would be if we truly learned the art of living generously and graciously. Just imagine if all people of faith who claim that God is gracious actually lived as if were true. And imagine what it would mean for us corporately as the church, which, throughout too much of its history has been far more prone to judge, to censor, to reject and to exclude. What might happen if, instead of doling out grace in thimbles – and only then if your face and your lifestyle fits – the church let grace flow out in rivers, and embraced as Jesus did?
This little story tells us that God’s generosity is overwhelming. It challenges, even destabilizes, our social structures. It is outrageous and leaves us unsure of how we ourselves relate to God or to one another. If God’s love is not to be earned by our being good, or working hard, or given in a way that we understand, or consider to be appropriate or just, then how do we relate to God? If when we see others receiving God’s love in just the same measure as us, and we felt we deserved more in contrast, and we resent it, what needs to change in our understanding? What was Jesus trying to teach the early Jewish Christians who were resentful of those Gentile converts, who they considered weren’t included in the covenant, and who had come ‘late in the day’. Or, indeed, the disciples, who we hear just before this passage – in Peter’s passionate words – asking ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus tells them that they will have everything.
There’s little doubt that this initially puzzling, even disturbing, parable subverts our expectations. But what might happen if we learn to live in this place of boundless love, mercy and generous love? It is a fundamental question for a world in which there is so much inequality, unfairness, fragmentation, hostility and conflict. But responding to it positively opens up the possibility of a new and transformative way of living, mirroring the nature of the God Jesus reveals, who is, in his own essence, just and merciful and full of grace.