This sermon was preached at a service of Morning Worship at St. Andrew’s Church in North Pickenham on Sunday 21st September 2014.
The passage was Matthew 20:1-15
“Good Morning and thank you for the invitation to be here with you this morning! Let’s Pray:
Heavenly Father, out of your abundant love you reach out to us in your Son that we might receive your Holy Spirit and know who you are, more than this to enter into relationship with you – a gift which we are only worthy to receive through the merits of Christ Jesus, our lord and saviour and your only Son. In his Name may I speak honestly and may the words of my lips be an encouragement to the ears of those here today. Amen.
Parables, the stories that Jesus told to explain and demonstrate his teachings, are some of the easiest of Jesus’ teachings to remember and yet perhaps some of the most challenging of his sayings and lessons for us. You see when Jesus says ‘be careful not to do your acts of righteousness in front of men, to be seen by them. If you do you will have no reward for them from your Father in Heaven'(6.1). It can be easy for us to apply it to our behaviour and realise that actually we do focus on pleasing others and maintaining our public image. Either we can change and make the effort or we can (though we probably shouldn’t) simply accept that certain things won’t earn us an eternal reward so we may as well enjoy the moment for what it is. These more straight forward teachings of Jesus are hugely beneficial, yet they’re easy for us to mentally weigh up in our minds and to apply or disregard as we feel is appropriate, especially those things that seem counter cultural or simply stupid such as when Jesus says ‘You have heard it said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, or basically tit for tat, ‘but I say to you turn the other cheek’. These sayings can teach us a lot about who Jesus is and what that means for our understanding as to who God is.
But to an extent, these commands are external to us.
They’re declared in Jesus’ day to crowds of people, who would either not remember all of them or would spend ages arguing among themselves about how Jesus was theologically wrong to say what he does! Yet when we hear a parable, be it this one we’ve heard read out today or other well-known ones, we hear a story that we remember. It stays with us just as it would have stayed in the minds of the Pharisee who was troubled by what it might mean as he went home to his family, just as it would have comforted the crippled and homeless who would be left to their own devices as they settled down for another night on the streets. These parables are more than just hypothetical stories with humorous or strong rhetorical points; they’re more than interesting anecdotes like we might hear in sermons today. When a preacher uses an anecdote they draw on either an event from their lives, or perhaps something that they’ve heard online or in the media that illustrates a point nicely. These can be, depending on the preacher and the anecdote, very helpful tools in explaining a point or in communicating an idea.
However, when Jesus delivers his parables they’re more than anecdotes, more than useful illustrations; rather they’re narratives that draw the audience into the story. The audience is supposed to resonate with one of the characters or groups within the Parable and through that association they are intended to realise or acknowledge an issue that they are unintentionally not dealing with.
This parable actually has three audiences.
First there’s the people who were actually present when Jesus was speaking and telling the Parable; then there’s the intended audience that Matthew was writing his gospel for; and lastly, there’s us here today in North Pickenham listening to the parable this morning.
So first there’s the immediate context of who Jesus was speaking to at that time. In Chapter 16 Jesus and his disciples were at Caesarea Philippi where Peter answered the question of ‘who am I?’ with ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’. Now, Caesarea Philippi is about as far North as Jesus goes in Israel, and is consequently as far away from Jerusalem as he could be and yet from Caesarea Philippi Jesus and his disciples head to Jerusalem. By Chapter 19 they have travelled around Galilee and crossed the River Jordan and are on the last long stretch towards Jerusalem. One of the last places to stop before Jerusalem was the city of Jericho, which Jesus leaves at the end of chapter 20 before the triumphal entry of Jerusalem in chapter 21. So it seems to me that the setting for this parable is either to the crowds in Jericho, or just outside Jericho on the way in. In which case there would be a mix of the last of the crowds that have been following him from Galilee and the first of the crowds that have come out to hear him from Jericho and Jerusalem. In other words, I think that there would have been people from the whole sweep of Israel represented in the crowds. People from the north and from the south, rich men who want to know how they should live their lives and spend their money, Pharisee that want to challenge Jesus and his teachings, the disciples who have been travelling with Jesus, beggars on the side of the roads and normal working folk pausing to hear this Jesus guy they’ve heard people speaking about.
It’s to a crowd that represents most people, if not all people, that Jesus speaks this last Parable before entering Jerusalem and he says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’. Here Jesus isn’t tackling their questions on their money or on the legal technicalities of marriage or other human concerns; instead he speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather than concerning himself with human stuff he’s going to tell them about God stuff, about God’s business. Yet he tells them about God by using a parable about how they live and work.
The scene would be a familiar one to them.
Day after day the labourers would leave their families and head to the market square in the hopes of being chosen to work the fields for whatever money they could get. If they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid and not getting paid realistically would mean that that night they and their families would starve.
The Landowner comes through and he employs some people to work for a denarius, the standard pay for a day’s work. There would be other employers coming to the market place to hire people but in the parable there doesn’t seem to be many other opportunities as there as still plenty of men left standing around doing nothing. So when the Landlord heads through the market place again he employs some more, promising that he would pay ‘whatever is right’.
This happens twice more.
Now realistically, this landowner doesn’t need that many people to work in the vineyard. If he did, he would have employed them all at the start of the day. The only reason to not employ as many people as you need at the start of the day would be because there weren’t enough people available to employ! The reason these people are being employed is not because he ‘needs them’, but because they’re ‘doing nothing’.
When we take this into account, we begin to realise what kind of a landowner this is. A landowner employs what he needs and pays what he has to. A good landowner might pay his workers a good wage. But this landowner is employing people not for what he needs but so that they can have what they need; some pay in order to feed themselves and their families. This is already a generous and compassionate employer. So much so that when he heads out near the end of the day he finds that there are still people who have not been hired for the day. And so he says ‘Come work for me’. The men must have been relieved, they wouldn’t get much money but anything is better than nothing.
It’s obvious so far that the crowd listening were not supposed to identify with the landowner, not many people would be as generous as him. Instead they would be identifying with various of the workers. Some would be pleased to think that they were the pick of the crop, selected by God first to do the most work for the greatest reward. Others would identify with the men hired in the middle of the day, pleased to think that their average amount of work would get some form of reward. Lastly others, most likely the beggars and the widows and orphans, would at this point feel comforted that in the kingdom of Heaven they may be insignificant but at least they’ll get some small blessing or reward from God. That in itself would be enough, to be noticed by God himself.
However, at this point the audience probably still perceives the landlord as being better than the best kind of man they might know. He’s a brilliant and righteous and caring man. But God is not simply a divine version of a good human being; he is good in and of himself.
This is where the parable, having drawn the audience in, suddenly surprises everybody.
It’s pay time and the people who have been working for only an hour are up first and they receive a denarius.
A full day’s pay for an hours work!
They can return home and afford to feed their families for the day! Well, if that’s what the Landlord has decided is right then presumably the people who had been working all day were going to get at maybe 10 times that! That hard work in the heat of the day was now totally worth it! And so they eagerly await their pay and receive a single denarius.
Whereas before they were happy to have work, now they grumble. I imagine that the crowds listening would have murmured and grumbled too, what’s going on with this story? The workers complain that they have been made equal despite clearly not having done an equal amount of work. The Landlord says to one of the workers ‘Friend, I am not being unfair. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give to 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?’
Before, the audience identified with the workers and were pleased about what it said about their standing with God. Now the beggars, orphans and widows hearing the story would be overjoyed and amazed that God would be so generous to even them who couldn’t make big donations to the temple or afford special sacrifices. The little that they can give and do is enough to be loved and blessed by God! Those who identified with the workers that worked half a day would be encouraged that although they cannot offer to God as much as they might like, he still rewards them generously. Lastly, the Pharisee who went around observing every law they could, often publicly, would be offended.
Of course they knew the terms and conditions better than the others, they spend all day thinking on the Torah and the Law and working hard for their reward from God. But the idea that those Jews who didn’t do as well as them, who weren’t as holy as them, would get an equal reward would be perplexing. Does that mean that they could have relaxed and not done as much and still get the same reward?
I’ll come back to that idea in a moment.
The crowd present when Jesus was preaching this parable was the first audience. The Second Audience is Matthew’s audience.
By Matthew’s audience I mean that the Gospel of Matthew was written shortly after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and many scholars think that it was written initially for a community of Jewish Christians, that is Christians who were converts from Judaism but with some gentiles (non-Jewish people) starting to be a part of that particular community. When they gathered together and read this parable those who were Jewish would probably have identified with the workers who were hired first. After all, their parallel would be that God revealed himself to his chosen people the Jews and throughout history they were the ones who prayed to him and did all the sacrifices and now his messiah had come (a Jewish guy by the way!) they were Christians continuing and progressing in their developing Jewish understanding of God. Yet now there were Gentiles also receiving a ‘denarius’ and being included in the chosen people. Of course they must be loved and welcomed but perhaps there could have been a sense that they weren’t as chosen, or wouldn’t receive as much of a reward, as those who had been Jewish Christians.
For the Gentile Christians that were part of this early church, this parable would assure them that they were not second class Christians but through Christ, they were as fully accepted and rewarded as those that had Jewish backgrounds. We see elements of this kind of issue in the epistles most clearly in the debate around ‘circumcision’.
However, although the audiences and their responses were slightly different the key themes still shine through, these themes, I would suggest, are ‘the integrity of work’ and ‘the freedom of grace’.
Now, Work has been a divinely commanded activity right since the beginning of Genesis. In Genesis 2 the first mention of man comes through the lack of Man to work and care for the land (verse 5) and once God had formed Man he took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (15). The pattern of work formulated by God in the Torah involves the Sabbath rest and throughout the law and the wisdom texts of the Old Testament, work is acknowledged as good.
The point of this parable is not to say that less work is acceptable, it’s not a justification of cutting corners or slacking off but rather it shows the importance of working. The men who were hired late in the day could have given up waiting in the square but actually they know that to survive and provide for their families they must try to work, even if not for long. If we follow the parallel through to serving God, it’s not a case of ‘if I only do a little then I’ll be rewarded as if I’ve done a lot’. Instead what matters isn’t how long you’re called to love and serve God but the sincerity of the work that is done. Whilst the landowner is generous, his generosity comes in giving them work; he gives them work rather than simply handing out free money in the market square.
This generosity brings us onto the ‘freedom of Grace’, or the ‘freedom of love’.
The Parable is followed by Jesus once again predicting his death and resurrection, though here he seems to be talking to just the disciples. However, the proximity of the prediction of his death and resurrection to this parable enables us to explain the gracious generosity of the landowner to the workers, of God to us, in the light of Jesus and the gospel.
The Gospel can be demonstrated through the two halves of this parable; the first half demonstrates the corrupted conditions of the world and human life that we live in as a result of sin. The original disobedience and rejection of God by humanity had caused a fundamental change the relationship between the Goodness of God and the Goodness of his creation, resulting in a Good God with a corrupted and damaged creation.
Within the corrupted systems of our current human life, it seems that we are trapped into the laws of cause and effect with an unhealthy dose of chance thrown in. Life became what we make of it, generally the degree of work that you put into things is the degree of reward that you get out of them, though if you get lucky you might be born into a wealthy family and not need to work hard, and if you’re unlucky you might be born into a situation where even all the hard graft, sweat n’ blood in the world will seem to get you nowhere. We often view our spiritual and moral lives as the same, you’re only as spiritual as the amount you pray, or only as moral as the number of bad things that you don’t do.
After all, how often do we hear people say that they’re not bad people, they’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on their partners and they don’t hurt anyone else?
The second half of the parable paints a very different picture though. here the ideas and the concepts of what is right and fair, and the wages that the workers are paid, are not governed by the corrupted, materialistic and capitalistic systems of a sinful world but rather are defined both by who the landowner is and what he does.
‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like this landowner’, this generosity is the generosity that is found in the Kingdom of Heaven, this is how God is. God’s generosity, we know, is found in Christ and it is in Christ that the freedom of grace shines brightly.
The Gospel of the freedom of Grace is that God himself created all that is, seen and unseen, and when he looks at how it has been corrupted by his human people that he created in his own image, he has compassion on them to such an extent that the Lord who was in the beginning before the foundations of the earth takes on human flesh from the Virgin Mary and is born as a baby in Bethlehem. Living as a true human, God walks the earth as Jesus Christ and as he walks he talks to anyone and everyone; he heals people of ‘unclean diseases’; he casts out demons and demonstrates his sovereignty over even the weather, and by extension all of creation. As one of us and as the Lord Almighty, Jesus prays and worships, he serves and he loves. With every breath and every action, he lives in the world of a corrupted creation and condemns it with his love, a love so powerful and sincere that the world doesn’t know how to handle him and so rejects him completely. the ultimate sin – killing him upon the cross on a hill outside of the holy city of Jerusalem. There, as if he were just a criminal. as if he were a sinner, Jesus Christ, the only son of the living Lord Almighty, breaths out his last and dies.
If that were the end, the parable would say that the kingdom of humanity is like a marketplace of starving people who are exploited by landowners and who starve anyway.
But it’s not the end.
Jesus dies at the command of Pontius Pilate, his corpse hangs from a cross before being laid to rest in a tomb.
Three days later the corrupting effects of sin that result in death are completely and finally undone by the love of God who raises his Son back to life. This is a life that that lives on, having been through death itself. As such Jesus is presented to the disciples as the living reality of the forgiveness of sins, a living reality that has asserted itself as an eternally prevailing truth for both man and for God. He ascended into heaven to be at the right hand of the father, a living prayer and advocate in heaven for us.
Through the actions of our God who became one of us so that we might become one with him in eternity, we encounter the sheer freedom of Grace. No more are we limited to earning our own reward, but rather we find that there is no reward we can win for ourselves that has not already been won for us by Christ.
We here are the third audience, being called to participate in this parable that we have heard today. We stand metaphorically in a marketplace knowing that if we don’t get work we will be starving tonight. Maybe you have already encountered the Landowner; maybe you have been working for what feel like a very long day through the heat of the sun and trusting that you will receive that which it is right for you to receive at the end of the day. Maybe you’ve only just been called to work in the vineyard that is the kingdom of heaven, and you’re still not quite sure what you’ll receive at the end of the day, or maybe you’re still standing in the marketplace, with a hunger for something you can’t put your finger on and you’re not sure if that hunger will ever be fed.
If that’s you, then listen for the landowner, listen for God, because he is calling you to work with him and for him in his kingdom, and his reward for you is the same as for those who are already working; himself, Jesus Christ as the only Son of the Living God, available to us all through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In him is the forgiveness of sins, the healing of personal wounds and a love that stands secure against the test of time. Amen.”