September 18, 2011
The parable of the workers in the vineyard: what a very subversive and shocking piece of writing that is. Just imagine it in modern terms. You contract to do some casual work for an employer, perhaps a month’s gardening or decorating, and he takes you on for an agreed wage that you know is the standard rate for the job. He takes on other workers a third of the way through the month, half-way through, towards the end, and even some on the last day. Then, when you open your wage envelopes at the end of the month, you discover you’ve all been paid the same amount, and everyone has the full month’s pay. There’d be riots, wouldn’t there?
The actions of the proprietor don’t fit with any known economic system. It’s certainly not good capitalist practice: any employer who followed this course would be drummed out of the CBI and accused of undermining other businesses. And, of course, giving as much to those who were unemployed for most of the time as to those who worked would definitely be seen as encouraging benefit cheats.
But, of course, no trade union would accept such an arrangement either – it would undermine all the carefully negotiated differentials and hours of work. Any good convener would have the wage force of such an employer out on strike in a jiffy, complaining about thwarting his members’ legitimate aspirations. The unions would be deeply suspicious of the employer’s motivation and probably suspect him of plotting to divide the workforce and destroy the nationally agreed wage rates!
But it wouldn’t accord with a Marxist creed either: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’, for we have no evidence that the needs of the latecomers were equal to those who had worked longest. The only philosophy it fits seems to be John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, which says we should do what contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number; though since the early risers were extremely unhappy about being paid the same as the latecomers, it doesn’t really fit that either.
No, the story of the labourers in the vineyard fits only one system, that of the Kingdom of Heaven, or ‘God’s imperial rule’ as it is known in one American translation. This story is typical of Jesus, and the way he taught about God. It cuts right across the expectations of those who were listening, and made his hearers think again about what God was really like.
Yet, it is not a favourite parable of the church. It is much less well known than, say, the Lost Sheep or the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. Why? Is it perhaps because it makes us feel so uncomfortable? Just as the story shows the employer cutting across the legitimate (so they thought) expectations of his faithful hard working labourers, so the theological message of the parable shows God cutting across the legitimate (so we think) expectations of faithful churchgoers. It undermines our sense of entitlement, our religious confidence, our reliance on our good works.
In short, it’s not fair!
Jonah of course thought the same thing about his experience of being sent by God to tell the people of Ninevah to repent. It wasn’t fair he was chosen for such a difficult task, it wasn’t fair that God sent a storm when he tried to escape, it wasn’t fair that in the end he had to carry out the job God wanted him to do. Then, when he did it, it wasn’t fair that the people of Ninevah repented and God forgave them! What sort of God is it who forgives the wicked instead of sending fire and brimstone to destroy them?
Finally, least fair of all, the plant that grew up to shelter Jonah when he sat sulking in the desert was destroyed by a pest, and Jonah was left to bear the heat of the sun without shelter. Jonah had done God’s work, although reluctantly, and God wasn’t even prepared to allow him shelter from the sun.
It’s not fair!
I don’t suppose it was fair that Paul was in prison for his faith, nor that the Philippian converts to whom he wrote were also being given a hard time by their opponents. But they didn’t complain that it wasn’t fair. They thought of themselves as following the path of Christ: they understood the way the Kingdom of Heaven works.
As Jonah remarked (rather bitterly) the God who Jesus came to reveal to us is characterised by ‘hesed’ – loving kindness. This is love that goes beyond what is deserved, which goes far beyond rewarding the good people and hard work. It is love which is overflowing with mercy, even to the most undeserving in human eyes.
The tale of the labourers in the vineyard tells us that God has no favourites, or rather than every human being is equally God’s favourite. We are all equally recipients of his generosity and he treats us all with equal favour. Those who knew and worshipped him from time immemorial, his ancient people, the Jews; the first apostles; Christians throughout the ages, and modern believers are all put on an equal footing with the person who has led a life of indifference or even hostility to faith, but has a deathbed conversion. All are given the reward of faith, and welcomed into the Kingdom.
We should not be surprised that we find this hard to take. According to the stories in the New Testament, even the disciples found it hard to accept the way God distributes rewards (you remember the story of the sons of Zebedee asking for the place of honour in the Kingdom). And later the church developed a sort of spiritual hierarchy, designating some people as ‘saints’ with the assumption that they are closer to God or in a more favoured position in heaven than ordinary believers. Then, in the mediaeval church, they even developed a sort of spiritual economy, with the chance to buy remission of days in purgatory from the saints, who were assumed to have more than enough good works to ensue their admission to heaven, with some to spare. We may smile at such beliefs, but even today isn’t there a tendency to believe that some Christians – the clergy and monks and nuns – or some sorts of Christian – Catholics or Evangelicals or non-conformists – are more favoured by God and will be first in the queue at the Pearly Gates?
But the parable of the workers in the vineyard reminds us (if we are prepared to listen) that God doesn’t work that way. It’s not fair!
It’s demoralising, isn’t it! No matter how many sermons you preach, how often you come to church, how much time you spend on your knees, how much money you give to charity, how many housebound people you visit, how many programmes of ‘Songs of Praise’ you watch, you are no more favoured in God’s eyes than the newest convert. The reward for everyone is the same – the everlasting joy of living in God’s presence.
But, on the other hand, the story of the labourers in the vineyard is strangely comforting. We all of us know, in our heart of hearts, deep down in the secret places of our consciences, that we don’t do as much as we could in God’s service. We are all, sometimes, among the idlers, who don’t come out into the market place to look for God’s work until it’s almost too late. (Just as most of us have also been like Jonah, and tried to run away from the task which God has asked us to do). Yet, we are assured that, as long as we do eventually hear God’s call and answer it, we will receive our reward.
We all have different gifts and talents. Some of them seem much more impressive than others, and receive much more recognition in the church and the world. This may lead some to feel their little gifts and talents are not worth offering. This parable tells us God doesn’t see it that way: whatever we can give in time, or material gifts or talents, will be accepted in the same gracious way, as long as we respond when we are called.
For some, the work he calls us to do will be long and hard, like those who laboured in the heat of the day. For some it will be dangerous, like Jonah’s mission to Ninevah. For some it will involve opposition and imprisonment, as Paul and the Philippians found. For others, the effort the work requires will seem very small; perhaps they may be seen as idlers in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter whether some great public work is demanded of us, or something slight and short-term – to be, to suffer, to pray faithfully or just to die well; God promises us the same payment whatever is asked of us.
It may not be fair in the eyes of the world, or even in the eyes of many believers. What is really important is how we react to God’s idea of fairness.
Do we react as Jonah did, by running away and sulking? Or do we react as Paul did, with the mind of Christ? Can we get beyond the ‘not fair’ state of mind and rejoice in God’s generosity, even to the undeserving. Can we even imitate it?
If we can, then we can stop worrying about what may happen to other people, and rest secure in the knowledge that when our day’s work is done, we will be paid the full wages and welcomed home: not like Shakespeare’s golden lads and lasses to dust, but the the welcoming arms of this world’s proprietor, who turns out not to be any old eccentric employer, but our loving heavenly Father.
September 4, 2011
(Ezekiel 33, 7-11; Matthew 18, 15-20)
I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to the other .
Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel, is about the covenant with Israel and the New Testament reading is about relationships within the Christian community, the New Covenant.
In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, things which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice arrived at after prayer and thought, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.
We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart http://tinyurl.com/42pkgd3 says: “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.
What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior http://tinyurl.com/3swqpfz says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.
I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England; but it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.
The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven’. Jesus replies by taking a child, and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable- if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.
Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders which is also emphasised in our reading from Ezekiel). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.
The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.
After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.
So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved, a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ – and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.
Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try”, (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.
Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard them as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven, so this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context the crucial verse is not this one, about cutting people out, but the verse about the joy of regaining a member for the community.
Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and follows his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, but particularly for the weak and the vulnerable, acting according to the characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.
Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power, and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.
Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant at the institutional level of church. When was the last time a church you were part of formally disciplined anyone?
But it has recently become more relevant to the Church of England, because of the current debate about the Anglican Communion Covenant. The Dioceses of the C of E are at the moment considering whether to approve this, and in this deanery the subject will be considered at the next Deanery Synod, which will be open to everyone.
The Anglican Covenant was drawn up after some provinces came to the conclusion that some actions of other provinces were not acceptable within the Church, in particular the acceptance remarriage in church after divorce, the opening of priestly and episcopal orders to women, and most recently, the acceptance of faithful gay relationships as valid covenants like marriage, and so not a bar to ordination. Sections 1 and 2 of the Covenant attempt to define what it is to be ‘Anglican’ (something that has always been left rather vague in the past). Section 3 proposes that certain bodies (like the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) which had previously been forums for discussion, should have the task of maintaining order in the Communion. It also commits those who sign up not to do anything which another province objects to. Section 4 describes ‘relational consequences’ for those provinces who don’t sign up, or whose actions offend another province.
Although the Covenant is being promoted as a means of maintaining the unity of the Communion, much of the history of the process indicates that it is seen by those who argued most forcibly for it as a means of excluding those provinces (especially the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada) from the Anglican Communion. Some of the provinces that were most vociferous about the need for the Covenant have since decided it doesn’t go far enough to exclude the offending provinces and have already refused to attend any meetings where their representatives are present. There is now something like an ‘alternative’ Anglican Communion, known by the acronym GAFCON, where these dissenting provinces meet. This raises a large question mark over the Anglican Covenant and whether it is now going to achieve anything, other than preserving an illusion of unity while destroying the tolerance of diversity which has up to now been the hallmark of the Anglican Communion.
Whatever is eventually decided about the Anglican Covenant, our passage from Matthew (written we must believe under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure fro resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of a true disciple in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right.