Here’s my reflection for Sunday 13 December.
The online worship session will start at 11.00. I will be leading worship this week.
If you want to join in just email me – firstname.lastname@example.org – for details. We’d love to see you.
London Road Congregational Church Reflection 10 January 2020
Call to Worship: (Based on Matthew 20:1-16)
Come and worship,
you who woke early and you who slept late;
you who come often, and you who don’t.
Whether we are first or last or somewhere in between,
there is room for all of us in God’s kingdom,
and more than enough grace to go around.
Let’s worship God together!
God, You heap your love upon us
like a parent providing for a family’s needs,
embracing a child with tenderness.
when, like spoiled children,
we treat Your generosity as our right,
or hug it possessively to ourselves.
Give us enough trust to live secure in Your love
and to share it freely with others
in open-handed confidence
that Your grace will never run out. Amen.
Let us say together the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Hymn: Come People of the Risen King by Stuart Townsend
Come, people of the risen King,
Who delight to bring Him praise.
Come, all and tune your hearts to sing
To the Morning Star of grace.
From the shifting shadows of the earth
We will lift our eyes to Him,
Where steady arms of mercy reach
To gather children in.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Let every tongue rejoice!
One heart, one voice, O Church of Christ, rejoice!
Come, those whose joy is morning sun
And those weeping through the night.
Come, those who tell of battles won,
And those struggling in the fight.
For His perfect love will never change,
And His mercies never cease,
But follow us through all our days
With the certain hope of peace.
Come, young and old from every land,
Men and women of the faith.
Come, those with full or empty hands,
Find the riches of His grace.
Over all the world, His people sing,
Shore to shore we hear them call
The Truth that cries through every age;
‘Our God is all in all’.
Today we start a new series of services based on the Parables of Jesus.
One idea we have is for both of us to preach about the same parable. So today I’m going to be talking about the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. And next week the plan is that Martin will do the same. But hopefully he will find something different in the parable to talk about – otherwise it may get a bit boring. Later on we’ll do the same thing in reverse – Martin will go first and then I’ll have a go at the same text the week after.
We’ll have our readings now
Deuteronomy 24: 14-15
Do not cheat poor and needy hired servants, whether they are Israelites or foreigners living in one of your towns. Each day before sunset pay them for that day’s work; they need the money and have counted on getting it. If you do not pay them, they will cry out against you to the Lord, and you will be guilty of sin.
The Workers in the Vineyard
“The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them the regular wage, a silver coin a day, and sent them to work in his vineyard. He went out again to the marketplace at nine o’clock and saw some men standing there doing nothing, so he told them, ‘You also go and work in the vineyard, and I will pay you a fair wage.’ So they went. Then at twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. It was nearly five o’clock when he went to the marketplace and saw some other men still standing there. ‘Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?’ he asked them. ‘No one hired us,’ they answered. ‘Well, then, you go and work in the vineyard,’ he told them.
“When evening came, the owner told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.’ The men who had begun to work at five o’clock were paid a silver coin each. So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each. They took their money and started grumbling against the employer. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ ‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’”
And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.”
The Old Testament passage made it clear – make sure you pay your debts to your workers promptly. Because they need it and they have counted on it. Not paying it before the end of the day when the work has been done is sinful. If you don’t pay them they will ‘cry out against you to the Lord.’
Well this particular boss made sure he paid everyone before sunset – and the workers still weren’t happy. What was going on?
One of the things they try to teach you when you are studying how to interpret the Bible is to look at passages in their context. Because the way we generally read the Bible in church is very peculiar don’t you think? We’ve got this book called the Gospel of Matthew. Last week we read the first part of chapter 2. So the sensible thing this week is obviously to move on to Chapter 20. I’m sure that’s what Matthew would have expected us to do when he wrote it. It’s the only logical approach isn’t it?
Well of course not. What Matthew would have expected is for you to start at Chapter 1 and carry on until you got to Chapter 28. Now when he wrote it the text wouldn’t have had chapter numbers like this, let alone verse numbers, but you understand what I mean. If you’re going to take the time to write a book then what you try and do is to assemble your thoughts into a sensible order and then write them down. That way somebody might understand the story you are telling. So Matthew puts in all that work and then we go and decide to read it in bits and pieces, snatches from here, there and everywhere. And then we wonder why it’s sometimes difficult to follow.
In the autumn months we undertook the bold experiment of reading a substantial chunk of Matthews gospel in the order he wrote it. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 – The Sermon on the Mount. But now, if we’re to concentrate on the parables we need to look at them differently, because otherwise we’d never get there.
But it is sometimes worth looking at what comes immediately before a passage and what comes immediately after it. In this case Chapter 19 deals with the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give his money to the poor. Not what he was hoping to hear! How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. It ends with Jesus saying ‘many who now are first will be last, and many who now are last will be first.’
In Matthew’s account it is then that Jesus goes on to tell this parable.
To recap in a nutshell:
The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire some labour for the day and promises the workers the normal daily pay;
He does the same thing three more times, the last being at 5 p.m. – probably about an hour before work stops for the day.
And then as instructed in Deuteronomy he settles the wages.
But strangely he pays everyone the same – a day’s wages – starting with the ones who’ve only done an hour’s work.
And those that have done a full shift are upset when they get – exactly what they have been promised.
What might Jesus’ point have been in telling this story?
Well perhaps the traditional interpretation goes something like this
- The owner of the vineyard is meant to represent God;
- The labourers are us humans;
- The story signifies the fact that God’s grace extends to everyone, and it’s the same whether you have been in on the deal from the beginning – like the Jews, or if you’ve only come on board much later – like the Gentiles.
I am sure that all of that is right. But is that everything?
You see this story only appears in Matthew’s gospel. And it is generally accepted that Matthew wrote his Gospel to speak about Jesus to the Jews. That’s why he dwells a lot on fulfilment of prophecy – the Old Testament texts coming to fruition in Jesus. Matthew talked about that a lot in his stories of Jesus birth for example: prophecies about the virgin birth, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the escape to Egypt and Jesus living in Nazareth are all referenced back to the words of the prophets.
So why this concern about the Gentiles all of a sudden Mathew?
I’ll leave that there (there’s lots more to unpick from the traditional interpretation that Martin might want to pursue next week – or he might not) and go back to where we started from – that this parable follows the story about the rich young man, which is about giving money to the poor.
Now if you’re the owner of a vineyard – and it must have been quite a big vineyard if you needed lots of labourers to work on it – then I think it’s reasonable to assume that you might be quite wealthy. Certainly you are in comparison to the people you employ. And those people waiting to be employed on a day-by-day basis were poor. If they didn’t get work on a particular day they and their families probably wouldn’t eat.
Perhaps then this parable is also a commentary on that story that we should have read immediately before – about what a rich man might do to support the poor. A parable about social justice.
What might it have to tell us in that context?
Well perhaps it’s Jesus saying – You know what I said about the rich giving all their money to the poor – that might be a bit unrealistic. But I meant it when I said that the poor need support – and it’s the rich who have the means to do it. So what might actually work?
Why not start with this – that everyone needs to eat. And to be able to buy food everyone needs some money – enough money to buy sufficient food. In the parable that was a silver coin a day. Less than that isn’t enough to survive. But if you pay enough everyone will have dignity. A first century minimum wage.
Secondly – you don’t get any credit Mr Rich Landowner for just paying the people you need to do the work for you the minimum wage. Because let’s face it the only reason you pay someone to do work for you is to make you even richer. If you’re paying someone a silver coin for their labour then that labour must be worth more than a silver coin to you. That’s how the system works. You pay out – but you get back more value. You pay out some money – and you get richer. No what you need to do is to pay out more than you need to pay. So in our story the owner of the vineyard could have employed enough people to do all the work at the start of the day and just paid them. Result – some of the poor get enough to get by, the landowner gets wealthier, and some of the poor get nothing at all. But in our story the rich man keeps going out to look for the people who need work, who need money and he keeps on employing them until everyone has work and everyone is paid the going rate.
Third – the deal cuts both ways. The landowner in the parable doesn’t just go out and give money to people for doing nothing – everyone has to do at least some work to get paid. There’s an important point here – those that worked all day were already a bit peeved to be only paid the same as those who had worked for just an hour. What would they have said if they knew they could have got the same for doing nothing at all. Because it all only works in the long run if the rich man has the money to keep on paying, which means he has to have the work done. If no-one does any work then no-one gets paid at all, and no-one benefits from that.
So there we have it – an interpretation of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard which isn’t about God and isn’t about heaven. Instead it’s about social justice, and it’s about life on the earth. It’s a radical but workable message from Jesus about the way we should live our lives for the benefit of people now, not for the benefit of ourselves later.
What do you think?
Let’s finish with another Bible text from Matthew – one we looked at a few weeks ago from Matthew 5 verse 6.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’
That Landowner was looking for righteousness in his dealings with the labourers. What can we learn from him about how we wany society to work.
Let us pray
In the times when we give – however generously
it becomes blatantly clear, O God,
how ridiculous our attempts are to balance the scales;
We cannot repay Your abundance of supply
Your extravagance of grace;
Nor do You require it.
So, why should we expect it of others?
In truth, we cannot.
Like You we can only love – by giving, by serving, by praying.
And so we ask…
Free the score-keepers in our world and in our hearts
Restore the fallen in our world and in our hearts
Strengthen the merciful in our world and in our hearts
Heal the broken in our world and in our hearts
Uplift the lowly in our world and in our hearts
Bring down the tyrants in our world and in our hearts
Erase the lines of division in our world and in our hearts
Create a Christ-guided humanity in our world and in our hearts
And use us to make it so.
In Jesus’s Name.
Another Stuart Townsend song to close
Hymn: Never Failing Love
If I sang the songs the angels sing,
If I grasped the depths of everything,
Though the mysteries of this world were mine –
I’m nothing without love.
I could give to every child in need,
I could save the planet from our greed,
I could stand for justice till I bleed –
And never know His love
Love is patient, love is kind,
Not envious or boastful;
Humble, pure and undefiled,
Rejoicing in the truth.
I could give my money to the poor,
I could preach the gospel door to door,
Even save a thousand souls or more –
And still not know His love
Love is trusting, quick to mend,
Protecting and forgiving,
Persevering to the end –
This love will never fail.
When the finest words have passed away,
And the best we have is yesterday,
There is one thing that is here to stay –
His never-failing love,
His never-failing love.
Let’s close by saying the grace to each other.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with us all