Reflections on Matthew 20: 1-16
Watch a group of children play and it won’t be long before you hear someone say,“That’s not fair!”
It’s not just children. We all believe that ‘fairness’ counts. Too often, however, ‘fairness’ — in the sense of what we deserve is the measure we apply to life. We believe than ‘fairness’ gives us some assurance of order, predictability, control, and establishes a ‘pecking order’.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard would, on the face of it appear to be unfair. That those who had worked for an hour or two should be paid the same as those who had toiled all day was hardly just! However, that may be to misunderstand the meaning of the parable.
Let’s take a closer look at the Parable.
This parable was addressed directly to the disciples and we need to go the previous chapter (Matt.19) to see it in context. There we read of a wealthy man who came to Jesus asking about the secret of eternal life. He was a good man, he had kept all the commandments from his youth. Yet one thing he lacked. Presumably, because he was completely dependent on his assets, Jesus suggested that he needed to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. That was a step too far and he went away feeling sorry for himself. Jesus warned the disciples that the wealthy find it very difficult to enter the Kingdom of God.
Then Peter, unaware of his self-righteousness, compared himself and the disciples with the rich man. He said, “what about us? We’ve left everything to follow you. How shall we fare?” Jesus responded that they, and all others who make great sacrifices will be repaid many times over. But lest Peter get the wrong impression, Jesus hastened to add “Many that are first will be last, and the last first.”
Some have suggested that the parable was a warning to those who for centuries looked upon themselves as the favoured people of God. They were bound to God by a special covenant, and they were the exclusive recipients of God’s special promises. Very early they’d entered the Lord’s vineyard. All other nations were latecomers. So according to this view, Jesus is saying that the Jews, like the early workers in the Vineyard thought they deserved better and resented the gentiles being treated equally. Jesus’ parable emphasises the reversal of fortunes. .The Gentiles who were last to enter the kingdom would be made first; and the Jews, who were first, because of their delusions of superiority, would be last. This interpretation has some merit, especially considering the parable stands in a series of parables that have to do with the Jews’ rejection that the kingdom of God was present in Jesus.
There are two opposing views hinted at in the parable. One centres on ourselves and upon human ingenuity to improve our lives, bring satisfaction, and happiness. The other centres on the generosity of God. The first is about individuality, independence, human effort and achievement. The other’s about receiving, sharing, inter-dependence, the recognition that there’s something far greater than mere human endeavour, that life’s dependent on God, on the love of God who in Christ calls us to live now as citizens of his kingdom by living in relationship with God and with one other and I would add, in harmony with the whole of creation.
The popular and moving musical Les Misérables Is the story of a French peasant called Jean Valjean, who is convicted and imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. After serving nineteen years in jail he’s paroled. But he breaks his parole and is hunted down by Javere, a former prison guard who has become an inspector in the police. Now a fugitive on the run Valjean is offered shelter in a monastery. But he abuses the Bishop’s hospitality by stealing a pair of valuable candlesticks.
Instead of turning him in, the Bishop forgives him and refuses to testify against him. Valjean is overwhelmed by the Bishop’s action and his life is changed by this man of grace. He vows to live up to the Bishop’s love and trust and sets forth to build a new life, one of service to humanity, and thus to God.
It’s notoriously difficult to speak of Grace. How can we speak of that which we don’t deserve but which is freely offered? How can we speak of God’s incomprehensible love which is always present with the power to transform us and bring us into a renewed relationship with God?
The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard suggests that human endeavour and grace stand in opposition to one another. The labourers in the vineyard, especially those who’d slaved all day, thought they deserved the reward they received — after all they’d worked hard for it! Those who came later, who’d worked only a few hours but were equally rewarded, would, we’d like to think, be so full of gratitude for the generosity shown for they received far more than they deserved.
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last..”That’s not how our world sees it. The world says the last are last and the first are first because they deserve it. It’s what’s ‘fair’. Our understanding of ‘fairness’, however, doesn’t seem to have priority in God’s kingdom – where grace is the rule not the exception.
Grace looks beyond our productivity, our appearance, our dress, our race or ethnicity, our accomplishments, our failures. Grace recognises there is more to life than what we achieve. Wages reveal human effort. along with achievement, success, reward, and makes distinctions, many false and brings separation. Grace just happens and seeks to be inclusive and creates unity.
Too often we diminish our understanding of ‘God’s grace’ by associating it merely with the forgiveness of sin. As such we limit its effectiveness. I, by no means, want to deny the reality, or the impact, that forgiveness has on those who truly repent and pray for forgiveness nor on the freedom, joy, and renewal that God’s forgiveness imparts. But, I want to go further. Too often the concentration on human failure and sin can be too inward looking & self-centred and can make for an unhealthy preoccupation with human wretchedness and a wallowing in guilt!
I want to change the focus to a celebration of the ever-present love of God that enables the transformation of whoever or whatever it touches, creating something new, positive and good even out of the worst of life’s adversities and human failure and evil. ‘Grace’ is that divine love which by its very nature transforms and redeems. The only precondition of grace is that we show up and open ourselves to receive what God is giving. When we do we begin to see our lives, the world, our neighbour in a different light and we begin to see the possibility of, and potential for, change / transformation.
Rev’d Michael Diffey