Toorak Uniting Church

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The Parable of the Hired Labourers

Matthew 20: 1 – 16
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 15
21 September 2014

Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead humanity to the dawn of eternal peace.
~Dwight D. Eisenhower

We have had some rich interpretations of the scriptures from our last two guest speakers, Professor Jenny Byrnes and Dr Val Webb. I drew from both their messages that there is little future for the church if it continues to look at itself and the world through scarcity. That is, there is never enough to go around, so everything must be rationed, or at least controlled. Val said last week:

Fast-forward to today's gospel reading from Matthew 18: 21-35, when Peter asks how many times he should forgive his neighbour - seven times? Jesus says seventy times seven, not meaning an exact number, but rather, unlimited forgiveness. The gospel of Luke puts it this way: "If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and then repents seven times, you must forgive" (Luke 17: 4) - in other words, stop counting, Peter!

I can’t say that that is an easy passage to either understand or put into practice. But like all parables they are meant to grab your attention and get you to see life in a different way. They so often offer you extravagance or radical excess, which hopefully makes you sit up and take notice.

The Unfair Landowner
This morning we have the parable that could be called the unfair landowner. He does reward his employees for the hours they work or their diligence, but really according to his own whim. It reminds me of the story told by a Harvard professor in the late Seventies. He was teaching a course on educational theory and he wanted the students to be less concerned about the grade they would receive and more about the content of the course. (Anyone who has taught at a university knows this dilemma. One of the first questions will be about assessment.) Well, Professor Holt, in the liberated world of the early 1970s, tells the class, "Everyone in this class will get an A. So, now that that is out of the way, let’s get on to understanding the material." But the professor notices a hand in the back row. "Yes," he says. "Professor Holt, how do you get an A+?"

We have become hard wired to see that evaluation must be hierarchical and I am more comfortable when I know who is above me and who is below me. So for the landowner to violate this structure would have made the listeners at best perplexed and at worst angry. And if that is the case then the parable is doing its work.

It’s not primarily about Economics and Workplace Conditions.
I hope I have mentioned before that the parable is never to be taken at face value. It is not primarily about economics; true, there may be aspects of economic compassion in the story. A colleague of mine who had spent 10 years working with the poor in Afghanistan, before the Afghanistan war, told the story of how she had seen this story lived out daily before her own eyes. The men would gather in the market place; the trucks would arrive and the strongest men would have work. Those left would wait for the next call and finally there would only remain the weak and infirm. And on rare occasions they would be picked up and taken into the field. However, she doubted that they were paid the same as those who worked the entire day.

And this is where the twist in the story comes:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?'

The simple answer is that they have not been given work. They have not yet had the opportunity to be incorporated into the work of the vineyard. Interestingly, the landowner doesn’t chide them but offers them work, which they accept.

Ah, but then comes the rub, and pay time.

When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'

It is not difficult to see the injustice of this: it is unjust. But as within all parables, there is a deeper truth running under the surface. And while Jesus’ economic illustration may have grabbed your attention, there is far more to say. I recall reading somewhere that a mother who had five children said that she had one who was her favourite. This didn’t seem very fair. But when asked which one, she said, "The one that needs me now."

Grace, like justice, is a peculiar thing. It can’t be measured, graded into a hierarchy or dished out in teaspoonfuls. Let me stay with the parable for a moment and apply it to our community. Is the person who has been a member of this community all their life of more value than the last person to have joined our gathering? Or is Grace abounding, love unlimited, welcome unrestricted and hospitality boundless? Isn’t that the message of this story?

There has been much written in recent years about the need for the church to practise radical welcome. It means lessening our grip on where we have been to embrace those who will take us to where we will go, and also means honouring the recent workers with the same values as the past workers. And it comes from our belief in a welcoming God:

But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

I don’t think this truth is better illustrated than by the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation, which includes a conversation about grace between Mrs Turpin and Mary Grace:

At that point the rays of the setting sun become a kind of lavender road from the earth to the sky. She then has a vision of redeemed souls winding their way to Heaven as if on a highway of crimson light "through a field of fire". What is telling about her vision is that she, Claud, and "proper" white Christians are at the back of the throng.

In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or God's love. At the rear of this great parade into heaven she sees the faces of herself, Claud, and her proper Christian friends as they appear "shocked and altered": "even their virtues were being burned away."

This seems to be her revelation: that even what she considers to be basic human virtues are incomparable with and expendable to God's all-loving embrace. There, the vision ends and she stands stunned, holding on to the walls of the pigsty for a moment, then walks back to the house slowly as the sun sets behind the tree line.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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