Sermon Notes - Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20: 1-16

Amazing Grace!

The action happens at the wages office as the workers line up.  Most of us have waited to be paid, perhaps a little less now then we used to, with bank transfers and everything, but never the less perhaps after seasonal or vocational work – fruit picking perhaps, now that’s taking me back to my teens! But where pay might a little less clear than it could be.  Or perhaps as children, we’ve done little jobs for friends and family and have made our own calculation as to what we think the work was worth, based upon previous experience of course.

 

In the parable, those who had worked for only the last hour or two of the day (when perhaps the heat was off) were called first to the pay checkout.  They expected to receive a proportion of the usual wage and were therefore surprised to receive a full day’s wage instead.  We know only that those who had worked a full day from early morning, facing the ever rising heat and physical exertion received the usual pay that had been agreed beforehand.  We’re not told what those others in the middle groups were paid, but it doesn’t matter, we need to think about those outlying groups’ wages.  Those who worked the full day received justice, as they were promised.  But the workers who were enlisted at the end of the day, received not justice but generosity.  Equal pay for unequal work hardly seemed fair to those who had worked hard in that heat.  Was there perhaps a more acceptable outcome that could have happened? What could the landowner have done differently? What other choices could he have made?

 

The most obvious thing would indeed to have paid an hourly wage perhaps, or one according to output (I remember having my pails of blackcurrants weighed!).  That at least was what the day workers had expected and agreed with their employer.  That would have been fair and seen to be fair to all parties, including those who were those last recruits to the master’s fields.  It would have been fair and been seen as acceptable to both parties and avoided resentment that groups were being treated unequally.

 

Perhaps, the landowner, having decided to pay the full daily rate to those who had worked only for the last few hours of the day, might instead have given a proportionate increase to all the workers, even to those who worked for the full day. A ‘corporate bonus’ as we in Cefas call it, not a wage as such but a one-off ‘well done’ payment!  That would have seemed generous as well as fair to all, since all the workers would be rewarded for the amount of work they had all done for the master and treated generously as well.  Those who had worked only for a few hours would have felt compensated for the shame and indignity they had suffered waiting for that work.  Reward would still be linked to effort and achievement, but it would also show unexpected generosity to all the workers, not only to the few.

 

With two options to act fairly and generously, while avoiding any grounds for complaint or resentment, why then did the landowner act in the way he did and trigger such resentment?  He was, of course THE landowner, and he was in a parable, mirroring the kingdom of heaven and was not contributing to the theory and practice of industrial relations.  But what was he mirroring about the kingdom that could have only been demonstrated in these terms?

 

GOD PLAYS BY DIFFERENT RULES. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’  His sovereign freedom will not be trapped into fixed, impersonal, predetermined rules that reward the ‘haves’, the achievers, or the virtuous.  Instead, God gifts the ‘have-nots’ and to those who have no claim to make on others.  His undeserved generosity is destined for ALL people, but it can only be embraced by those who renounce all claims to rewards on their own account, work, achievements and goodness. But, then, does effort, duty, service, or virtue account for nothing?  It counts as evidence of our relationship with God, but not as the basis of a claim to God.  Every instinct for self-perseveration protests against the upside-down world of GRACE, where non-achievers are blessed, first-comers come last, the poor a filled and the riach are left empty-handed.

 

To experience GRACE, we have to recognise that we are all, without a single exception, latecomers to God’s kingdom.  The difference between any of us is as inconsequential as whether, when we’ve missed the train or bus, or hit a bridger for a crucial meeting, we missed it by ten seconds or by a whole hour.  Do you love the nine-year old grand child three times as much as the three year-old grand child because he’s been around to help you and hug you three times as long?  Of course not.  The labourers who were late to work received generosity because they were still called.  It was the employer, not the workers, who determined the generosity of their reception.  And there is no other basis on which our relationship with and to God and with and to friends can be established.

 

(Adapted and expanded from a sermon by Roger Spiller, The Canterbury Preacher’s Companion 2020)

 


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