Sunday, 24 September 2017

A new reflection on the Parable of the Vineyard

Bow Brickhill – 24 September 2017 – Trinity 15

Reading Exodus 16

2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.’

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’ 8 Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses told Aaron, ‘Say to the entire Israelite community, “Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.”’

10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked towards the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’

13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.

Epistle Philippians 1

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Gospel Matthew 20

The workers in the vineyard


‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 ‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. 4 He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” 5 So they went.

‘He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”

7 ‘“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.

‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

8 ‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”

9 ‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

13 ‘But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

16 ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’


As I learnt from 20 years as a shopkeeper, the inhabitants of this island have a particular way of grumbling. It’s generally:

· Just loud enough to be audible, but not so loud as to elicit comment

· Accompanied by a roll of the eyes, and a look to the heavens

· Expressed with a tut, or a sigh— and a word such as “Typical” or “Honestly”

In retail, the implication was that customers would have done the job better than those who were paid to do it—and that what went wrong, or was missing, was deliberate and a personal slight.

There is a lot of grumbling in Scripture. Two of today’s readings are full of it. The people of Israel grumbled throughout their time in the Sinai, either against Moses and Aaron, or against God or both. And in the parable of the Vineyard, there was a wage dispute of biblical proportions.

My mother was not a grumbler. In fact, she was always positive, leaving the complaining to my father. But she did object strongly to two passages. One was the Good Wife in Proverbs 31—who did all the work morning, noon and night, whilst her husband sat meeting his friends and chatting in the city gate. The other was the way the workers in the vineyard were treated. If this parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven, she felt, then an ethereal version of RMT or Unite was certainly called for.

If you’ve ever worked in a vineyard through the heat of the day, you’ll know how draining it is. And if those who had only worked for an hour in the cool of the evening were given a full day’s minimum wage, who can blame those who had laboured in the heat of the day for being disgruntled when they received the same?

I did try several times to explain that parables were allegories and intended to shock as a means of teaching, but my mother was redolent. I trust and hope God in his wisdom has straightened her out now she is with him. I’m sure by now she’ll understand.

In the parable, the criticism of the owner of the vineyard is that he is being unfair. Of course, if the first men hired earned a denarius, and the others pro rata to the hours actually worked, no one would have grumbled. It was done deliberately for impact—why else would the boss have instructed his foreman to pay the last first, and the first last?

All the power is with the owner. He can do what he likes with his own property, and that includes treating a plentiful supply or day labourers just as he pleases. After all, in effect he owns the labourers too. They are powerless to complain.

Traditionally, like the strange parable of the Unjust Judge—where a poor widow is denied justice until she makes life a misery for the lazy judge—perhaps we should ask ourselves whether Jesus meant to portray the owner as representing God himself, or whether there is another explanation?

What are we meant to think about the sneering way the owner addresses the chief grumbler as “friend?” Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, the King who bound a man hand and foot and kicked him into the outer darkness was addressed as “Friend.” His crime? He came to the wedding feast improperly dressed. Jesus himself called Judas “friend” when he came to betray him.

Should we blame ourselves? Somehow we are programmed to associate figures such as kings, fathers, and bosses with God, merely because they are powerful, however badly they behave? Maybe my mother was right, and the parable is intended for us to be more critical, and not so accepting of bad conduct merely because we tend to accept what authority figures say and do, even when that flies in the face of reality?

At the same time, should we not question the vilification of the workers? All they wanted was fairness and equality. All of us measure ourselves against others. What’s wrong with that? Can God’s system of right and wrong be so different from ours, and did he not create us the way we are?

On the other hand, if the owner represents God, are there not equally important lessons to be learned? God is generous, feeding the Israelites with endless meat and manna when they grumbled. God treats everyone who comes to him the same—regardless of whether they have laboured for the gospel all their lives, or come to faith in him at their lives’ end. Our version of right and wrong is limited by our understanding—only by faith can we fully accept what sometimes feels wrong to us. In God’s good time we will fully know, as we are known.

For the moment, and with our limited understanding, the parable depicts a false form of justice—because far from offering healing and wholeness, it produces envy and division. Jesus condemned his disciples’ infighting only a couple of chapters ago, when they argued for places of status and prestige in the kingdom, and like the workers in the vineyard risked becoming splintered and alienated rather than loving and faithful.

So maybe we have to read the parable in several different ways: as a glimpse of the kingdom when a generous God will bring in a reign of love and acceptance, without merit on our part, but full of grace and truth. In this vision, there is no room for bickering and strife, inequality and abuse of power, favouritism and unfairness.

Are you envious because I am generous? Asks Jesus? That can only be because in God’s kingdom, the last will be first and the first last. Amen


In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.

For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the Holy Church of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For N our bishop, for the leaders of our sister Churches, and for all clergy and people, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For Elizabeth our Queen, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For this community, for every city, town and village, and for all the people who live within them, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For good weather, and for abundant harvests for all to share, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy

For those who travel by land, air, or water, for the sick and the suffering, [for … ,] for prisoners and captives, and for their safety, health and salvation, let us pray to the Lord. All Lord, have mercy.

For our deliverance from all affliction, strife and need, and for the absolution of our sins and offences, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

Remembering [ … and] all who have gone before us in faith, and in communion with [ … and] all the saints, we commit ourselves, one another, and our whole life to Christ our Lord. Amen

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