Talk for 20th September

Reflection for Sunday 20th September 2020

Reflection: Rev Colin Hudspith

Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!” That was probably one of our earliest childhood complaints, and it shows just how deeply rooted are our feelings – in fact our certainties - about what’s rightly due to us. So it’s not surprising that those feelings carry over, develop and broaden into many aspects of our adult life and relationships. They even help provide the need for the kind of job I used to do before I was ordained.

Much of the twenty years or so I worked in human resource management was spent in constructing and negotiating agreements on pay and jobs that were honed and fine-tuned to make sure that differentials were preserved, levels of skill respected and sensitivities honoured. In other words, that fairness and justice prevailed. Much midnight oil was burned in the process, I seem to remember.

Both our readings today focus on issues of fairness and justice in ways that probably shake us to the core. They would certainly have found no place in any negotiator’s handbook, if such a thing ever existed.   

In the chapter before our gospel, Peter has asked Jesus what he and the other disciples can expect by way of reward for their loyalty to Jesus. After all, they’d given up everything to follow him, as Peter points out (Matthew 19:27.) What’s in it for them? What will he give them in return? Jesus promises twelve thrones in the world to come, “but many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”.

Jesus’s response to the disciples’ concern that they should receive their just deserts is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In the early morning the owner goes to the market place to hire unemployed workers for the day, at an agreed wage of one denarius – enough for a household’s food for a day. Then needing more labour, the owner goes back to the market three more times – at mid-morning, noon and mid-afternoon – hiring more workers with a promise to pay them an unspecified “what is just”. In the very last hour of the day he invites – or instructs – still others to go and work in the vineyard. There’s no mention of pay.

When it’s time for wages to be paid, and those hired last are paid first, their unexpected reward of a full day’s pay (for one hour) naturally creates expectations amongst those who have worked for much longer. Surely their reward will be greater by comparison?  When they discover that they’ll be paid exactly what they had agreed – and no more - their complaint is predictable: “You’ve made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work in the heat of the day”. In other words, it’s not fair.

I suspect our natural reaction is sympathy for those early workers; we hear the story from their point of view. It’s the same sympathy we probably feel instinctively for the older brother of the Prodigal Son, who saw his hard and loyal work for his father apparently unappreciated compared to the lavish welcome enjoyed by his returning wastrel younger brother.

But there’s the other side of the coin. Earlier this week I listened to an interview of a couple who, at the beginning of the pandemic, were both in well-paid, secure jobs. They had a family to support. Then both were made redundant at almost the same time, and they described the devastating impact on their lives and sense of self-worth. The despondency of the late-coming workers in the parable came to mind: “No one has hired us”. 

Like most of us, those early workers have an innate sense of what is - and isn’t - fair. “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” is a principle we’ve probably all been used to. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work isn’t. Rewarding those who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least isn’t. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are not the same isn’t fair.

The parable challenges so many of our natural assumptions. We’re tempted to think the best way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard in the morning and the last to leave at night. We also share the disciples’ dilemma of how you understand God’s reign in the framework of the world as we see it: like them, we’re continually nudged towards the divisive language of winner and loser; superior and inferior; insider and outsider; deserving and undeserving.

The Old Testament reading picks up the story of Jonah. Called by God to preach his word to the hated Assyrians of Nineveh, Jonah had at first fled in the opposite direction. Given a second chance by God from deep within the belly of a whale, Jonah reluctantly comes to Nineveh and gives his message of God’s judgement on the city and its people.

He’s startlingly successful. Not only the people of the city but the king himself repent straightaway. But instead of savouring his success - a city turned to God - Jonah is furious with God for withholding punishment. As Jonah sees it, God seems to be so free with his forgiveness that it suggests it doesn’t matter whether one does good or not. Jonah is filled with the same sense of resentment about the people of Nineveh as the early workers in the vineyard for the latecomers.  It’s not fair.

When much of our experience is that life is unfair, it seems so important that God should conform to our notion of fairness. But the truth is that God sees things differently. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”, declares the Lord (Isaiah 55 verse 8). Jesus’s question in the words of the owner of the vineyard to the early workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” is similar for Jonah: in effect, “are you angry because I am generous”?

And that’s the point. These readings aren’t about recognition for time and effort put in or who is deserving or undeserving. They’re about the extraordinary generosity of God, which goes beyond our wildest imagination. It’s pure grace. We’re tempted to act as if God’s love were finite; we want to ensure our “fair share” of it and work hard to achieve it.

But the truth is his love knows no bounds; he doesn’t give part of it, but everything there is to each one of us. If people ask how God can make such an extravagant affirmation, the answer is that he backed it up with his life and was vindicated by his rising from death.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts” declares the Lord. The irony is that God isn’t “fair”; which is surely good news. God loves us indiscriminately and seems to enjoy reversing the systems we set up to explain why God should love some of us more than others.

It means we don’t get our just deserts – thank goodness. If there really were a tariff system for the Kingdom of God and our place in it, I’d be in serious trouble. If the quality of my living and loving was the criterion, I’m sure I’d want to renegotiate the terms.

We tend to act like bookkeepers. God doesn’t. He doesn’t keep track of things as we do. He doesn’t spend time deciding who’s worthy and who is not, as we do. God’s generosity empowers us to live beyond our insecurities and the boundaries we set up. He promises us everything, and in return asks of us trusting lives committed to him. When he keeps his promises, he’s not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally in his overflowing generosity.


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