Matthew 20.1-16 / Proper 20
The writer Barbara Brown Taylor describes the parable of the labourers in the vineyard as being a little like cod liver oil: you know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
This is one of those parables that offends because it seems to reward the undeserving while sending those who’ve done the most to the end of the line.
To try to understand this parable I think it’s important to look at its context.
Just beforehand Matthew tells us about the disciples coming to Jesus and asking what they’ll get in return for following him, with the implied suggestion that they deserve big rewards.
Jesus in return promises that they, and everyone who listens to his call, will be rewarded generously, with a little twist when he says that the first will be last and the last will be first.
Then, not long after the parable, we have the story of James and John wanting to sit either side of Jesus in heaven, in places of power and glory.
So, both before and after the parable the disciples are jockeying for position, wanting good seats in the kingdom, trying to be first in line when the doors open and the show begins.
And we all want to be first when it comes to getting something good.
Getting in first
On one memorable occasion Keith and I were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Place. This was when Prince Philip was chancellor of the University of Cambridge and would invite a selection of people from the university each year.
Keith being chaplain at Downing College, we got a chance to go and snapped it up.
We got there nice and early clutching our invitations so that we could be at the front of the queue and get in as soon as possible.
There are many times in life when we might want to be at the front of the queue for a special event.
Imagine if you’d got somewhere very early, and spent hours queuing in the sun or rain, and then someone came out and started letting people in from the other end of the queue?
I doubt any of us would be very pleased because it would obviously be unfair.
And this is the problem here with the parable of the workers.
But its’s not fair!
We read it and think, but why should people who’ve turned up at the last minute get the same as people who’ve done most of the work?
What kind of operation is this?
Most people have an inbuilt sense of what’s fair and what’s isn’t.
Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work isn’t fair.
And we feel, in the face of a world which clearly isn’t fair, that it’s even more important that God should be fair, so that everything gets balanced out in the end and we get our proper rewards.
So, like the workers in the parable, we grumble when it seems that God isn’t living up to this expectation.
The problem here isn’t that the latecomers who do little get more or better things than us – they don’t, they get the same as us.
The problem is that they get the same as us, and they don’t deserve it, do they?
They’ve come late to faith, contributed less, or are outright sinners.
Maybe they should get something for at least turning up but not as much as us.
Control vs grace
What Jesus is getting at, I think, is our tendency to want to control how God acts and to find a way to get ourselves a better position compared to other people.
We want God to dole out rewards according to our judgements of who deserves what.
In the process, though, we forget that God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of rewards and working our way into heaven.
It’s not a question of ranks or worthiness or who can do the biggest number of good things.
Entry into God’s kingdom is about grace, mercy and forgiveness, given generously and without discrimination just because God wants to.
So, there’s no point anxiously jockeying for position or measuring what we’ve done compared to others because.
Important though our faith and service are to God, they should come naturally from our love for him, not from a desire for a front-row seat in heaven.
And we will all get the good things that God promises us, no-one who comes to him will miss out, and that is good news.
But, of course, even if we can accept that God in his generosity treats everyone who comes to him the same, what about the first shall be last bit?
First and last
Why make the first workers wait until after the last ones?
Well, I think it’s all about the way in which Jesus turns our ideas about first and last on their head.
In human terms it’s the powerful, the influential, the rich, the skilled and the talented who are looked up to and treated as successes.
But in God’s eyes the first are those who don’t have any of those human advantages but come to him with love and faith and do what they can with the opportunities they have – how ever big or small they are.
But in the end it doesn’t matter because, from first to last, and last to first, all will be welcomed, rewarded and loved when the time comes to finish our work and rest with God.
So yes, this parable is a bit like cod liver oil, but if we can swallow it then it will do us all good.