The Labourers in the Vineyard – Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity 2011

Matthew 20:1  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard…”

I’d love to be an expert on wine, but neither my wallet nor my palate are up to it. But I avidly read wine books. You soon get a sense of how important it must be for the winemaker to judge correctly the moment to harvest the grapes. Are they ripe enough? Will the weather hold? Get it wrong, and the whole year’s work might be wasted. So when the day comes, it’s all hands on deck, to gather the grapes without delay. In our gospel today the landowner has gone down at dawn to the village square to get his pick of the men available for a day’s labour. I presume that if one vineyard is ready to harvest, there might be one or two others in the vicinity also ready, so there is perhaps a bit of competition between the owners, to get the best workers. This is a village; everyone knows everyone else; the landowners have hired these men many times before; they know who is strong, who not; who is skilled, who is clumsy; who works hard, who skives off. You may be sure that those who are left all day in the marketplace “because no-one has hired us” are there because no-one wants them. So in our story the landowner hires these last of all for the final hour of the day. I feel reasonably certain that their contribution is not going to make a huge difference to the day’s harvest; he is certainly not going to get value for his money, even on an hourly rate. So it is doubly generous when he not only employs them but gives them a full day’s wage for it.  A day’s wage for hired labour was subsistence level; if you could get six days work a week you would survive, but there would be little or no luxuries or savings. He hasn’t made these men’s fortune: but tonight they and their dependants need not be hungry.

Should one feel a bit sorry for the good workers, who worked all day for the same wage? They would have been happy, if they hadn’t seen what the others were getting. And they will probably find work tomorrow again, while the others stand idle. But human nature being what it is, they feel hard-done-by.

Who do you imagine Jesus was telling this story to? I imagine a mixed audience, and among them what some writers have described as the “expendable” class – the people who fell by the wayside, without property and without regular employment, who must perforce survive in any way they could, by picking up work here and there, eked out by begging or stealing. You may be sure that when Jesus gathered an audience, the beggars and pickpockets arrived too. What will they have heard in this story? Words of encouragement. In the world the way God wants it, they will not be left to sink, but will receive a helping hand; they will be included in their community, not ignored. The kingdom of God comes when the needy receive generosity.

Among Jesus’ audience I imagine the local landowners. Having some wealth doesn’t mean you are irreligious or evil – quite often the contrary. He is an important man in his village, a good employer, probably a pillar of the synagogue. The Rabbis taught that the Law prescribes no upper limit to how much charity we give; this landowner might well consider an occasional act of generosity like this; he can afford it, he’s had a good harvest, this is a way of sharing some of his good fortune and gaining God’s approval. Perhaps Jesus is telling this story to encourage the wealthy to remember the poor. The kingdom of God comes when we act with generosity and share our resources.

The labouring class of the village have also come out after their day’s work to sit and listen to this wandering preacher. They are in no need of charity: they will have a pride in being able to earn enough to support their family. But neither are they in much of a position to give to the poor. Jesus’ story asks of them another sort of generosity: generosity of mind; to be able to appreciate the good fortune of others without being jealous; not to need to trample others down so that they feel bigger. The kingdom of God comes when we welcome God’s generosity to the other person.

Today we are celebrating Baptism, and like all the sacraments it is a sign of God’s generosity. The arrival of a baby is a gift – a responsibility, an exhausting business – but something for which we instinctively want to give thanks. The Baptismal ceremony is all about God’s generosity to us, indeed to the weak and little and dependent. We are made a child of God, a member of Christ’s body, an inheritor of the kingdom – this is all God’s free gift to us in Jesus, and we reach out to receive his generosity, and to give thanks.

Parents and godparents, you have the responsibility of teaching this child to follow the path that Jesus lays down. You might do well to consider this story, in which we are commended to be generous, both in our thinking and in our practical help. Christians have a reasonable reputation for charitable giving, but maybe not always for charitable thinking, or for rejoicing in God’s gracious dealing with others. Teach your godchild to be generous in thought, word and deed.

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