. Exodus 16.2-15 Psalm 105.1-6,37-45* Philippians 1.21-30 Matthew 20.1-16
In the Gospel today, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a person; a landowner in fact so a person of means and substance, who owned a vineyard.
I don’t know about you, but for me the idea of a vineyard conjures up a warm sunny place, rows of vines standing tall, and workers moving about the field, collecting the ripe grapes. The workers might be local people, called out for the harvest, or migrants, cheap labour brought in from other countries, to work the fields at harvest time. There are a couple of vineyards in the UK, down in Devon or Cornwall, I think, maybe Somerset. These being the warmer areas of Great Britain. So maybe European holidays in France, Italy or Germany come more readily to mind; travelling the dusty roads by car on the way to the coast.
But let’s get down to the basics, the nitty-gritty. The landowner sets his task force to work, having agreed with his labourers the usual daily wage. He goes back later in the day, and notices other workers loafing about with their hands in their pockets. Why are you just standing around , he asks? Because no-one has employed us, they answer. So the landowner takes them on. He did this three times during the day, employing more workers each time, and paying all the same wage.
Then we hear the grumbling of the workers, as they question the sense of fairness, of justice, in paying the last workers the same as the first. This demand for fair wages comes years before the emergence of trade unions. Look at the last group of workers, the ones no-one had employed. We might wonder why no-one wants to employ them. Are they unkempt, disabled, blind, known to be lazy? Is this landowner really employing the unemployable?
Is the landowner actually standing in for God, is there to be no favouritism at this work place? Do the disciples have to learn that bringing in the kingdom of heaven will not make them rich or powerful; that God does not make contracts or bargains, he makes covenants.
This is a parable which has puzzled many. It may have resonances in Matthew’s gospel of his predominantly Jewish community, the well-established Jewish- Christian community and their well-established traditions, into which Matthew draws the somewhat unwanted Gentiles. Much grumbling! There is a lot of grumbling too in the passage from Exodus. We read that in the desert the Hebrew people grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “Did you bring us out of Egypt only to have us starve to death in the desert?” (This is just one of many grumblings that will happen on the way to the Promised land. They also grumble about there being no water, about Moses marrying a foreigner, about the leadership of Moses and Aaron.) In response, God gives them manna and quail.
The vineyard became something of a romantic image during the American Civil War and expansion of the West, memorialised in the famous text by Julia Ward Howe in the first verse of Battle Hymn of the Republic; ..‘My eyes have seen the glory of the Lord, he is trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored’. The full verse reflects Isaiah 63, passages in the Apocalypse and other verses feeding the ‘ winepress tradition’, and itself reflected in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Working new territory was no easy matter.
For us today, it might simply be a lesson of inclusion. Are there any other groups which we must learn to accept and welcome, such as the poor, the homeless, the sick and the disabled. What changes might we have to make to accommodate those with differences in our congregations?
Sometimes only God’s generous love can span the distance of difference with forgiveness and love. Like the disgruntled and grumbling labourers in the parable, we are often inclined to look at life from our own limited perspective, so that ‘ What’s in it for me?’ may be our uppermost concern. Apparently our main weaknesses as people generally are selfishness, greed and apathy, according to recent surveys. Paul’s confidence in God, and his faith in the expansive generosity of God in Christ, witness to the truth that God’s ways and dreams can surpass the limits of our human reason and understanding. His plans are for the salvation of the whole world.
Often, we too, can fail to grasp the full extent of God's grace and mercy. This passage prompts us then, to consider whether our own view of salvation is too narrow. Who are those who we consider outside the scheme of salvation, unworthy, or unimportant, too different from ourselves to matter? Who do we consider beneath our notice or unworthy of our respect? Is God challenging us to tackle our biases?
Inclusion involves listening to and incorporating the voice of the marginalised and oppressed into theology and praxis. As we finally recognise the extent to which humanity has oppressed the Earth and marginalised the needs of those with whom we share the planet, is it not time to widen our circle, not only to include those people who differ from or disagree with us, but other species, eco-systems and indeed creation itself? That would be a truly radical inclusion ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ says Psalm 24, and that includes the small patch of ground upon which our church is built, and the places in which we walk.
This week's Greening the Lectionary is written by Christine Jack: Reader-trained and with degrees in Education and Theology, Anglican member of the Church of England, with active membership of local and national environmental and ecumenical groups, and experience of working as a licensed minister with the church overseas in Sri Lanka.