Friday, 19 September 2014

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

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

Reading both the parable of the workers in the vineyard and the end part of the story of Jonah together, I am struck by a question from the owner of the vineyard:
“Are you envious because I am generous?”. It is the question the vineyard owner asks the grumpy slaves – but it could so well be the question God asks Jonah when he is grumpy at the end of the story.

How grumpy are you feeling this morning? Whose side are you on when you hear these stories?
Are we on the side of Jonah “I knew you would spare the people of Nineveh and make me look like an idiot”, or on the side of the people and animals of Nineveh – who have listened to Jonah and changed their ways and ask for mercy.
What do you think?
Pride and ego, or Mercy and compassion?

Meanwhile in the parable, where do your sympathies lie?
Do you find yourself sympathising with the workers who were hired first? They work hard, all day – in the scorching heat. They have toiled and slogged and earned their daily wage. And then they find that the slackers who have only worked since 5 o clock in the evening get exactly the same wage. Like grumpy children, the workers grumble about the landowner’s decision ‘It’s not fair!’.
Or are you on the side of the landowner – who can pay what he chooses.
What do you think?
Rights and fairness, or Mercy and compassion?

However grumpy you’re feeling, you know you’re meant to be on the side of mercy and compassion: but it’s really hard. Are you envious because I am generous?”
Well, honestly, sometimes – yes.

When I was a school teacher, I once did an assembly on this parable – and as I entered the staffroom at break, nearly 2 hours’ later, my fellow teachers were nearly ready to lynch me because they had been so incensed by the unfairness of the story. It is not fair on those who worked harder – we can see that, feel it on our bones. The union reps in the staff wanted me to understand that we needed pay differentials in life, to help us all to feel valued for the work we did! The way the landowner acts in this story - it’s just not fair.
So yes, sometimes we are envious because the owner is generous.

But just for a moment let’s look at the story another way: from the point of view of the desperate workers who had no work. All day long they had been in the marketplace, waiting to be hired. Each time someone came looking for workers, they might have stood up a bit straighter, tried to look ‘hire – able’, strong, hard-working, reliable, tough. And each time they weren’t hired we can imagine how their shoulders might have slumped.
Early in the morning, the fittest looking ones are hired & go off to work, knowing they will be paid that day and have something to take home to their hungry families. At nine o’ clock, some other lucky ones had gone off – to at least do most of a day’s work. At noon and at 3 the same person had come back and hired a few more. But by five there were just the most desperate left. No point in going home early, no money in their pockets, no food to share with anyone. Another day with no work, no pay, no hope. Then the question comes  ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’
“because no-one hired us”,
‘then go into my vineyard and work til evening’.
After a couple of hours it’s pay time. No wage has been agreed – they line up not knowing what they might get – what fraction of the daily wage they might be given.

And they are given the whole day’s wage.
Unless we’ve done that kind of piece work we can only imagine how it feels to unexpectedly get the full day’s wage. But then those who have worked half a day – and even all day in the hot sun – get exactly the same agreed daily wage. Much grumbling ensues: and the landowner asks the grumblers ‘are you envious because I am generous?’.

Would you begrudge the desperate men their daily bread? Are you envious because I am generous?”

You see it’s all too easy to see this parable as one which is not fair to those who work all day. But what about those who wait all day? How hard is it to spend all day not knowing whether you will be chosen or not, and beginning to suspect that you might have missed your chance. And wondering what you will eat that night.

And we know that Jesus told this parable because he had people coming to him and wanting to know who was going to enter God’s kingdom, and how, and what reward his followers could expect.

We know that when we hear this parable we burn with the unfairness of life, in which those who work tirelessly for God and for others have to bear the sting that God loves a wretch who turns to God after a life of debauchery just as much as he loves each one of us. We work in the heat of the day, and get no more reward than those who don’t.

But have a heart for those who wait, for those who are desperately unsure of their reward, for those who only find out at the last moment that all will be well. Give thanks to God for God’s generosity, which extends grace to all and to each: do not be envious because God is generous, but be glad because you know your reward. And trust the grace of God to see that all will be well for all God’s children.

And if you still burn with the unfairness of the story – perhaps God can use that to inspire us to act in our world in the places where there is deep unfairness. Where workers are not paid a living wage; where big business reap all the rewards while keeping pay at the absolute minimum, where children cannot afford to continue schooling because the family needs their income, where people are devalued because the work they do is unglamorous.
Perhaps Jesus means us to burn with the desire for justice – and then act to make it a reality – in our world, where it really counts, and not just is the world of a made up story.

May God inspire us to act fairly in our lives and our world, so that all God’s children are valued.
In the name of Jesus our saviour and teacher.

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