18th September 2011

“Pay day”. (Matthew 20:1-16).

I think all of us know that Prince Harry is based at the Wattisham airbase here in Suffolk, learning to fly Apache helicopters. But a news story which you may not have noticed is that, back in August, over 100 maintenance workers who service those helicopters voted to go on strike. These folk are not employed by the Army but by a civilian company, and they claim that they are not receiving the proper rate for the job. In particular, they have been comparing pay with their colleagues at Middle Wallop in Hampshire – and concluded that they are the poor relations as they are taking home something like £3,000 less per year. That difference means that they’re not happy.

Now I know nothing about the intricacies of employment law, but I am sure that every worker is getting the pay that they were contracted to receive. The company concerned has also said that, over the next four years, it will be bringing the two salary scales into alignment, although it then soured the situation by claiming that living costs in Hampshire are higher than they are in Suffolk and justify the different payscales! For its part the Trade Union involved claims that, this year, the salaries being paid to workers at the two bases have actually grown further apart than ever. Whatever the truth of the matter, the staff at Wattisham are crying out, “It’s not fair”.

And that was the cry of the men who came to work in the vineyard, in the story that Jesus told. It made not a jot of difference whether they started early in the morning, or later in the day, for they were all paid the same standard rate: not generous, admittedly, but the going rate for the job. Of course, when each man signed on he presumably had no idea of what anyone else was being paid (although those who started work in the late afternoon probably thought that they were getting “money for jam”). Conversely, those who started earlier in the day had no idea of the terms and conditions that the later people were agreeing to. It was only when everyone sat down for their tea-break and started comparing notes that the people who had been working for many hours began to feel aggrieved. We can certainly see why!

When we start thinking a bit more about this story, it becomes clear that the vineyard owner was behaving in a very strange way – indeed, the story has been called “the Parable of the Eccentric Employer”! So why did he keep taking on workers right through the day, rather than just hiring the people he needed at dawn? And why did he pay everyone the same wage, when he could away with paying those who started later considerably less? - surely he would have known that it would cause discontent. One scenario is that he panicked when he realised that he hadn’t hired enough men to complete the job, and it became increasingly obvious that the grapes weren’t going to be picked before nightfall. Did he therefore employ more and more pickers and pay them a ridiculous wage as an incentive to work quickly? It would certainly have made more sense to pay the harvesters generously than run the risk of losing a precious crop.

That’s possible; but I don’t think it’s what the story suggests. For, when you examine it, it really seems to talking about a work creation scheme. For what does the vineyard master actually do? He keeps going back to the marketplace – the local jobcentre where casual workers hang around hoping to be hired – every few hours and offers work to anyone who he sees waiting. One can’t help getting the feeling that the vineyard has become grossly overmanned by the time evening comes, and that the owner has paid over the odds to get the job done. The point is that people who might have received no pay have been given a full day’s wage; and that men who would have stood around idle have been given proper work to do – although they might have their suspicions as to what is going on!

If this interpretation of the parable is correct (and I think it is), then one might think that the men who started earlier in the day could even be grateful for all the extra help they’re getting: presumably they can take things more and more easily as time wears on. And they should definitely be regarding their employer in a favourable light, because he is obviously a generous man who is governed by compassion rather than hard-headed business acumen. But this is where the story becomes very pertinent for the people listening to Jesus. For it isn’t really about labour relations or pay differentials or employment justice (although these issues are important and we shall pray for them later); it’s a story about God’s grace and his desire to reach out in love to as many people as possible.

I’m sure that Jesus first told this story to a Jewish audience. But we must also remember that the Gospels were put together for the early Church, and in fact the style and content of Matthew’s Gospel tell us that it was written for Jewish Christians. And I think that the reason Matthew included this parable was because those Jewish Christians had a bit of a tendency to look down upon their Gentile counterparts. After all, the Jews had been God’s “chosen people” for hundreds of years, ever since the time of Abraham; they had a rich tradition, heritage and understanding of God which was very precious to them. It just wasn’t “on” to imply that coarse Gentile Christians, whose background was steeped in pagan idolatry, could in any way be regarded as their equals before God. They were mere “johnnies-come-lately”, second-class citizens in comparison to the Hebrew Christians.

And so Jesus’ clear suggestion, that everyone who believes in him has an equal claim on heaven’s blessings, was simply anathema to them. They were deeply uncomfortable with the idea that God might accept people of any racial or spiritual background, or that folk from a pagan past would be welcomed just as much as those from nations that have followed God for centuries. The Jewish Christians were not only aghast that God was prepared to admit Gentiles to their members-only club, but that he would allow them to sit anywhere. But Jesus says, “Listen! You are all included on an equal footing, because none of you can be included except by the grace of God. Just as no-one could tell the vineyard proprietor how to run his farm, so you have no right whatsoever to lay down the rules by which God operates. He makes his own decisions; and they are always just ones”.

Now I think there are a number of lessons that this parable can teach us. The first one is really so obvious that we should hardly need to mention it: that there is no place for any kind of racial pride in the church (I bet you have never seen the parable in these terms!) Just as Jewish Christians in the early Church were not to despise Gentiles (and that is a theme which Paul often bangs on about in his letters, repeatedly emphasising how all Christians are in fact saved by the grace of God and thus stand on the same footing), so white British Christians like myself must respect those from other races as absolute equals. I’m sure this is something we all know.

But I wonder if I might take this idea a bit further and think of the way in which the long-established Churches in countries like Britain should relate to the newer churches from the developing world. These churches are frequently much livelier than ours; they are very keen on evangelism and growing fast; their theology has insights that were clearly developed in contexts very different to ours; and their way of interpreting Scripture may seem to be conservative or even simplistic. And these Churches simply don’t have as much Christian history as we do; does all this mean we regard them less highly than we should?

This is a real issue, say, in the Anglican Communion where the African bishops from Nigeria and Uganda – leaders of huge numbers of Christians – are barking at the heels of the bishops from Europe and America and saying, “We demand to be heard”. It is all too easy for the Old World leaders to turn round and say in a patronising way, “Ah, we’ll listen to you but we won’t change the way we think or do things. You see, we’ve got tradition behind us, but you’re new. Come back in a century or two and we’ll listen to you then”. Just as between those Jews and the Gentiles, there is an implicit racism at work here. And, just as in earlier times, it needs to be stamped out.

But there a second way in which this parable might speak to us today, and that is to think how communities – and, in particular, churches – might relate to people who have only recently joined them. I think it is terribly easy for old-established members of any community to say, “We’ve been here a long time, we know how things work, we have rights”. Although they may give incomers a warm welcome, there is still, deep down, a feeling that “they’re new, they don’t really belong, we don’t have to take notice of what they say, they’re not really one of US”. And they get sidelined.

As I say, that can happen in a local community, even though everyone pays their dues and has the same rights to peace, light and Council services. But can also happen in churches where new folk with bright ideas are frozen out – sometimes quite unintentionally – by the long-standing majority who feel threatened by their enthusiasm and new ideas. Yet all Christians stand on a level playing field before God. He values newcomers just as much as old-timers. And those newcomers may, in fact, bring a refreshing word, inspired by God’s Spirit.

Once again I think we can broaden out this interpretation from individuals to church communities; and so I wonder if the parable can help us think of the attitudes that exist between older and newer churches (and here I am not primarily thinking of ethnicity, although it may play its part). What I am wondering is how churches like ours (which has a great tradition stretching back to 1686), and even more so traditional churches like the Anglicans and Catholics, regard the many new churches which seem to be sprouting up all over the place. There are quite a number in Ipswich, such as the Hope Church along the road; and another is due to arrive from Norwich next month. I have sometimes talked in negative terms about these churches, wondering why we need them and wishing that their members would join the congregations that already exist to give them a much-needed boost; to a degree I still think that. But what cannot be denied is that these newer churches do seem to be “scratching people where they itch” with the Christian Gospel in a way that we aren’t; folk are coming to faith through them.

Well, we could act like those Jewish Christians in the early Church, and be condescending to them. “They’re just happy-clappy and full of hyped-up emotionalism,” we might say, “their worship is irreverent and the preaching is simplistic”. The implication in those sentences is clear (and it’s certainly being said in some Anglican circles): the way we do things is both “better” and more “proper”. Again, we might accuse them of being “cult-like” because they ask for high levels of commitment from their members. But didn’t Jesus do just the same? We might also criticise them simply because they are new and successful – doesn’t the weight of our tradition count for nothing?

Well, as I say, I do have my misgivings – but I also want to say, very firmly, that there is no “right” or “wrong” way of worship and that these new churches often shame us, both with their zeal and enthusiasm and with the way in which they relate to contemporary society. We claim to be “Reformed”, yet we choose to stay marooned in a time-warp of the past and are wary when anyone comes along and says that we need to reform or renew ourselves. Perhaps Jesus is happier with these new churches than he is with us; I am sure he accepts them - with their faults - as a valid part of his Body on earth. And, in any case, these churches are here to stay!

But, to finish, let’s return to thinking about individuals. Let’s remind ourselves that none of us has any right to God’s forgiveness and salvation. In fact the only right we have is to be excluded from his Kingdom, because we have all strayed from his ways by living imperfectly and thinking unworthily. For being British doesn’t give us any standing before God, nor does it make any difference what school we went to. Having a good job and social standing in the community doesn’t give us any privileges in the Kingdom of heaven, nor does belonging to a “respectable” church or golf club. And, as the dying thief crucified next to Jesus discovered, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve been professing Christians for fifty years or come to faith in the last five minutes: all we be treated equally when Christ comes to inaugurate his Kingdom. And, if that’s the case in the future, we’d better make sure we live as equals in the church now, regarding adults and children, rich and poor, and people of every race, colour and social background as our absolute equals before God. We cannot “pull rank”: the Church models God’s radical and new social order.

“For by grace you are saved, through faith”, said Paul, “and even that faith itself is a gift from God, so you have no grounds for boasting”. Let’s simply be thankful that the divine vineyard-owner seems to have chosen us: and let us make sure we extend his invitation to everyone