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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Grace & work: The workers in the vineyard

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook (drawing on material from The Lampost and Theology of Work Project):

Chichele Road in Cricklewood is known as Job Street, where economic migrants line up to be hired from the back of a van, no questions asked. Dozens of men in jeans and anoraks hang around from 6.30am to discover whether they will be working that day. A car will stop, a negotiation will take place, a deal may be struck. Typically, the men will be whisked off to a building site or a house in the process of renovation. They will be paid £20 to £40 for a long, arduous day's work: no tax, no national insurance, no questions asked.

That’s essentially the scenario for today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 20. 1 - 16). The social situation in Jesus’ day was that many small farmers were being forced off their land because of debt they incurred to pay Roman taxes. Consequently, large pools of unemployed men gathered each morning, hoping to be hired for the day. They were the displaced, unemployed, and underemployed workers of their day. Those still waiting at five o'clock would have had little chance of earning enough to buy food for their families that day. Yet the vineyard owner pays even them a full day’s wage. The owner in the parable ensures that all the workers are paid enough to support their families, as a denarius was a full day’s pay for a skilled worker.

So, unlike those exploited illegal workers or gig economy workers earning less than the minimum wage, the employer in this story is concerned that those he employs are paid a living wage. The standard thing for an employer in Jesus’ day to do would be to send one of his employees to the marketplace to pick up a few extra workers for the day. But this employer goes to the marketplace himself. In fact, he goes repeatedly to seek workers and clearly cares about their predicament seeking to lift them out of their despair by providing work that meets their needs and the needs of those who depend on them. If God is like the owner of the vineyard then he cares about our hopeless situation as human beings. He comes looking for us. He goes on an all-out search to find workers for his vineyard. He longs to provide us with a life of significance in his kingdom work.

As N. T. Wright has said, 'God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowingly generous nature.'

Michael Green says of this story: 'Length of service and long hours of toil in the heat of the day constitute no claim on God and provide no reason why he should not be generous to those who have done less. All human merit shrivels before his burning, self-giving love. Grace, amazing grace, is the burden of this story. All are equally undeserving of so large a sum as a denarius a day. All are given it by the generosity of the employer. All are on the same level. The poor disciples, fishermen and tax collectors as they are, are welcomed by God along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are no rankings in the kingdom of God. Nobody can claim deserved membership of the kingdom. There is no place for personal pride, for contempt or jealousy, for there is no ground for any to question how this generous God handles the utterly undeserving. He is good. He sees that the one-hour workers would have no money for supper if they got paid for only one hour. In generosity he gives them what they need. Who is to complain at that?'

Yet there is always a danger that we do get cross with God over this. People who work or move in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, as we have seen, God is out in the marketplace, looking for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everybody else) with his generous grace. In Ephesians 2:8-10 Paul says, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Is there anywhere in today’s church, I wonder, that doesn’t need to be reminded of that message?

The parable is also a message of hope to everyone struggling to find adequate employment. In God’s kingdom, it suggests, we will all find work that meets our needs. The parable is, therefore, also a challenge to all those who have a hand in shaping the structures of work in today’s society. What can we do, as Christians, to advance this aspect of God’s kingdom right now?


Deacon Blue - Wages Day.

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