Reflection: Matthew 20:1-16

                   20 September 2020  Jonnie Hill               

I wonder what you felt last week when, in her Words of Wisdom, Hilary mentioned always having found the parables of Jesus a bit tricky to understand, their true meaning a challenge to decipher.

I can tell you what I felt – pure relief. Phew… it’s not just me then.

I should say – thank you Hilary for your honesty!

If you, as many of us have, grown up in the church, or even if you’ve been coming to church for a few goes around the lectionary’s three-year cycle, you’ll probably be very familiar with these short excerpts from the Gospels that you could have a good go of recounting them by heart.

Okay, maybe not word for word but the gist of them at least.

So familiar as they are, often with agreed meanings, when I sit down with a parable and really try to interrogate it, I often get tied up in knots.

Take todays parable for example. Probably one of my favourite parables, at least it was until the preparation time this week.

It’s always seemed such a straightforward message to me. The landowner represents God and the workers represent humans – people like you and me. And regardless of our efforts, God deals with each one of us equally. Whether we are a Mother Theresa like figure or… well… I’ll let your imaginations go to the opposite type of figure, but to each and all in between, God’s grace is equally offered.

This kind of interpretation fits with the scandalous message of grace at the heart of the Gospels. And throughout the centuries it’s been understood to mean that regardless of our good works and efforts, God’s offer to humans i.e. eternal life is a gift of grace alone and is God’s and only God’s to give.

Perhaps we might hear echoes of St Paul’s writings to the Ephesians in chapter 2 verses 8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast”.

The early Christians believed that Jesus would soon return, they believed that their metaphoric ‘five o’clock’ – the end of the present age was imminently expected. What of those who had just become followers? What standing would they have at the day of judgement alongside the likes of the original followers like Peter, John or Mary Magdalene. Would God deal any less with these new followers when Jesus returned?

We mustn’t forget that the Gospels were written for an original context. They were written for the early followers of Jesus – what we now call the church.

Why does this matter?

Well, the commonly accepted meaning of this parable still stands, and I take a lot personal comfort from it.

But if we cast our primary attention away from the landowner and to the labourers, then we get a different perspective.

Why shouldn’t those who have toiled in the field all day feel aggrieved at not having been paid more?

What is fair about that?

But one thing I find interesting is that the parable doesn’t mention why the labourers that were picked up later in the day were left behind in previous recruitments. And when the story doesn’t explicitly say, we are left to consider the possibilities for ourselves.

Were the labourers first picked up the ones with the big muscles? The younger ones perhaps?

What of those picked up last? The elderly ones? The disabled ones? The malnourished, weak ones?

I wonder if the recruitment drive in this parable might feel a bit like the process of picking teams at school, and someone being left until last? I know what that feels like, I wonder, do you?

Of course, all of this is speculation. But I suspect that this is what parables are meant to do – leave us scratching our heads and wondering about the details that were left unsaid.    

Why does any of this matter?

Well you may not be surprised to hear this but churches can very easily become a place where who did what is noted along with who’s not pulling their weight?

This is probably true of any human social group and so I say this to neither to accuse nor to challenge, but rather to remind us that we live in a complex social world where it is easy for any one of us to feel aggrieved at the mismatch between what we offer in comparison to that of our neighbour.

It is far too easy to fall into comparisons and judgements. But the reality is that we will rarely have all the facts to qualify us to make such judgements. Think back to the parable and ask ourselves, why were the ones hired last left until the end of the day?

Literally thank God that he along is judge, because the parable serves to remind us of God’s impartiality of his deep mercy and grace. But I wonder if it also serves as a warning to us of our tendency as human beings to keep score in a way that God does not.

In so much of Jesus’ teaching as in this parable, we are shown that God’s Kingdom confounds our human expectations. We will falter and we will stumble, and we must guard against harsh judgements. But God’s grace is surely enough that if we truly receive it in ourselves, then it too will overflow in compassion, generosity and understanding as we labour for the coming kingdom.


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