How are we to understand this strange story about the vineyard owner who keeps hiring workers through the day and ends up paying them all the same wage? Well, the first thing we have to understand is that the vineyard is an ancient symbol for the Promised Land, so the workers in the vineyard are those who are called to participate in the Promised Land. For Jesus' original hearers, it would have meant the true citizens of Israel, the faithful among God's chosen people. For us, it means the same thing, except that God's kingdom has now been widened to include people in every land who follow the God now revealed in Jesus.
Now, if you follow that logic, then the vineyard owner represents God and we are the workers in the vineyard. Now in that context, what is this story saying to us?
Well, the first thing I think it is telling us is that participation in the kingdom of heaven is not some wonderful vacation or a great long rest in peace. It's a somewhere that we work, but where it is a privilege to work because our work is fruitful and pleasing to God and to all of us - it is work that enables the whole vineyard to thrive. Now as someone who occasionally gets overwhelmed by the manic nature of my work and would happily retire tomorrow, I have to admit that's something of a disappointment. There are times when I long for it all to stop. However, a few years ago I was forced to take a break from ministry for personal reasons and I well remember the feeling that produced. Somehow, my life was significantly less meaningful without something to work at, without a responsibility to fulfil and without the opportunity to achieve something. The inability to build on everything I had worked for so hard and the feeling that I was not contributing to something that mattered deeply to me, was frankly awful. So for all its frantic busyness and for all its complexity and difficulties at times, I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to work in God's vineyard.
Now, for all that, I do think there are things that will be different about the way we work when the fullness of God's kingdom comes. I believe that we will strike a proper balance between work, rest, worship and play and that will be far more fulfilling and enjoyable than anything we've ever known on earth. But that's all to come. The story, of course, is primarily concerned with the work we carry out now - building the kingdom. And so primarily, the story is reminding us that our purpose for now is to work for God in the vineyard.
The second thing we have notice, in order to understand the story, is the last person to be hired. He was hanging around in the market all day waiting to be hired. No-one apparently wanted him. Perhaps he was the sort of person who is easy to overlook or difficult to get on with. Perhaps he was the sort of person people would avoid hiring. But the vineyard owner hired him. And paid him the same amount as everybody else. God is calling everyone to work in his vineyard. He cares about everybody just the same. God doesn't leave anyone sitting around in the market place forgotten. He comes back again and again looking for people to draw in and take a part in the work he is doing. And it's not our business to grumble about who God chooses to work in the vineyard alongside us.
And then (and only then) can we come to the most obvious oddity of the story - the wages that are paid out. I think the structure of the story tends to place us in the place of the people who are hired first - they seem to be the audience Jesus is addressing. And this exposes a number of truths about God and about ourselves of which we may not immediately be aware.
The first thing it tells about God is that his generosity doesn't come in different sizes. It's all one size and it's huge. His generosity is not something that you can measure or bargain with. It's a bit like weather. No-one gets any more weather than anyone else - we just get weather. In fact, the bible says it's like rain. It rains on the just and the unjust alike. Now in Cumbria we don't value rain much do we? We get plenty of it - too much we might think. But in Israel, of course, rain is rare and precious, so every drop you get is very important for making your crops grow and giving you enough to eat. Perhaps we can best understand it by thinking of it like the sun. You don't get degrees of sun - you just get the sun. Equally, you don't get degrees of God's generosity - you just get the whole lot, whoever you are.
The second thing it tells about God's generosity is that it's not something you can earn. What the workers in the story didn't realise is that they weren't being paid according to what they had done. They were being paid because the vineyard owner was generous. And so it is with God. You can't bargain with him. I wonder if you have ever found yourself saying to God "If you'll only give me this thing, I promise I'll be extra good." Well, that doesn't work at all. You can't do anything to earn his favour, because you already have it - all of it. God never stints on his generosity. We can't earn any more from him by working.
So, what then is the point of working for God? This, I think, is the point at which a light is shone into our own hearts. The most profound challenge, I think of this story, is to ask ourselves "what is my motivation for working for God?" I think if we're honest with ourselves, most of us have fairly mixed motives. Even I sometimes catch myself thinking "I'd better get a good deal in heaven after all this - all that I've given up, all these years spent doing ridiculous things for God, all these years devoted to serving the church - surely he's got to give me a decent reward!"
It's interesting, isn't it, that this story is told just after the episode of the rich young ruler, who is called by Jesus to give up all his wealth to follow him and who walks away sad because he has so many possessions. And Peter, rather smugly points out: 'Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?'
Well, Peter, don't you worry. You won't miss your reward. You'll get a great reward - just the same as everyone else.
So what are our motives for serving God? Do we hope that our friends and neighbours will notice everything we do and be grateful? I know I do. But I think Jesus would probably say to me "in that case, you've had your reward already haven't you Stewart?" Do we do it as a kind of insurance policy to get into heaven? Surely, after all these years of going to church, or of being on the PCC or being churchwarden or being the vicar(!) he's got to let me in. He must be satisfied by now. Time someone else pulled their weight! I know I feel like that sometimes. And I think Jesus would probably say to me, but Stewart, working for me is part of the reward. And as a result, everything I have is yours.
And do we do it in order to get one up on others? There is something of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the way the first workers in the vineyard react. And again I know I am like that at times. Look, I've left everything and followed you. Surely I'm going to be favoured more than everyone else. And I think Jesus would probably say to me "are you envious because I am generous?"
You see, the trouble with working for reward, is that it makes us like Jonah. When God gives us something, we take it for granted (as though it's nothing less than we deserve) and therefore we miss the gift. And when he takes it away from us (even if, like Jonah, it's to give us something else) we grumble and get cross with him. It's something we all do, but it's a fool's game.
Part of the secret of happiness, is to work for God simply because he
is our God. The poet George Herbert expresses this so well (and that's
why I've chosen [two] George Herbert hymns to finish our service). To
work for God out of loving devotion for him, not only makes sense of our
life's work, but also makes sense of ourselves.
A servant with this clause
To work for God, in his vineyard, not to be noticed by others, not for any other reward, ennobles our actions and gives deep meaning to our lives. It opens our hearts to recognise and receive the full magnitude of God's generosity and it removes the envy which causes us to grumble against our fellow workers because instead of envying the fact that they worked less than us, we only think it a pity that they have had less time to experience to the privilege and delight of serving this amazing, loving, generous God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached: - Thrimby, Crosby Ravensworth 18 September 2011