St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Septuagesima

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 I wouldn’t like to witness the rumpus there would be if the passage of scripture appointed as
today’s gospel were put into practice just as it is! It is all about labourers brought into a 
vineyard an hour before sunset, that is, an hour before it was time to ‘knock off’, and they 
received precisely the same wages as the men who had been ‘at it’ since sunrise. I wonder 
what the unions would say? I know what the labourers would do. They would all queue up 
for work the next day at 5.0p.m. Why not? This lunatic employer gives the same pay 
whenever you turn up. However, the landowner, need not according to Levitical law, have 
paid these last employees anything. Their pay could have waited till they had worked their 
full stint by returning next day. Instead, the landowner exercised what he recognized as his 
own right to be generous. This is what evoked the resentment.
The whole story is so fantastic, so illogical, it forces you to search for a meaning. The 
speaker wasn’t crazy. What, then, could he mean by presenting a crazy story?
I think we should begin by realizing that our notions of justice usually cannot but be 
influenced by our own circumstances about what we and others deserve. We insist justice 
has to do with equality, but a lot of the time it’s a word we toss around to keep people and 
things we don’t like at bay. Then we hear this ‘awkward’ parable which seems to turn all 
that upside down. But then we know how often Jesus does that in an attempt to shake us 
out of our preconceived notions.
So perhaps no other words attributed to Jesus cause as much offence to our ethical 
perceptions as in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. He likens ‘the kingdom of 
heaven’, or the way things are when God sets the standards, to a situation in which 
hardworking, reliable people seem to get swindled. Or do they?
Well, not as far as Jesus sees why he is telling this. Because so often his parables include 
absurd behaviour to deliver the message, which in this case is a characterization of what it 
means to call God ‘righteous’ or ‘just’. When the landowner promises to pay ‘whatever is 
right’ his words mean ‘whatever is just.’
So excessive is God’s need to give and care, it seems to go against our instinct and fairness. 
Indeed some scholars suggest that this parable was given prominence by the early church 
because there were those who thought that their years of loyal service was not rewarded 
early enough, with perhaps a bishopric, but being set aside by younger men, who had not 
come up through the struggle and ranks. A message that seems to have echoed through the 
church ever since.
It may seem absurd to assert that since the world began men have resented God being 
generous, but it is true. Human nature may bring itself to the point of allowing God to be 
generous to itself, but only just; we are proud, we like to pay for our sins; what we cannot 
endure is God being generous to others. ‘Why should God’, complained the Jews, ‘receive 
Christians into the same fellowship with himself when they have not borne the burden of 
observing God’s laws as we have? ‘Why should God’, complains the life-long churchgoer, 
receive that old sinner down the street into the presence of God as a result of his death-bed 
conversion? We prefer instead a God who works ‘according to the book.’
So, good people, this parable reminds us that God will  allow us to have what we want. 
He insists on being generous. ‘Surely I am free to do what I want with my own money?’ 
And this puts us in our place. We are forced to have the God that is, not the God we prefer. 
And so, not only our pride but our jealousy is unmasked. ‘Why be jealous because I am 
kind?’ God enquires. So the problem for us all is the grace of God. Can we take it? Can we 
enter into God’s presence not on the basis of our rights but on the basis of God’s generosity 
to each and every one of us? No wonder the Cross of Christ is a stumbling block. It gives no 
credit. It grounds our eternal security not in anything that we pride ourselves as having 
done. There is the rub for us all in the grace of God, but unless we are prepared to suffer it 
we will not be in communion with God because God intends to be generous however much 
we grumble.
The message for us all to take away from today’s parable, and to ponder on, and be 
reassured by it, is this. God’s creation is a gift. All the loveliness of God’s world we think of 
is a gift. Likewise salvation, the sovereign grace of God, is a gift, and when we see it like 
that, this seemingly illogical parable, of the Labourers in the Vineyard, we become, and will 
remain Christians without a proud look and high stomach, the only kind which is truly 
Christian. So may we all be blessed in that this week? Amen.
 

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