Sermon at the Friday on Sunday 24th September, the 15th Sunday after Trinity

Friary, Sept 24th 2017.   Matthew 20. 1 – 16

The Labourers in the  vineyard

Both this week and last week the Gospel has been one of Jesus’ Parables of the Kingdom.  These are the stories he tells to evoke this ‘Kingdom’.  They are not ‘descriptions’, they are evocations … that is they offer us glimpses of the new world he came to usher in.

Last week he said it was about the writing off of mountains of debt – and the gratitude that should flow from that so that, in turn, we are merciful and releasing to those who might be ‘indebted’ to us.

This week it’s about worth, or value – the equal  worth or value of every human being no matter who they are or what they have done or not done … no matter how much by their good behaviour they have earned their value and esteem, or by their bad behaviour they have not earned it and so are not esteemed.  No matter all these things, in this Kingdom, all people, he insists, are equally valued. 

But just to state that is quite boring and does not really bring the message home.   So, as is his way, he tells a story.

The Kingdom of Heaven, he begins, is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire labourers …   Immediately of course he has his hearer’s attention.  People knew what the early morning felt like.  They knew what poverty was and the desperate need for wages.  They knew what it was to get early to the town market place and hope to be hired for a day’s work …  and so they are gripped …  and then as the story unfolds – and he is a natural story-teller – notice how the story has a captivating rhythm about it with a mounting tension as the householder goes out early at the first hour of the day, and then goes out at the third hour, and then at the sixth hour, and then at the ninth hour, and then at the eleventh hour … each time hiring more workers.

As the tension builds his listeners ask themselves, what is going to happen!?

The climax comes as he describes the evening and the moment of getting paid.   It’s the money of course that matters.  In every society it always is.   And the outcome is shocking. The men who went into the vineyard at first light, and worked their socks off sweating their way through the heat of the day humping huge barrels of grapes for 12 hours, are paid no more than those men who had sat around all day in the town square and who were hired at the eleventh hour in the cool of the evening when the sun was going down and the pace of work was slackening and who have only worked for only one hour, not twelve.

It is shocking, even outrageous. The story offends all notions of just desert, all notions of the value of people’s work.  Those first men should have been given at least twelve times more, but they get the same.    At a stroke the connection between how much you have achieved and how much you are rewarded, is broken.  Irrespective of how much has been done, the reward is the same for everyone.  Whether they have achieved a lot, or whether they have achieved almost nothing, everyone is equally valued.   This, he says, is what the Kingdom of God is about.

The story poses a fundamental question about how we gain our sense of worth.

In so far as we human beings derive our sense of worth, our sense of value, our sense of self-esteem from what we achieve, what we build, or from the amount of money we earn, this story is upsetting.    And in our society the measure of people’s value is still to a very large extent the size of their pay packet.

I guess many of us are listeners to BBC Radio 4.  One of the quite shocking things this autumn was realising just how much these BBC presenters who talk to us each morning actually earn.  John Humphries who regularly barks away in our household, earns something like £600,000 a year.   If pushed, I’m sure he would say that he is ‘worth it’.

How much are you worth?  It is now a commonplace question.  Each year the Forbes rich list is published, and we are told the ‘net worth’ of the richest individuals in the world.

So worth is measured either by achievements, or increasingly by money.   Which means that a clergyman is worth not very much, though if he or she is an archdeacon or a bishop he is worth a bit more … and I’m afraid to say that a friar is worth nothing at all.

A sense of self-worth is crucial to well-being.  This story implicitly asks:  where does that sense of self-worth come from?

Hidden in one, often neglected word, towards the end of the story, we are, I think, given the answer.

When the first workers see how much the latecomers are being paid they start to grumble and complain … these last workers worked only one hour and “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

How the householder answers them is crucial.  He could no doubt have addressed them all.  Could have stood up on a soap box and shouted at them.   But Matthew tells us that he doesn’t do it that way.  He very personally addresses just one of them;  ‘He replied to one of them’, says the Evangelist  … and then he uses a word that only occurs three other times in his Gospel.  The householder says to this one worker:  ‘O Friend’.  The Greek word he uses, ‘hetairay’ means ‘O Friend’, or ‘O comrade’, or ‘O One whom I am close to’ … the word  suggests belonging, closeness, even intimacy … we know that from the few other places where this word crops up in Matthew’s Gospel.

The other two notable places that Matthew uses it are first in chapter 11 where Jesus likens those who listened to him and John the Baptist as being ‘like children in the market place calling to their ‘playmates’’ … calling to their ‘hetairos’ – it’s the same word … calling to those with whom they had strong bonds of belonging together, like children who play together always do have.

and then Matthew uses it again in his  description of the betrayal in the garden which is subtly different from the story in Mark and Luke.  In Matthew’s version – and in Matthew only – when Judas comes to kiss Jesus, he is greeted as a friend.  ‘Hetairay’ says Jesus  … ‘O Friend, why are you here’.    It is an immensely sad greeting.  Jesus is intimately bound up with this man Judas … he knows him, they have spent huge amounts of time together, he understands him and he loves him … and so even as he is being betrayed by him, he greets him as a friend.

In this story the householder uses the same word to the grumbling worker … ‘O Friend’ … It is as though he is saying “we know one another so well, you belong to me, we belong to one another … that is your sense of worth … were we not bound to give to these others who came late and who have the same needs as you have, the same reward?”

“O Friend, O One with whom I am intimately bound up ….  O One with whom I belong … “

How much do you know, do I know, that we belong to God?  How much do we know not so much at the surface of our minds but in the very depths of our muddled-up psyches … at the very heart of us … that we belong to … that we are held by … that we are grounded in … that we are part of … the Very Ground of Life?    Do we know this?  This should be the very deepest truth of our fragile lives.  But the truth is we scarcely know it at all.  And when we do momentarily realise it, then very rapidly we forget it.  And all that is called ‘sin’ in us comes from this forgetting.

But it is our deepest truthWe are not our own, we belong to Another.  And every time we gather round this table, the receiving of his broken body and blood into us, is simply a re-affirmation of that belonging.

There is a wonderful line in psalm 86:  ‘Knit my heart to you that I may fear your name’.

‘Knit my heart to you’ I love this phrase because of its intimate connectedness.  It is saying knit me … weave me … draw me … gather me into Yourself again, O God,  day after day …

Knit my heart to you that I may fear your name.  That is what our daily prayer time is fundamentally about … allowing this – the deepest truth of our lives – to percolate down into our unbelieving hearts.

And then when we do know this … beyond our basic needs, it doesn’t really matter how much money we get, or we don’t get.   For we have, again, discovered something far deeper.

Patrick Woodhouse.

24 September 2017