Our Ordinand Sue gave this sermon on Sunday 24 September 2017.
I wonder if anyone played the game of careers as a child? It was a board game, a bit like monopoly, although instead of buying property, as you moved around the board you followed different occupations, which would bring you happiness, money or fame. You set your own goals at the beginning, and won by being the first to achieve them. It gave a very simple message – life is a competition, success is what matters.
For those of us who were brought up with that message today’s gospel reading comes as a bit of a shock. In New Testament times labourers were hired by the day. They stood in the market place, and employers would come along and pick the ones they wanted. The daily wage was an agreed standard – one denarius, which was a Roman coin. The first workers, employed in the early morning, would have been only too happy to have accepted – they would have money to take home, and there would be food on the table that night. But then the vineyard owner went back again and again, each time employing more men, but not specifying what they would be paid. They trusted him – perhaps they knew him to be generous, or perhaps they felt they didn’t have a lot of options – anything was better than nothing. When it came to six o’clock in the evening, they must have been amazed to be paid a whole denarius for only an hour’s work, but as the workers who had been there all day got to the front of the wages queue they assumed that the employer would pay them more – they had done a full 12 hours of back breaking work, right through the heat of the day. But no, the vineyard owner sent them off with the denarius they had agreed to, telling them that he could do what he liked with his money.
Jesus told this parable as a response to the Pharisees who had criticised him for accepting hospitality from notorious sinners – tax collectors who were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupiers, for instance. And not just that, but he told these reprobates that they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. How fair is that, when the Pharisees had spent their whole lives being very particular about keeping every last one of the Jewish rules, while these sinners had been enjoying their ill-gotten gains. All that effort for nothing! It was a very human reaction.
Quite a long time ago now, I was helping the Methodist chaplain with a Bible study group at a prison near Doncaster. The men were engaged and asked good questions – it was always a good evening. A couple of men in particular were very regular attendees. They were both doing Open University courses and had interesting contributions to make. They were polite and friendly. They were category D prisoners – on the low security side, which meant that they could go out for the day, or even home for the weekend, from time to time. Eventually it dawned on me that they were both convicted murderers, at the end of long sentences, being gradually reintroduced into society. By getting to know them first, and only later finding out about their crimes, I found myself confronted with the unpalatable truth that murderers were people not very different from me. I think it was the first time I really believed that there is no pecking order in the Kingdom of God.
Let’s go back to the parable for a moment. Who do you think the labourers left behind in the market place until 5 o’clock were? The big, strong men would have been snapped up at first light. The ones left would have been the small, the weak, the disabled. Maybe the foreigners that people were a bit suspicious of. But also the disorganised and the lazy. The shocking thing is that the owner did not make judgements – all were rewarded equally. This is not a blueprint for a good way to run a business – but it is a metaphor for the grace of God. We are all accepted, we are all loved, not for our talents, our achievements or our hard work, but for ourselves. All we have to do is to choose to accept the invitation to the kingdom of God.
The Buddhists have a saying, “The Three Kinds of Pride are: thinking I am better than the others; thinking I am worse than the others; and thinking I am just as good as the others.” Now when I first heard that, that, too, gave me pause for thought. Thinking I am better than other people – yes that is definitely being proud. As for thinking that I am worse surely that is being humble? The Victorian poet James Thompson wrote this verse on the subject:
- ONCE in a saintly passion
- I cried with desperate grief,
- “O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
- Of sinners I am chief.”
- Then stooped my guardian angel
- And whispered from behind,
- “Vanity, my little man,
- You’re nothing of the kind.”
When we think we are better than, worse than, or as good as other people we are comparing ourselves to them. That is not an easy thing to stop doing. By the time children leave primary school they have already learnt to compare their test results with others in the class – by the age of 16 their results are written on GCSE certificates. They have learnt that to get in a team they must play better than others, and that employment and university places are both based on competition. Now, I’m not going to say that that in itself is a bad thing – it can be argued that without competition we would have mediocrity. If we apply for a job, we can expect the employer to choose the person that they believe will do the job the best. Suppose the post is head teacher – the person appointed will not necessarily be the best teacher, or have the best academic qualifications, or be the person who is always the last to go home. It will hopefully be the person who will be best at running the school. The appointment is recognition that the candidate’s skills are a good match for the vacancy. It is not a seal of approval on his past performance.
But competition is a very bad thing if it spills over into our spiritual lives. Only this week there was a report that at the age of 14 a quarter of girls and nearly one in 10 boys show signs of depression. And depression is very closely linked to self esteem. The researchers suggest exam stress and concern over body image as two of the main causes of stress in teenagers. More than ever before our young people are comparing themselves to others and believing that they are less attractive, less intelligent, or less likely to succeed.
The way to better mental health for our society is to believe in the grace of God. Once you have swallowed the bitter pill that your own merits are ultimately worth no more than those of the homeless drug addict you walk past in the street, you have the gift of liberation. Shame is a thing of the past, as sin can be confessed and forgiven. You no longer need to worry about what other people think about you, about status or about what you have or haven’t achieved. Life ceases to be disappointing as you are no longer disappointed with yourself. You can love and value your children without the shadow of worrying whether they will succeed in life.
In the vineyard everyone was given a full day’s pay. There was no comparison between one labourer and another. In Jesus’ ministry, too, all are welcomed into the kingdom – the poor, the outcast, the sinners, and yes, the Pharisees, as well. The only qualification is to choose to accept the invitation – and to acknowledge as brothers and sisters all those who have answered God’s call.