The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Holy Communion      20th September 2020
Generosity or Injustice?
Jeremy Fletcher

Matthew 20: 1-16
In a crowded marketplace labourers have gathered in the early morning hoping to find work. The system is that employers appear, gather a crowd, tell them the nature of the day’s work and agree a rate of pay.  Those who are still interested indicate their acceptance of the deal, and the employer makes the choice. This particular morning a likely looking chap arrives, and instantly draws his crowd. The day is looking up as the potential labourers gather…
I have to confess that, though the parable of the labourers in Matthew 20 is more than familiar to me, I have always found it a little alien. I have never looked for a job in this way, though I guess some aspects of today’s employment market are like it, digitally. “Here I am. Hire me!” Standing around waiting to be picked is a horrid reminder of playground games at school. It all sounds a bit demeaning really. 
So it was chastening to see such groups of people gathering in this way in Jerusalem and Bethlehem when I visited in 2012. Today’s near Eastern culture would recognise the scene, but this parable has its problems even there. We can rejoice that the employer has good intentions for his workers. He is honest, he opens himself to his labourers as he negotiates with them. All are clear that he will be fair: he starts by offering the normal daily wage, and continues through the day offering to pay “whatever is right”. God, we are to understand, will not dupe us, con us, try to work one over on us. I have to confess that I am no haggler. I’m the man who goes into the car dealers, sees the price on the windscreen and says ‘Yes, that seems fair’. I believe there is no wheeler-dealing in the kingdom of heaven. The offer is on the table. That much is clear.
Where the problems occur is at the end of the day, when payment is due. The workers employed last and least get the full daily wage. The workers employed first rub their hands, already calculating their return: it must be the daily wage times 8 – a stunning return. And they get the same. The daily wage. This is grossly unfair – at least by the way our economics work. If you have laboured for eight hours more than someone else, you should get eight hours more pay. Simple. The employer in the parable though turns this on its head. “You actually got the rate for the job. I simply chose to be more generous with the others. I can do what I like with what is mine”. 
Our reading puts these words in his mouth “Are you envious because I am generous?” There is a more literal translation: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” And here lies the subtlety of the parable. Even when faced with the overwhelming generosity of God, when confronted by God’s inclusiveness, God’s welcome of all, whether established or outsider, whether trusted servant or complicated latecomer, when the reality of the even handed welcome of all into the kingdom of God becomes clear to people, it is not all sweetness and light. Why should they get in? I’ve been here longer. Shouldn’t I get more? It happens all the time in subtle ways. I’m not voting for them to get on General Synod, they’ve only been in the diocese 2 minutes. Why should she become a bishop? I’ve been ordained longer. It gets more obvious when you look at majorities and minorities in the church, and measure the fear and discomfort when those who were previously oppressed start to get a voice.
This parable talks of the all inclusive generosity of God, which depends not on how much work we have done, or how worthy we are, but on how loving and generous God wants to be. It calls us to recognise the economics of our human interactions, to be clear about how we measure worth, and then see that the economics of the kingdom of God are different. There won’t be a VIP lounge in heaven. All are offered the same gift. And if we question this, says Jesus in the parable, it is because our eye is evil, and the goodness of God reveals this in all its shabbiness.
The parable shows any debate about assigning worth to be futile in God’s eyes. There will always be inequalities in the way we accord value to people, and there will be jealousies and carpings over money wherever it is traded. The generosity of God, in giving everything to all who will respond, takes us to a deeper level. All are equal. All fall short. All are offered redemption and forgiveness. All who respond will gain the same at the end of the day. Our worth is not measured by what we produce but by how much we are loved. 
Of course, our response to God’s welcome should be seen in lives given in generous service in return. It is the inclusive love of God which starts the process. Our eye is evil if we don’t go the extra mile, prefer the poor, embrace the marginalised, honour the difficult, cross the boundary, recognise the oppressed, make way for those discriminated against. 
In a world of shabby duplicity and false attributions of worth and value, may our response to the open love of God demonstrate that, as all are welcome, all may receive, and all find their hopes fulfilled, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years are here | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005