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Crossings, Connections and Compassion

Creation2016

There are, throughout France, Spain and Portugal, winding paths that cross fields, towns, industrial areas and woodlands, cut across major highways, railway lines and go right through shopping malls. They are not obvious, you have to follow small yellow arrows painted on lampposts and walls to find your way. Those who walk these paths are walking to a different drumbeat, a slower rhythm; calmer, harder work, more connected with the landscape and with fellow travellers. You can only take enough food for a day or your rucksack will be too heavy. To follow these paths is to bear witness to a different way of living, as the trucks and busy shoppers rush by. In 2012 Rosemary and I walked one of these paths from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, and on Friday night we got back after walking from Lisbon to Porto. We hope to complete the walk to Santiago next year, starting in Porto.

Today I want to make some connections, some of which I will simply leave hanging in the air for us to reflect on and do with what we will. And then I want to think about what rhythm it is that we walk to, what compass we hold to direct us as we make the journey of our lives. I am very struck by the depth of both of today’s readings to help us as we think about this. The OT reading from Exodus is a famous passage where the Israelites, having escaped from slavery in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, are now starting on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land, led by Moses and Aaron and more importantly, by God, YHWH Himself. But they are hungry! They start to complain bitterly, ‘send us back to Egypt! At least we had food there!’ YHWH promises he will rain food from heaven for them. In the story, quails come up in the evening and cover the camp; in the morning something flaky falls to the ground, manna, for the Israelites to eat. They are literally being fed from heaven. It is, bread from heaven. We didn’t read on this morning, but the story goes on to tell us that they just received enough for each day. If people tried to collect for the next day, it went rotten. I hope you’re starting to make connections. Journeys. Bread. Just enough for the day. ‘Give us this day…’

Jumping on to today’s gospel reading, we find the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. It is so connected with the Exodus reading. And so startling. But to understand it, we have to step back 2000 years to an agrarian economy, where people just queue up for work for that day and hope for the best. The context, the background to Jesus’ parable, is the grumbling of the religious leaders of the day about Jesus’ open-hearted attitudes towards the poor and people who were ‘sinners’. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard…’ This landowner goes down to the market first thing in the morning and hires workers for his vineyard…and then he goes again, and again, hiring more workers each time – five times in all! The last time, it’s only an hour before sunset but there are still guys hanging around so he hires them too. And then, he gets his manager to pay all of them the same wage! Not surprisingly, the ones who have worked all day are not too pleased – why are those who worked only an hour getting the same as us?? Listen to the landowner’s answer: ‘Friend, I am doing you know wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (vv.13-15)

Each of Jesus’ stories, or parables, has at least one shock in them that would certainly have made the hearers sit up and take notice. This parable is loaded with shocks, each one like a hammer blow, breaking up the hearers’ ideas of what is right and just. The first shock is in the first line, it’s the landowner himself who goes out early in the morning to hire labourers. Landowners were rich, they had people to do that for him and we know he had a manager because he crops up later in the story (v8). What kind of a landowner goes out himself to hire these common, poor people? And then, to add insult to injury, we find this landowner going out 5 times throughout the day! What’s he doing? Can you hear the muttering? ‘What’s he talking about? Didn’t he hire enough the first time? Ridiculous!’ But then, to add insult to injury, this extraordinary man pays the same wage to everyone, regardless of how long they worked! His listeners are on their feet now, shouting, ‘Jesus, you’re off your head! No-one does that!’ But this landowner has a different logic, he dances to a different tune, walks to a different drumbeat. He is quite right, it is up to him to do what he likes with his money, and he agreed the same wage with everyone. So what is his motivation?

Right at the end of the parable we have the clue: ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ This landowner is generous and compassionate. The reason why he goes himself to the vineyard is because he is actually concerned for the people who will work for him. And he goes again and again to check if there are any more hanging around because he is generous and full of sympathy for the poor – he worries that they might not get work. And he pays them the same amount as the labourers who worked all through the day is because it is ‘the usual daily wage’ (9,10,13, actually a denarius). He knows that if they get less than that they won’t be able to feed their family. Compassion rules his economics. But it’s not fair! Hang on. This is not the cry of the underpaid: no-one is underpaid. This complaint is from the justly paid who cannot tolerate generosity, what is called grace, the free, generous and shocking compassion of God.

The vineyard stands for the kingdom of God here, and the landowner of course stands for God. Jesus is telling us that God is like that. Let that picture erase any misconceptions we may have about God: that he just rewards us for what we have earned, how good we have been. No, God is far, far better than that. In many ways this parable is a kind of microcosm, a summary of the life of Jesus – it’s what he did. His invitation to follow him, to enter the kingdom of God went out to all – to the religious leaders who lived and breathed the scriptures, like the labourers who spent all day in the vineyard – and to ordinary people – and to the scum of society, the rejected and the poor – even to a thief dying on a cross next to Jesus, the ultimate last minute – all are welcome, all invited into the kingdom. I like the way that this parable brings it together.

Did you find any connections? Again, enough for the day. Enough for the day, echoing the wilderness experience in Exodus, the Lord’s prayer. Another connection is the grumbling: those who spent all day in the field in the parable, and those who complained about no food in the wilderness: ‘The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness’ (Exodus 16:2). Did you notice the landowner’s strong rebuke of the moaners? ‘Take what belongs to you and go!’ (14). Pretty short shrift! These men were trying to censure the landowner, they were trying to dictate to him how he ought to behave, forgetting that he is the landowner, the guy with all the cards in his hand! The parable is a rebuke to the religious leaders who were trying to dictate to God how to behave. Me first! He vindicates the gospel against his critics.

So what do we do with all of this? Firstly, let this parable enlarge our understanding of the width of the generosity and compassion of God. God is like that landowner, Jesus tells us. And what we believe in our hearts will affect how we behave. If we hold the view that God is some tight-fisted tyrant who rewards us only for what we do right and punishes us for the rest, that will form how we behave: it usually leads to either smug self-righteousness if we are convinced we do what is right (like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) – which at worst, leads to violence against those we perceive to be ‘sinners’; or it leads to despair if we think we are hopelessly bad.

The theme of receiving only what is needed for the day is an important one too, from both readings, echoed in the Lord’s prayer and on our experience walking crazily long days in Portugal and Spain. I’m not going to enlarge on this as I haven’t time but it’s a rebuke to our economics based on acquiring as much as possible and banking for the future. I just leave that with you.

But if we hold this view of God, that he is compassionate, kind and generous in a way far beyond our just desserts, that we are freely loved by Him whether we are early or late to the party, then that will affect our attitude towards ourselves and to other people. It can be hard to hold on to this. While we were walking, we were aware of news in the world – the Mexican earthquake, the battering of hurricanes and storms in the Caribbean and Florida, the escalating tensions over North Korea. I guess the lesson from the Camino is simply this: ‘we continue our journey. We wake up in the morning and walk the next bit’ That’s all we can do! We carry on, holding faith. Faith is not the same as certainty, in fact it might even be its opposite. It might be full of doubt. Our faith in a loving, compassionate and generous God, and all that flows from that, does not rest much on reason or rationality but because we choose to trust the words and actions of Jesus and to say: Sometimes there is more darkness than light but I have hope in something, in someone much, much better.

 

Richard Croft

Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16