- Jesus was a shocker
Jesus was a shocker, and I use the word not in that playful way which I might use when my grandson has done something naughty but actually quite clever.
No, Jesus was deep down shocking, truly taking people’s breath away, as when he called into question the legitimacy of long-held religious traditions, or challenged commonly accepted displays of pride, pomp and prejudice.
The chapter before the one in which today’s gospel comes provides three very striking examples of this and provides useful background for the gospel we shall study in a moment.
The first arose out of a question put to him by a group of Pharisees and was listened to most attentively by Jesus’ disciples.
Can, went the question, you divorce your wife on any grounds? (And the grounds could be something as simple as burning the evening meal or being observed chatting with a strange man in the street) At that time divorce could only be initiated by the husband and was, if anything, easier than today. Jesus took his hearers back to the beginning, to God’s words of a man ‘leaving and cleaving’ in an enduring relationship that might – and only in very particular circumstances – be ended in divorce. So stunned were Jesus’ disciples by his words that they joked that it might be better after all not to be married than to be saddled with a marriage from which one could not escape!
The encounter with the Pharisees was followed by the appearance of children brought to be blessed by Jesus whom his disciples did their best to chase away. Jesus stopped them and said that it was to ‘such as these’ – the very young but also the vulnerable, powerless, forgotten, side-lined, ignored and sometimes abused – that the Kingdom belonged. They remain deeply challenging words.
If Jesus’ attitude to casual divorce and his commendation of children and the like stunned his hearers, his statement, ‘Truly it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ left them flabbergasted. The words were, of course, Jesus’ sad comment on the departure of the rich young ruler. To the disciples the words sounded so hard; the young man was zealous and enthusiastic, and wasn’t wealth a sign of God’s blessing anyway? Peter remonstrated, ‘We’ve left our boats and business. What’s in it for us?’ Jesus assured him that he and his fellows would be rewarded in due course and ended with the words which introduce our gospel, ‘The first will be last and the last first.’
- No way to run a business!
The setting for today’s parable is grape harvest. Palestinian vineyards were famous and their wines popular. A conscientious vineyard owner comes early in the day to recruit labourers from the local market square. It is still a familiar scene in many a Middle Eastern city. Carpenters can be seen standing with a bucket, saw and spirit-level, decorators with a paint roller, others with shovel and pick.
It is striking that in this parable it is the vineyard owner himself who hires the labourers. He agrees with the first ones he hires the wage for a day of one denarii. It was, I gather, a reasonable wage. We may remember the Good Samaritan in that parable left the innkeeper with two denarii for the lodging of uncertain length of the one whom he had brought to the doorstep.
Three hours after the first hiring, the vineyard owner himself is back again to hire more workers with whom he agrees an appropriate wage and he returns again and again at intervals to recruit more. It is extraordinary behaviour. There is no suggestion that he was incompetent, and he would surely have known at the beginning of the day just how many men (possibly women) he needed. And then, incredibly, as the day cools and the sun begins to settle, he returns again to the square and there he finds some men still
there, desperate and dejected, wondering how they can return home to their hungry families empty handed. Similar thoughts must pass through the minds of millions of day workers deprived of work around the world today.
The vineyard owner asks why they are still there? ‘Because’ they say, ‘no one has taken us on,’ – perhaps it was because they looked already pretty spent and useless. Have you ever had that feeling of being the last one selected in the playground for a team? I have. The owner of the vineyard took them on, furthermore, he respected their dignity; he did not give them a handout but rather a hand up. It was compassion not necessity that drove him back to hire labourers.
- A digression – about parables
Last Sunday I was almost at church when I realised I had not got my face mask, and I turned home not wanting to look forgetful in front of the churchwardens, whom I was actually quite sure would have made provision for forgetful people anyway, and I was really quite keen to show off my nice bronze coloured face covering. As I walked home to get it, I remembered Jesus telling a parable of the fate of someone who was ejected from a wedding for not being properly dressed and wondered if he would tell a parable of face masks.
He probably would not repeat his one about the lost coin because coins are getting to be obsolete, but missing car keys or the mobile would surely feature. Little matches the joy and relief when they are found and that, amazingly says Jesus, is how the joy is in heaven when someone turns back to the firm and tender grasp of God. (Luke 15 vs 7)
Helmut Thielecke, the German theologian, philosopher and most courageous pastor to his Stuttgart congregation through the Second World War said of this parable, ‘The setting is very worldly. It tells us nothing that is religious – of incense or miracles – and on the contrary it speaks about the labour market, – the unemployed, an employer and the talk is of hourly wages, labour contracts and rates of pay.’ Jesus was where people were at, so often the church is not.
Near the beginning of lockdown some months ago, we listened to John Bell of the Iona Community – sometimes controversial, always worth listening to – addressing the situation of the pandemic and considering what the response of the church at large might be to it. ‘Are we aiming to go back to the old normal?’ he asked. He drew his listeners’ attention to the ministry of Jesus, whom, he said, spent a hundred times more energy in dealing with people – teaching, healing, evangelising, comforting and befriending – than he did on bricks and mortar. John Bell went on to ask, ‘Are we going to shape the life of our churches according to the priorities of Jesus or remain obsessed with the upkeep of buildings and structures, some of which have long been obsolete?’
Yesterday, Nancy and I were introduced to a delightful Iranian Christian couple, who have been living in the UK for just 18 months, having been forced from Iran by the regime after 15 devoted years of service in the leadership of the church in Iran, which with no buildings, its members subject to constant harassment and intimidation, has yet learned to live courageously with deprivations and uncertainties, and through the blessed Zoom and continuing ministry in tens of thousands of homes, added some half million new Christians to the church in the last 10 years.
- Last thing – The parable concluded, and an understanding offered
The parable concludes with the vineyard owner’s steward settling the wages in accordance with the owner’s instructions, beginning with the last hired who were paid exactly the same as the first leading to cries of protest, which we can surely imagine. A fair wage for a fair day’s labour! The unions will hear of this! What was Jesus getting at? And who had he in mind when he told this story? Some say he was getting at the disciples who resented the attention given to very new converts. Some suggest it was Jesus’ Jewish followers who objected to the inclusion among their number of Gentiles. I am not sure who he was getting at – perhaps neither of these groups. I do think it is all about grace and the amazing, undeserved generosity of God, who gives us more than we can imagine or deserve.
The 70 year-old Christian, who has seen a thing or two, known grief and disappointment, slip-ups and folly, but also the over-arching, unfailing kindness and faithfulness of God, does not for a moment resent the exuberance of new-found faith of a teenager, thrilled that he or she has come to know Christ. Such cannot be earned; it can only be accepted with wondering gratitude and awe.
These continue to be uncertain days in which we live but heaven is not under lockdown; the lines are open; God’s voice is not muffled by a mask. He still, like the vineyard owner, turns up in the heat of the day to the weary, and at dusk to the discouraged and, by others, forgotten.
Paul, in prison, longed for friends he could not see, his life was precarious and could be ended at any moment with the swipe of a Roman sword, but from his prison he wrote to friends he loved, these words: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4 vss 4-7)
So be it!