'[Jesus said] 'are you envious because I am generous'. Matthew 20:15
Brothers and sisters, What is a parable? A parable is story about something ‘every day’ in which the speaker adds in a complication or a tension, to make a clarifying point. It’s a story with a meaning and, often, the story would have a really obvious meaning to the people who first heard it but, now, some of Jesus’ parables require unpacking, require us to better understand the world he was speaking into. For example, at the time of Jesus, a denarius would be what you need every day to keep a family. One denarius is roughly the amount that a day labourer would be paid as compensation for one day’s work. And, of course, Jesus would have known this. What’s more is that, at the time Jesus is speaking, many people had recently lost all of their land. The people listening to Jesus were being taxed we reckon as much as 80% of what they earn, to local authorities and to the Roman empire, so had lost their lands and were forced into hired labour. I want you to imagine yourself hoping to be hired, having just lost all of your land. It would be a long, hard working day for you most days, roughly 6am-6pm, that’s a 12 hour working day.
Remember, people were so desperate for work that they’d stand around all day for even an hour’s worth of work, the people listening to Jesus would have got this. Imagine that you’re stood, perhaps, in the job centre, or that you’ve applied for hundreds of jobs and not heard back from any in weeks. Now you’re stood in the marketplace as all of the ablest workers are picked at 6am. You’re so desperate that you hold on, even though nobody comes for you to offer you a job. 9am rolls around and another group are taken away to work but still nothing for you. The same happens at midday and at 3pm and then, it’s 5 in the afternoon, an hour before the end of the day, yet you’re still there because otherwise your family will get nothing to eat at all. You’re desperate. And then here comes a landowner who asks ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ You said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ To your shock an delight he says, ‘You also go into the vineyard’. Then he does something remarkable, at the end of the day he calls you forward and gives you a full days wages. Your family can eat and be provided for today.
Now, as good people with a great knowledge of the Jewish Bible, this is an incredibly generous offer and yet it makes sense as it mirrors part of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, which says “pay them their wages each day before sunset for they are needy”. So this landowner is a righteous man who keeps the law, and yet he goes beyond the righteous as he doesn’t just pay them but pays them a full day’s wage. This would have dropped the jaws of those listening, who then also must have wondered what those hired first were going to get? And when they hear that those men got the same as those who worked last, that would raise up shock and perhaps even indignation among the listeners to Jesus’ parable. I think what’s interesting in me and I don’t know if it’s the same for you but most people I’ve spoken to about this passage feel similarly that this is unfair, because most people reading this see themselves as those who were hired first, rather than those hired in the last hour. So, many of us recoil with confusion, almost, at how unfair this parable seems.
Well, the key phrase to understand this passage is in verse 15: “are you envious because I am generous”. Or perhaps another way of looking at that phrase would be, “has my generosity struck a nerve in you?” You see that is the point, as we said all parables have within them a clarifying point, and that is the point of this parable and the amazing thing about Jesus’ story telling is that it works on both a physical and on a spiritual level and we’re not meant to miss either part of the message. On one level, this is a parable about provision for basic needs through generosity. And that, as followers of God, this is the bare basic way we want to live. The landowner is hugely generous, but not just by the standards of what the world would call generosity, but he, like God, is unfairly generous. Yet this physical reality of what may be considered generous is meant to be applied to God. God isn’t fair by the world’s standards. He is more generous than people deserve. He’s not fair. His generosity goes beyond what is fair. That’s the whole point isn’t it? He doesn’t treat us as we deserve? He doesn’t treat us fairly. He doesn’t treat us like liars. He doesn’t treat us like we’re lazy. He doesn’t treat us like screw-ups. He doesn’t say, “oh well you’ve only turned up at the last minute.” God treats us with grace. This story is meant to make the people listening say “oh that doesn’t seem fair” so that we can go “yes, just like our God.” What is stopping us from being generous like that landowner in our parable?
I would actually suggest, quickly that there are two things getting in our way. First of all a lack of gratitude; we forget how lucky we are, we forget all that we’ve been given and forgiven. We forget our primary identity as followers of Christ. We are ungrateful for all that been given and that makes us hold onto it with ungrateful hearts.Secondly, related to the first point, we have too much pride in our own positions. We think that what we possess is all down to us. Yes, we can work hard and enjoy what we’ve worked hard for, of course, but the moment we think that we are entitled to more than everyone else because of our position in society, we totally fail to understand the way God’s kingdom works. This is the point that Jesus emphasises at the end of his parable, the first in society, those with high positions, will be last, and God will lift up the thankful, those who by society’s standards are last. We often act like we can be contractual with God and ask, what’s in it for me? Like we have a right because of our positions and like that old lady from Yorkshire, like we can demand things from God because we’ve worked hard for him. But those who are first will be last. Instead, be generous and echo the outrageous generosity of God in all that you do. With your whole life be thankful and generous in a way that makes people go “That’s not fair,” so that you can say “yes, just like our God.”
So this week, why not consider what living generously means for you? Maybe you could give to the Church or maybe you could help out that friend who you know is in need and in-so-doing, point to God. Maybe you could give your time up to help the homeless or your effort to raise money for a fund like the Bishop’s harvest appeal. Regardless, in all that you do, may your radical generosity point to the God who died for us, as totally undeserving as we may be. Amen (from Fr Jordan).