Working in God’s Vineyard

A sermon by Revd Dr Alastair McKay

Readings for this service: Matthew 20:1-16

We’ve just heard a parable told by Jesus about work. It’s a parable that follows hot on the heels of the Apostle Peter reminding Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him, and expressing a concern about what reward they’ll have for doing so. As part of his response, Jesus offers this parable about work in the Vineyard.

The closer one reads this parable, the more it offers us a number of problems. One of these is a puzzle over a landowner who goes out looking for workers all day long. Although some landowners, or more typically their foremen, still recruit the workers they need at the beginning of the day, it would be strange for them to keep going out and recruiting people throughout the course of the day, on into the late afternoon. So it’s clear this is an unusual landowner.

But probably the thorniest problem of the parable is this: why does the landowner deliberately humiliate the hardest working vineyard workers? You noticed what he says in the story: ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last, and ending with the first.’ Why do it that way? And why pay each the same wage? Surely it’s not fair? And surely the landowner knows it’s going to incense those who’ve borne the brunt of the working day?

In puzzling over this problem, I’ve been helped by Godfrey, who loves to tell the story of his retirement from his firm, back in the mid-1980s. For 40 years Godfrey gave the best of himself to the firm. He stayed loyal through thick and thin. He gave good service. And he was looking forward to his reward at his retirement party. It should be the same reward that others had received before him: a splendid Swiss gold watch. While there had been a change in the firm’s ownership a couple of years previously, he had no reason to think that the tradition would change.

Now it also happened that two other staff were retiring at the same time as Godfrey. One was a personal assistant to a director, who’d only been with the firm for five years. And the other was a more junior partner, who’d served the firm for a dozen years. Well, the day of the retirement party arrived. And it came time for the Chairman to give the speeches. You can perhaps imagine Godfrey’s surprise when the Chairman began by first thanking the PA for her contribution to the firm, and then presented her with a splendid Swiss gold watch; and next proceeded to do the same with the junior partner.

But that was also the moment when Godfrey began to get his hopes up. Surely he wasn’t just going to get a gold watch. He must be going to get more – after all, he’d given 40 long years to the firm. Indeed, his entire working life. So when the Chairman made his little speech, and handed Godfrey a fine Swiss gold watch – the same reward as his more junior colleagues – you can imagine that he wasn’t overjoyed. Rather Godfrey was bewildered. And angry. ‘This can’t be right,’ he said to himself, adding, ‘This really isn’t fair.’

He was cross, but he wasn’t a rash man. So he bided his time. A few weeks later he bumped into the Chairman on the golf course. His moment had come. He voiced his protest and asked the big question bugging him: ‘Why didn’t I receive better treatment than my more junior colleagues?’ ‘Well you see,’ said the Chairman, ‘We only have a successful firm because every single employee pulls their weight. I believe that every contribution, however small, matters. So I want each person who retires from the firm to be rewarded in the same way, to know that each one is truly valued.’ Godfrey was dumbstruck. ‘How could that be a true valuation?’ he thought to himself. Did his 40 years as a major figure in the firm really compare with a five-year stint by a junior assistant?

What is a true valuation of our work, especially our work in the Vineyard, our work for the kingdom of God. Let’s think about this by considering three people who are unusual types of ‘workers’ in the Vineyard. First up is Chris, an 18-year old school leaver. He recently received his A-level results, and they weren’t ones to write home about. His mother was despairing; his father more resigned. This summer, as he waited for his results, Chris reluctantly embarked on a four-week work experience waiting in a local café. One of his parents knew the café manager, who offered to take Chris on for a month. Now Chris had always thought that work was something to be feared. ‘It’s just going to be dreadful drudgery,’ he’d said to himself. So he was surprised to discover that the manager was passionate about giving good service to her café customers, by providing simple, tasty food, and giving them the space that they needed. Over the month Chris came to realise that café work could be interesting, engaging and rewarding: he loved it when they got good feedback from their customers. And while his mother thought that working in a café was a waste of all his talents, and that her son could do better for himself, his father encouraged him to give it a go. So Chris is now continuing to live with his parents while he looks for a waiter’s job in a café or restaurant.

That’s Chris. Next up is Timothy. He’s 49-years old, and largely home-bound. Earlier in his life he lost his job, and then suffered a difficult bereavement. Since that double-whammy, he’s struggled to just do anything. It’s been tough on his partner, a capable teacher in a local primary school. And it’s been tough for Timothy, who’s deeply frustrated that he can’t do more. Different doctors have offered diagnoses. ‘Chronic fatigue syndrome’ is one that makes some sense to Timothy. But none of the medics has offered any type of cure. And his siblings aren’t sympathetic. ‘Why doesn’t he even get a part-time voluntary job?’ they ask themselves, adding, ‘Instead, he’s just wasting his life away.’ Meanwhile, Timothy does his best to struggle on. The one thing he does is to cook the evening meal for his partner, at least most week-day nights. ‘That’s my contribution,’ he says to himself. It can take him two or three hours to prepare and pull off a simple meal. But Timothy does it, with all the love he can muster.

Then, third, there’s Beryl, a small 72-year old who started attending her local parish church a couple of years ago. Earlier this year she found herself in the prayer group at her church. Some had wanted her to help out with the church’s Food Bank; but Beryl said to herself, ‘I don’t know if I can cope with such needy people.’ Others had wanted her to join the team of welcomers. But she didn’t have the confidence to be greeting strangers at the door every Sunday. Some in the congregation were critical of Beryl: ‘She doesn’t really do anything to serve the church,’ they said. Then the vicar suggested that she might like to try the prayer group. Beryl found she loved learning to pray, and to pray more deeply. Now she has a regular pattern of interceding for others. She prays daily for the vicar and her family; she prays for the sick and needy in the parish; and she prays for the outreach ministries of the church. She prays with the group, and she prays on her own. Praying is what she does.

So there we have our three unusual ‘workers’: Chris, a modest-achieving school leaver; Timothy, a middle-aged man who’s house-bound; and Beryl, an older person, and marginal contributor to her local church. What do these three hold in common? One thing is that none of them fits our usual category of ‘worker.’ We tend to equate ‘work’ with productivity. And Chris, Timothy and Beryl aren’t what we’d normally call ‘productive.’ But perhaps we need to revisit our understanding of what we mean by ‘work.’

One management guru recently noted that ‘work is what we do, not where we go.’* So if work is what we do, can what this cast of three ‘do’ really be considered ‘work’? Today’s parable offers one possible answer to this question, as we revisit the parable in the light of Godfrey’s story. If we’re listening, these stories can teach us something. First, they remind us that God is continually seeking workers for God’s firm, the Vineyard, at no matter what stage of life, and no matter how close to final retirement. They help us see that what we do is Vineyard work when it’s done out of love, and for someone else’s benefit, or for the splendour of the Vineyard. That’s what makes our hopeful Chris, and our faithful Timothy, and Beryl, who’s starting to emerge from her shell, each Vineyard workers. They’re making small contributions, but they’re doing so for others, for benefit of the Vineyard. Chris can now say: ‘Yes, I want to serve others so that they can live life to the full.’ That’s Vineyard work. Timothy can now say, ‘Yes, by serving my partner, I’m serving the greater good, and helping him to serve the next generation through his teaching.’ That’s Vineyard work. And Beryl can say, ‘Yes, I suppose you could say it’s God’s call – I now feel called to pray for others.’ That too is Vineyard work.

And what about Godfrey? How did he make sense of what happened to him? Well, after much pondering, this was his conclusion: ‘I thought I’d really achieved a lot,’ he said, ‘And I felt that I’d sweated my heart out for the firm. I believed that I deserved a big reward for my efforts. But in reflecting on Jesus’ parable, I’m reminded that God’s thinking is not our thinking. And I now realise that my efforts to rank myself against other people are really futile. Jesus has shown me that there are no ‘Firsts’ or ‘Lasts’ in the Vineyard of God. There are only those who’ve accepted the call to work in the Vineyard; and those who haven’t. So now I’m just grateful that God still wants me for a Vineyard worker.’

And the truth is that God still wants more Vineyard workers. And will value their contribution, no matter how small, no less highly than those of others. So, what about you: are ready to be hired? There’s Vineyard work to be done. And the Vineyard owner is out on the streets looking for someone just like you.

*Charles Handy, The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society (Random House, 2016 – Kindle edition), Chapter 4, Loc 712