A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 20 September 2020 by the Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Reading for this address: Matthew 20: 1-16
I want to tell you about three people on my mind at the moment. The first is Derek. Derek has worked hard throughout his life. He didn’t have the kind of parents who could dip into savings to buy his first home, or provide him with a car: everything he’s got in life he’s achieved himself. He’s established in his profession. But the pandemic has reduced his work, and his income, considerably. In his thirties, he feels he’s at a crossroads. He finds himself in the middle of the day asking ‘Am I really in the right line of business? Is this really how I want to live?’
The second person is Clare. Clare is starting her final year at university. University was supposed to be a wonderful adventure, where you studied something you loved, met interesting people, lived free of the constraints of work or home, and got ready to change the world. But the pandemic has decimated that. She’s alone a lot, everything’s shifted online, there’s no social life: and no one seems to have a job in the line of work she thought she was headed for. She feels like she either follows her heart into impoverishment, or seeks security without joy.
The third person is Julia. Julia is 65. Her work has changed over the years, from factory floor to market stall, to call centre. While she doesn’t feel ready to leave work, work seems to be leaving her. The trouble is, she’s never not worked. She doesn’t know who she is if her life isn’t shaped around her work. The truth is, she’s terrified. The future seems to be a long empty channel, concluded by death.
What these three people have in common is that for each of them, work is the principal way they know who they are. But the pandemic has catalysed and crystallised changes in society and themselves that make the future of their work very unclear. Derek’s question is, ‘Is this still working?’ Clare’s question is, ‘What will work?’ Julia’s question is, ‘Is there life without work?’
The pandemic has affected work in several ways. Straightaway lockdown separated the world into those working harder than ever, who felt the intensity and affirmation but also the pressure and danger of being considered on the front line; those who reinvented their work from home, learning new technological skills and detaching work from ‘going to work’; and those who were suddenly superfluous, put on furlough because the work they did was not workable amid the constraints of lockdown. More gradually we’re now realising the economic effects of the pandemic mean widespread unemployment. Eventually we’ll find out how many of these impacts prove permanent.
It seems a good time to reflect together on what work is really all about, for Derek, Clare and Julia, and for millions like them. Work is the principal way we exercise our creativity, skill, energy and experience to some purposeful end. The creation story in Genesis sees work as part of the natural order: from the beginning people tilled the garden and kept it. It’s not a bad thing that our identity is wrapped up in it. God works, too: the Bible is replete with images of God as composer, potter, metalworker, clothes maker, gardener, builder, farmer and shepherd.
But as well as being a gift, work is also a necessity. There are many constraints on life, and we toil to exist among them. Often we fail, and our enterprises must begin anew, or elsewhere. If we’re not our own masters, we harness ourselves to another’s project, for a short or long period, and in return we receive a reward – whether we call it wages, earnings, income or salary; and without that reward we couldn’t live. Society measures status by our level of reward: but privilege is more about being able to find an ideal balance between reward and creativity, income and enjoyment, energy expended and satisfaction gained.
Yet beyond skill and reward, there’s a less tangible third side of the triangle of work. It’s the things Julia fears she’ll miss most, and the elements Derek’s beginning to realise he doesn’t have. Most obviously that means other people – colleagues, clients, customers, the intimate confidences shared at the coffee machine and the buzz of activity on the shop floor. It entails a daily, weekly and annual routine. Most of all it refers to a sense of fitting in to a larger purpose, often called vocation, where you feel your small contribution is advancing a greater good, directly or indirectly.
You can only really call work good if it has all three of these dimensions. Even the worst work can have elements of the third – you can hate your job and be poorly paid, but still enjoy your colleagues and surroundings, which was sometimes Julia’s experience. Likewise you can feel you’re using your skills and being decently remunerated but if that third element isn’t there and you haven’t got real colleagues or can’t see the good you’re doing you’re going to feel like Derek and think you need to make some changes. And you can imagine being Clare and focusing on the first and third, using your skills for noble ends with great people, and then suddenly feel there’s no way to do that if the second element is missing and you can’t pay the rent.
I want now to turn to today’s parable of the workers in the vineyard with those considerations about work in mind. The landowner goes out early and finds workers for his vineyard and agrees with them a daily wage. Then he goes out on four further occasions – at 9, noon, 3 and 5. Each time he hires more workers, but interestingly no wage is agreed on these last four occasions. At the end of the day the landowner gives the same wage to all the labourers, whatever time of day he hired them – even the ones who just worked an hour at the end of the day. The whole-day workers saunter up, expecting an improved deal – but they get the same as each of the other workers. Now scholars tell us the sum involved was a generous daily wage. No one’s been short-changed. But the whole-day workers don’t see it like that. What at the start of the day was a blessing – a good day’s pay – has now become an insult, because it’s extended to people who’ve worked a fraction of the time they’ve worked.
Let’s be clear about what the parable is really telling us. If we recognise that the ‘day’s wage’ is a metaphor for salvation – for forgiveness and eternal life – then we lose the sense of irrationality and injustice and it all makes sense. Forgiveness and eternal life are sacred things, beyond precious. To be given such things is mind-blowing and wondrous. Yet in our insecurity, rather than cherish them, we look askance to our neighbours, and immediately feel they’re not enough. So straightaway we demand more. But it’s absurd to ask for three helpings of forgiveness or four dollops of eternal life. We make ourselves ridiculous if we commodify such things. One is all we could possibly need.
But it’s a very revealing episode. Because it shows how, within seconds of experiencing the grace of God, we subordinate it to our own petty purposes, and turn it into a way we can get ahead of our peers. Rather than enjoy it for the limitless bliss it gives us, we use it as a weapon in a perpetual unwinnable project of one-upmanship. The parable shows how envy destroys us, by distracting us from the fabulous things we have, Envy captivates us with constant comparison. It erodes abundance and turns it into scarcity. It leaves us feeling not cherished, but hard done-by.
Having seen what the parable reveals, let’s now look back at what we’ve explored about work. Derek’s a 1 and 2 person – he uses his skills and makes money, but he’s lost the why. Clare’s a 1 and 3 person: she’s fixed on using skills and doing good, but can’t see how to make any money. Julia’s a 2 and 3 person: she’s made friends and just enough money, but never really had a chance to do develop skills and do satisfying work. The pandemic’s a crisis for all three of them. Let’s see what the parable reveals to each one.
In each case there’s bad news as well as good news. For Derek, who’s given up the quest for fulfilment in order to exercise his skills and gain a healthy income, the bad news of the parable is, you can never find true security through work – still less through money. It’s a painful lesson, but you do well not to invest in work aspirations it can never fulfil. The only lasting security is the promise of forgiveness and everlasting life, and no amount of work can yield that: it’s called salvation, and it’s a priceless gift. The good news is, that gift is available to Derek, and to all of us, every day.
Clare, like Derek, realises she’s making a sacrifice. In her case she’s sacrificing a secure and substantial income in order to use her skills to put the world to rights. The bad news for Clare is that, though she may be putting her conscience first in a commendable way, she’ll never achieve righteousness through her work. She may well want to stop being part of the problem and live her life as part of the solution. But we’re all part of the problem, and there’s no line of work so noble that it’s immune from selfishness, pride and envy. The good news is, she doesn’t have to be righteous to find forgiveness and eternal life. In fact she’ll probably do a better job for the planet and all who dwell on it if her work is founded on humility and gratitude, than on striving to be perfect.
As for Julia, who thinks she’s worked to earn a living but in fact realises she’s worked more to be with people and have their energy rub off on her, the bad news of the parable is that your work isn’t your real work. The real work of life isn’t gaining skills, making a living or even finding meaning. It’s learning to be a human being. The whole-day labourers receive forgiveness and eternal life but it’s no good to them because they haven’t learned the corrosive and destructive power of envy. Being healed of envy is more vital to their security than any amount of earthly reward. The good news is, because she’s had a lot of jobs and not defined herself by her trade or profession, Julia’s probably the best placed of the three to face her new and biggest challenge – of being a human being when not defined by her work.
In heaven there isn’t any work. There isn’t anything to fix, heal, or complete. So our strategy of using work to build an unassailable citadel of security, competence, or righteousness will fail. And so will our tactic of looking to either side, and checking we’re ahead of everyone else, morally, financially, or psychologically.
Ponder this phrase from Ephesians: we are God’s work of art. The work that really matters is God’s work: the work the Holy Spirit does to conform us to the image of God in Christ. Joy in life lies simply in not impeding that work. That work is as real and important for a disabled child, a stay-at-home parent, an unemployed labourer or a person with dementia. There’s no joy in evaluating our just reward or comparing ourselves to those around us. Joy lies in this: allowing the Holy Spirit to make us into the image of Christ. That way, when finally we receive forgiveness and eternal life, we’ll realise we’ve already been enjoying them for a long time.