Twenty-fifth Sunday, Year A.
‘…the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.’
In the first reading from Isaiah that point about the vast gulf between God’s ways, God’s thoughts and man’s is made twice.
The point further is emphasised in the Gospel, a parable about the generosity of God.
Even today, in towns and cities across the world, the scene described by Jesus takes place day after day, as men stand about on street corners, often in the same place, waiting for someone, say a farmer or a builder, to come along and hire them for day’s work.
Some of the men might be known to the person doing the hiring, good, reliable workers they had used before.
These would be first to be picked.
Others, unknown, newcomers or lazy, unreliable men who would always be the last to be hired.
And it might be that if work was slow and getting behind the man would have to out again later in the day and find more men to come in and get the job done on time.
But, try as we might, from a human standpoint there is no justification for the landowner paying the men who had worked only an hour in the vineyard the same as those who had laboured all day.
Why is the man so generous to the late-comers but, comparatively at least, un-generous to the rest?
There is no sense in it.
In Jesus’ day the Law of Moses by which day-to-day life was governed intended that salvation could and must be earned.
There were hundreds of laws and commandments covering all aspects of life which had to be adhered to.
Society was divided between those who kept the Law, the righteous, who were deemed to be on the path to salvation, and the outcasts and sinners who were not.
Jesus, by his emphasis on love and compassion in his ministry, tried to overturn this idea of earning salvation.
Salvation, he taught, was God’s gift, born out of his great love for humankind.
God is love, and love does not count the cost, does not insist on rights or obligations.
We have no rights, no entitlements where God is concerned.
Nothing we say or do can ever earn our salvation from God.
We can only stand humbly before him and wait on his grace and mercy.
Like the 11th-hour latecomers in the vineyard we have not earned what God chooses to give us, it is simply born of his overflowing love and generosity.
A second way of reading this parable is to see it in terms of whether a life-long, faithful Christian is more worthy of heaven than a death-bed convert.
Jesus’ parable shows is this is not the case.
God rewards the last and much as the first.
It may seem harsh that those who have strived and suffered all their lives for what is right should receive only what those who have lived selfish, Godless lives and only see the error of their ways and repent when death and judgement are imminent.
But, loving, and knowing yourself to be loved by God brings it’s own reward in this life as well as in the next.
The greater life’s struggles the more we turn to God for comfort and reassurance.
The death-bed convert only comes to know this sense of being loved by God in the last moments of life and perhaps only then comes to realise what they have been missing out on all these years.
And should we not also want for others what God has given us?
In the same manner that we are called to be merciful as we have had mercy shown us, should we not also be generous since God has been more than generous to us?
There is third way of looking at this parable which may well have been how Mathew intended his Jewish Christian followers to understand it.
Seen in this way, the vineyard is God’s kingdom.
Those who had been working all day were the pharisees, scribes and religious leaders, upright and righteous men according to the Law who considered that they had earned their place in the kingdom.
The late-comers are sinners, outcasts and Gentiles.
The point of the parable here is that God is offering his kingdom on equal terms to both the Jew and the Gentile, to the sinner and the righteous man.
Of course, the Pharisees and priests objected that is was unfair.
They had kept the Law and done all that salvation asked of them.
To them, God’s kingdom was a meritocracy where grace was earned by hard work.
Jesus wanted to show them that this is not how God works.
None of us can ever hope to be worthy of God’as love and generosity towards us.
We can only be eternally grateful to him and try our best to act in the same generous, forgiving and compassionate way towards others.
Those who had laboured in the vineyard all day would think this story is about justice.
it isn’t, it’s about love, mercy and generosity.
There is no point in coming into God’s presence parading our sense of entitlement, our false piety, our holier-than-thou hipocrisy.
Because even if our brothers and sisters around us are fooled, it won’t wash with God.
I said last Sunday that we are in debt with God over our heads.
We haven’t so much as a penny to offer never mind enough to buy a place in his kingdom.
Everything comes to us from him as gift, unmerited, free and with only one condition, that we do unto others as God has done unto us.
And do it without counting the cost or expecting the same back in return.
Let God’s great mercy and love be a model for us in all our daily doings.
A conversion is required in us, a conversion of the heart so that we can see as God sees, and love as God loves.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.