So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)
I’m introducing this week’s Gospel reading with the last verse rather than the first. That seems appropriate in this case, of course, but my reason for doing so is solely because I feared losing your interest if I began with verse one:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1)
Yes, it’s another story about vineyards – something that most of us know almost nothing about because we are not rural people. Even so, stick with me please as the outcome of this story comes much closer to home.
I had a nephew who once worked for a vineyard. He was supposed to be monitoring a large vat, filling with wine, but he wandered off to take a call on his mobile. The result was an overflowing vat and around a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of wine lost! What surprised me most was that he didn’t lose his job. If I remember, their rule was that you had to lose half a million dollars’ worth before your job was at risk!
That story is good background for Jesus’ story in Matthew 20 as it reminds us that vineyards are big businesses with large turnovers, run by rich and powerful people.
“He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:2)
A denarius was an average day’s pay for a labourer. The landowner we meet here appears to be fair but not, at this point, overly generous.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.” (Matthew 20:3-5)
A lot of hands are needed to pick grapes at harvest time and there isn’t a lot of time to pick them, so the landowner does multiple circuits of the town square. Of course, the quality of the labour is progressively reduced with each circuit. The 9 am crew are those who didn’t manage a fresh start to the day. Perhaps they’d had a big night out or had slept in for some other not-very-good reason. Even so, they are hired.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ (Matthew 20:5-7)
As the day progresses, the quality of labour reduces further. Even so, the landowner continues to employ people, even as they near dusk. Either he has more work than workers or more money than sense.
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ (Matthew 20:8-12)
The boss’ generosity towards those who only put in an hour’s work did not go unnoticed. The men who put in a full day expected a nice surprise too. When they get only what they’d agreed to, they are not happy. Their treatment wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t fair.
I once heard a Trade Union leader say that there had never been a strike over low pay but only over pay differentials. It’s not because we’re not getting enough. We’re just not getting as much as the guy next to us! Likewise, when it comes to dividing up a cake, we who are parents know that you always let one child cut and the other choose. When we do the cutting ourselves, the complaint is always the same. It’s never, “I didn’t get enough cake” but always, “I didn’t get as much as she did!”
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)
In the original Greek the landowner says, “why is your eye evil because mine is good”. Jesus says, the Kingdom of Heaven is like that!”
This is a difficult story. It’s offensive, and it even seems irreligious. Isn’t it fundamental to all religions that, in the end, we all get what we deserve? Don’t we all believe in ‘karma’? It’s not only in Hinduism. It’s basic to all religions that good is rewarded and evil punished. What does Jesus mean to compare the Kingdom of God to this vineyard? Does He really mean that lazy no-hopers get the same reward in Heaven as we who work hard for our whole lives, trying to do the right thing?
Maybe God has a different concept of justice to us, or maybe God just considers mercy to be more important than fair play? In the Kingdom of God, it seems that nothing is what we expect it to be. No-hopers are rewarded while hard work goes unnoticed. The hungry are fed while the rich go empty away. The first are last and the last are first. The Kingdom of God is full of surprises!
Our Sunday Eucharist
Last Sunday was my last Sunday Eucharist for a while so it was good to go out on a high note. Thank you, Karyn and Sam, for joining me on the panel. Thanks too go to Father Ola, who joined us via pre-recorded video from Sweden, and told us about the shooting spree that’s been happening there in Stockholm.
The theme for last Sunday was indeed ‘forgiveness’, and that seemed especially relevant. Indeed, there is plenty of need for forgiveness and reconciliation in Stockholm, as there is in so many places around our world.
This coming Sunday I will be in the UK and do not expect to be able to join our live broadcast at all. I am deeply grateful to Father Mark and to Robert who have offered to manage the broadcast for the next three Sundays. I do hope you can join them from around 11.45 am this Sunday via thesundayeucharist.com or via Facebook , YouTube, Twitter or LinkedIn. or Streamyard.
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- Sunday, September 24th – Our Eucharist @noon via thesundayeucharist.com or via Facebook , YouTube, Twitter or LinkedIn. or Streamyard.
- Monday, September 25th – Boxing from 7.00 pm @Legends Gym
- Wednesday, September 20th – Boxing from 7.00 pm @Legends Gym.
Yes, thanks to Bobby Habib, the boxing will continue @Legends Gym.while I’m away. Once I return, we’ll be making the move to Balmain Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC) where I’ll be taking on my new role as senior boxing coach.
This is an exciting opportunity for all of us. There’s already a fantastic team at Balmain PCYC – committed to enhancing the lives of young people in the iarea. I believe I’m well-positioned to make a meaningful contribution to that work, and I hope to bring a good team with me to further enhance that work. Moreover, the facilities are great. I can see many champions emerging from Balmain PCYC over the next few years – not only great boxers but champion human beings!😊
Of course, that’s all a few weeks away as I am now in Poole, south of London, and will be in the UK for three weeks. I’m still jet-lagged, having only arrived last night, but I’ve already discovered the local boxing club and hope to train there tomorrow.
I’m looking forward to catching up with many English friends over the next couple of weeks. Sadly, Julian Assange’s dad, John, has already had to leave London for further travels around Europe. Even so, I may yet be able to visit Julian as his priest while I’m here. The application is in process. I wait and pray.
Thanks again to Father Mark and Rob for taking the helm of The Sunday Eucharist while I’m gone. I look forward very much to watching the reply if I can’t join you live.
I’ll leave it here for now as I’m still a bit jet-lagged and need to sleep.
May the Lord bless and strengthen you for the work to which you have been called.