Laboring in Christ's Vineyard

Orthodox Icon of Laborers in the Vineyard - Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon:  The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Today's scripture resonates with the challenge: "Come, labour on." It's often said that we are defined by our daily actions, which is why we frequently inquire of those we meet, "What is it that you do?" Our work carries a deeply personal dimension, and we often attach significant emotions to how others perceive the value of our labour. But let’s face it, work can be monotonous, stressful, or difficult.

I recently visited an office where a worker had a sign on their desk that read, "I have job security because nobody wants my job!" It's not always about money; some positions are compensated with honour, power, or other rewards. From a spiritual perspective, work can be seen as a gift from God, and our gratitude or ingratitude may depend on how meaningful our work feels.

After responding to the call to ministry in 2018, I returned to university and embarked on a journey of about five years of higher education, which is still ongoing. Along the way, I had to work part-time jobs, one of which involved commercial real estate, specifically selling development sites. 

One rainy morning, just before completing my studies, I visited a property in Gilston to prepare for an inspection. I noticed mud all over the driveway and began shovelling the dirt that had fallen from the big trucks leaving the work site. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. As I worked, I looked up and saw a white Maserati stopping to observe my actions. My eyes met those of a proper-looking middle-aged woman driving the luxury vehicle. While I continued working, I noticed the woman lowering the passenger window, and I thought she might need directions. Approaching her car, the woman said to me with great seriousness, "You know, young man, if you had stayed in school, you wouldn't be doing what you are doing today." As she sped away, all I could muster in response to her wisdom was a wave and a smile.

The twist in this story is somewhat akin to today's parable from Matthew's gospel. Parables have a way of awakening us, leaving us dazed, perplexed, or bewildered. Biblical scholar John Crossan has stated that when a parable engages us, it offers a revelatory insight that confronts us with the Kingdom of God, challenging us to understand ourselves anew. Parables sift, sort, and rearrange us. Instead of us explaining the parable, the parable explains us. Our encounter with the parable leads us to discover something new, shed something old, and embrace a new understanding. It compels us to make decisions about God, others, and ourselves.

This parable of the laborers in the vineyard vexes us because, like the workers who grumble against their employer, we often expect equal pay for equal work.

However, the agreed-upon wages were honoured, and no injustice was done. The only legitimate critique might be that the vineyard owner was very generous to those who worked less. He was generous enough to pay everyone who worked a day's wage. But upon reflection, perhaps another accusation can be made against him—he appears to be a poor businessman. Nonetheless, his generosity ensured that every worker received enough to sustain themselves for a day. So, the issue lies not in the wage or the contract, but in the employer's generosity.

Historically, this parable has been interpreted in the context of human jealousy, God's generosity, and the peril of presuming on God's grace and salvation.

Let's delve into these themes for a moment. Our jealousy toward others often arises from a fear of unfair treatment or a fear that we may fall short. Jealousy leads us to view others as objects rather than as people, creating a divide between "them" and "us." Jealousy fosters fears of scarcity and limited resources, blinding us to the needs of others. However, this jealousy is alien to God, whose grace and love know no bounds.

How can we resent God's generosity? If God is our friend, we must ponder: "How can it rain alike upon the just and the unjust?"

This parable rebukes our reluctance to acknowledge others' gifts and good fortune. In God's household, every child is unique, special, and part of the same family.

When we seek to exclude others, we position ourselves above them, assuming an unearned sense of superiority—a self-righteousness that severs our connections with others and with God. It reminds us that we all stand before God, in need and wounded by life, and it is God's grace that meets those needs. This reinforces the notion that "God compensates His servants not based on time or piecework, but through grace."

As we engage in the life we've been given, we come to appreciate the full extent of God's grace toward us. Our life and labour are a gift. How we choose to live it, despite the challenges we face, is a matter of choice.

There's a story about a wise sage who was often sought after for advice because he always seemed to have the right answers. A bully attempted to humiliate him by catching a small bird and asking, "Is what I am holding in my hands alive or dead?" If the wise man answered "Dead," the bully would release the bird to fly away, and if he answered "Alive," the bird's crushed body would be thrown at the wise man's feet. When the bully posed the question, "Is what I have in my hands alive or dead?" the sage looked directly into the bully's eyes and replied, "It's in your hands."

This is precisely where we confront the central theme of this parable. We are challenged to persist and work diligently, even when our perception of fairness is skewed, and the greater share we believe we deserve does not align with our expectations in our Christian journey. At times, it may seem that some are rewarded abundantly for their efforts, despite their sacrifices and losses appearing unequal to ours.

They may pass us by and offer unwarranted criticisms of our work. But when we feel the urge to retaliate, we must remember the contract, continue our work, and thank God for granting us the opportunity to labour in the vineyard, even when we bear the heat of the day.

Our work serves as a reminder to acknowledge God's graciousness and generosity in calling us to His Kingdom. In the words of the hymn, "Come, labour on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? And to each servant, the Master says, 'Go work today...' and a glad sound accompanies the setting sun, 'Servants, well done.'"

For those among us who may be grappling with the weight of unemployment or the hardships of work-related struggles, this parable of the laborers in the vineyard speaks directly to your journey. In a world where we often define ourselves by our occupations, it can be disheartening to face unemployment or work that feels undervalued. However, remember that your worth is not determined by your job title or current circumstances. Just as God's grace extends to every one of us, irrespective of our roles, so does His love and care encompass those in times of transition and challenge. In the changing seasons of life, when it feels like winter, remember that spring follows, and new opportunities and blessings can unexpectedly bloom. Hold onto hope, continue to seek service and growth, and trust in the unchanging grace of our loving God.

In Paul's letter tonight his words remind us that our lives, including our work, should be centred around Christ. 'To live is Christ' — this statement challenges us to see our labour as an opportunity to manifest Christ's presence, dedicating ourselves to selfless service and faith in all we do.

As we conclude our reflections on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, let's remember that, just as we transition from winter to spring, our Christian journey also experiences different seasons. Spring brings new life and surprises after the cold months, reminding us that blessings can unexpectedly bloom in our lives, even amidst challenges. May we embrace God's unchanging grace, finding renewal and hope in every season of our faith journey.

In the last line of this gospel reading, God refers to Themselves as the 'first and the last,' much like the timeless wisdom we can find in ancient coins. These coins, bearing the marks of empires and civilizations long past, remind us that the value they hold transcends time. In a similar way, the lessons from this parable are like those ancient coins, carrying a worth that remains constant throughout the ages. They speak to us today just as profoundly as they did to those who first heard them.

So, as we go forth from this gathering, let us carry in our hearts the knowledge that, in all our labours and journeys, we are held by the One who is the first and the last, just as ancient coins hold their value through the ages. Amen.
Laboring in Christ's Vineyard Laboring in Christ's Vineyard Reviewed by Shane St Reynolds on September 24, 2023 Rating: 5

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