“We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” Rabbi Hugo Grynn
The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the labourers and the vineyard is to use it to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be telling us about the generous nature of God. In practice this unfortunately leads to some fairly strange ideas about theology.
For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that since the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity. Some even take “the last shall be first” even more literally. Theodosius, the Roman Emperor who made it compulsory to become Christian and persecuted those who failed to convert was also famous for his thirteen statues he commissioned to represent the apostles.
You may already know that when he was asked why thirteen – instead of twelve – he explained that his was the thirteenth statue. When asked why his was the biggest of the statues he replied modestly – “the last shall be first”.
But not only is this a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying. He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..
In Jesus teaching he seems to be implying that the kingdom of God is the situation we become part of when we accept the call to follow.
In other words referring to the kingdom of God, instead of God, is really placing us in the parable. After all, if in symbolic language we wish to identify with the kingdom of heaven, then the story may not so much tell us about God, but rather gives us a clue as to how we might treat others.
Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time there are few signs that all those who attend Churches see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.
I want to give three examples of Church congregations which demonstrate what can happen. The first is something told to me about one particular Church where a woman said that she had shared with another woman saying that after twelve years she felt she was just beginning to be accepted as part of the congregation. The woman she confided to responded that she had been attending for even longer and she still felt she was not quite accepted.
My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago, I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship.
When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to Church on a Sunday morning and were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome, we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church as a place of friends. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church I referred to earlier if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.
My third example happened at a Church (not mine) in our neighbourhood when we lived in Epsom where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.
Yet in every walk of life this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The kingdom of God is like……
Well it certainly can’t remain like words in a book – even clever words like the words of Jesus in a Bible. Stories and uplifting words can give encouragement but they are a poor substitute for the real thing: the lived faith.
If the kingdom of God is the equivalent of the open hearted landowner who does not demand extended evidence of extended genuine effort before giving a full measure in return, then perhaps one message we might receive from the parable is that is not so much a description of our entitlement – but rather guidance to us on how to treat others.
What would an election be like if those who claimed to be Christian chose their political affiliation first and foremost on how the policies looked after not so much our own interests but rather the interests of those who were the most vulnerable, the late comers to our communities. Whether or not we are aware of Jesus words in the parable is not then the point. Rather the issue is: would this attitude Jesus identified of treating even latecomers with due concern and consideration whether they had recently arrived or had been here for the long term be what others would notice in our behaviour..
To be truthful I am not sure whether this parable represents workable economics in the narrow sense of the word, but there are other values in life which we instinctively know matter more than the exchange of money.
I started my talk this morning with a quote from one person whose views I value in this respect namely Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.
His key insight was a single phase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak those words because he was until his relatively recent death a few years ago as one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.
From Auschwitz Hugo Grynn moved to the United Kingdom, where he worked first to become a Rabbi and from that point to become one of the United Kingdom’s most respected spiritual leaders, writers and broadcasters. He was entitled to his view because in his life it was clear he cared about those who deserved nothing from him.
What of us and our dealings with people to whom we owe nothing. When we reflect on how we are going with such people, what do we see? How are we are towards people such as, the very old, the very young, the retarded, those who don’t sound educated or who appear to be new immigrants, the strangers, those who have fallen from grace – alcoholics – and yes the unemployed…..those still waiting for employment chances at the end of the day because they weren’t seen as employable in the first selection. Would others see those kingdom characteristics in us?
If Jesus shows by his dealings with those who represented the undeserving that in the kingdom of God there is a place for such people – then we too – if we claim membership in the kingdom of God, should also be making our offer to the people to whom we owe nothing.
As a guiding principle it is not only of value because it affords dignity and worth to all people regardless of their circumstance; but more than this it is of value because it as a by-product we may just discover authentic meaning and purpose whatever we might previously have thought about our status and power.
In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, the landowner is thoughtful of the undeserving – first of all in choosing workers originally passed over – but then in giving those workers more than they technically deserved. The people who were in fact owed virtually nothing.
Even if it is not what we might have done – we can sense the basic goodness in such an approach. But then the story of Christianity through the centuries is one of handing on the mantle. The landowner and the labourers story is a story of the kingdom of God to which we too might aspire. How will we in our turn make our offer to people to whom we owe nothing.