Labouring in Vain? Mt 20:1-16

Harvest Field with Reapers, Haywood, Herefordshire', George Robert Lewis,  1815 | Tate

Last week, I started to make my case for seeing parables not as clear-cut stories with a simple, single point to make, but as complex dramas that draw us in in order to unsettle our expectations and cajole us into a fresh way of seeing. I don’t think they are there to make a point but to point us away from themselves towards something deeper. They are not preachy stories that say ‘look at me! I’ve got something sound to teach you!’ but mischievous little stories that say ‘don’t look at me for any answers! I’m not that kind of story!’ They draw us in, mess with our heads, spin us around and say; ‘look again. What is really there?’.

I had a bit of a moan last week about biblical scholars who get rather tied up in details and this week I’ve got more to say about that! Today’s parable is another rather complicated story that we might think we know well. We might think that it has something to do with fairness and benevolence. If we imagine that this is a story that intends to tell us about how generous God is, I’m not sure it does a very good job. The landowner seems to be playing around with the good hearted labourers and when it comes to paying them for their work, he gets his manager to do his dirty work and builds up the hopes of those hired first that they will be payed more than expected since the workers hired late on were paid the originally agreed daily rate. (none of their fault, by the way – their idleness was a result of being overlooked. They would have jumped at the chance of a good day’s work but no one responded to their application).

One way of seeing this parable, if taken at face value on its own terms, would be to say that God is more generous than your average employer, but perhaps not by much. Everyone gets their daily wage, but no more, while the landowner retires to count the profit he builds on the backs of the desperate. I’d rather not have too much to do with a God like that.

Coming back to the interpretations of some biblical scholars, I’ve read some who take great care to investigate the true value of the denarius offered as a daily wage. Was it one kind of denarius or another, a generous sort of minimum wage or a more ordinary sort? Is this a picture of a reasonably bountiful God or one who simply makes sure that we have more or less enough to get by on?

I have a feeling that they’re barking up the wrong tree. I think this parable is not about the fine details of just how generous God might be towards those who might or might not deserve what he has to offer. I think it’s a parable about how completely absurd it is to imagine that the kingdom of Heaven has anything to do with pay and reward at all! The kingdom of Heaven is not something to be earned. It is not a commodity, not a transaction, not a prize for the successful, not an achievement for the productive, not a feather the cap of the spiritually able. What, then, is it?

One kind of answer to that question might be to say that it is a gift, something given freely and lavishly by a God whose nature is mercy and grace. This has been a strong theme in Christian thinking from the days of St Paul onwards and it has much to commend it. It bids us relax and understand that, having nothing to offer God that God might ever want, we need simply recognise our weakness before him and receive what it is that he has to give us, a gift to make up the unmeasurable deficit that we human beings have in relation to the almighty God. This approach puts us all on the same footing as humble recipients of divine mercy, empty until we are filled from above.

But I want to suggest something rather different, something that insinuates itself on us if we see this kind of parable as a radical unravelling of the whole basis of faith as a sort of transaction between a demanding God and a worthless human race, however benevolent a transaction that might be. What if the whole business of faith is not about closing a deficit at all? What if the truth is that there is nothing to earn, nothing to receive, nothing to acquire, nothing to grasp for? What of the business of faith is of a different order entirely?

Let’s imagine a different sort of landowner, who comes along the line of those eagerly awaiting their reward and says; ‘I have nothing to give you. You already have all you need. You didn’t need to strive for the prize because there’s no prize to attain. It’s already there! The kingdom of heaven is within you! Perhaps it needed the futile effort of a hard day’s work to realise it, but maybe now you can see that the Kingdom of Heaven does not lie somewhere else, in the gift of one who might or might not give it to you. It is right there for you, if only you would see it!’

God has given us all we need: we have the capacity for love. We have the capacity to transcend our self-interest. We have the gift of freedom if we’re prepared to realise it. And the only work needed to realise it is the work of letting go of the pernicious lie that says we’re only worth what we gain, we are measured by what we possess, we are only the sum of our successes. For many of us, that might feel like hard work because we’ve been fed another line for so long, but the work is only ever a work of subtraction, not addition, of shedding, not of acquiring. And what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a mind like that of Jesus, who did not cling, did not grasp, but emptied himself in order to share the ultimate prize: a life made whole in the freedom of love.

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