The labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)

Workers’ rights have really been in the news this week haven’t they?
• COVID-19 has forced many employees to work from home;
• There has been much media discussion over who exactly who counts as a ‘key worker’ during this coronavirus pandemc;
• Special help has been offered to the self-employed by the Chancellor;
• And sadly many people are facing the threat of redundancy as the economy enters lockdown.

Well, worker’s rights and labour relations feature prominently in our parable this morning, don’t they? In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel we encounter a generous employer, some hardworking labourers and a ‘final salary scheme’ to dream of!

Just like our parable last Sunday, we need to recognise that this parable is not teaching us a lesson in labour relations or economic theory. Its a parable Jesus told to introduce us to our generous, gracious God. A God who wants to give us the same “salary of salvation”, whatever our age or stage of life.

So let’s quickly rehearse the story… The parable is set on a vineyard, and the main character is a land owner seeking labourers for his vineyard. We are not told the time of year, but presumably it was harvest-time, when ripe grapes needed picking. In verse 1 the farmer gets up early to hire some casual labourers. He went to the local market place – the established location where unemployed people went to find work. The equivalent today might be the local Job Centre Plus or Employment Agency. Once there, he finds a group of men, and hires them all at the going daily rate (v.2). But the vineyard owner is not satisfied. Four more times that day he goes out again, and hires anyone he can find who is redundant and looking for work.

Astonishingly, at the end of the day, when the wage packets are opened, it becomes clear that even those last to be hired – those employed just an hour or two before sunset – have been given a full daily wage by this generous vineyard owner. The owner’s generosity provokes the earliest labourers to complain that they should have received more, since they had done a full day’s work. But the owner rebukes them with the following words: “Listen friend, I have not cheated you. You agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?”

Those are stern, strong words, and clearly Jesus intended this as a serious parable with important implications. If we are to interpret this parable correctly, we need to identify the different characters in the story. As elsewhere in the Bible, the figure of the vineyard owner represents God. And human beings are the labourers in this narrative. And so today’s parable is a salutary reminder of some important spiritual truths.
Firstly, it teaches us that our gracious God seeks the salvation of all – whatever our age or stage of life.

In Jesus’ parable the vineyard owner shows great persistence by repeatedly going to the marketplace to look for labourers. He is anxious that no one is left idle. He’s concerned that no one misses out on the opportunity of employment or the benefits of a full daily wage.
Crucially, God has the same generous attitude to everyone living today. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy chapter 2, “God wants ALL people to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth”. So its no wonder that Jesus told his first disciples to take the Gospel to the “ends of the earth”, to Jews and Gentiles, to men as well as women, to both young and old.

God’s compassionate concern means that anyone – wherever they may be – is offered full forgiveness and life eternal through faith in Christ:
• The doors of church buildings might be closed for now, but the invitation to join God’s family – by faith – remains as wide open as ever.
• Even in self-isolation, people can experience the saving grace of God.
• Even a national lockdown cannot stop the message of the Gospel being offered to all.
Whether we are healthy and youthful, or approaching the end of our earthly lives, we can become citizens of God’s kingdom if we turn to Christ. Like the generous-hearted owner of the vineyard, our gracious God seeks the salvation of all.

But what about those of us who have been Christians for many years? What about those of us who have been following Jesus for decades, who consider ourselves more mature in the faith? That’s where our second truth comes in. Because today’s parable reminds Christians to be joyful, not jealous. We should not be jealous when we see people come to Christ towards the end of their lives, nor should we be resentful when younger generations begin to join our congregation.

On the contrary, we should celebrate when people come to faith in Christ. The Bible tells us that the angels in Heaven rejoice when one sinner repents, and so should we!
• So when our church buildings re-open, let’s make it our aim to invite and integrate new members into our congregation;
• Let’s welcome new arrivals into our fellowship – just like those late afternoon labourers were welcomed by that landlord;
• And like a family gathers round and expresses delight at the arrival of a new baby, let’s take delight in new members of God’s church family.

And, finally, if our attitude to new Christians should be joy not jealousy, then our attitude towards God should surely be gratitude not grievance. As citizens of Heaven, we have so much to be thankful for.
Recent events have reminded us how fragile life can be – how insecure earthly sources of security can be. But in Christ we have a sure and certain hope. In him we have freedom from sin, hope in adversity and life everlasting. In Jesus we have already received a “salary of salvation” that redundancy, disease and even death cannot take away.

So let us be willing labourers in the Lord’s vineyard, putting our time, talents and treasure at his disposal – not grumbling against him. And whilst our movements may be restricted at the moment, our tongues are still free. So let’s take every opportunity to express our joyful thanks to our generous God in worship, praise and prayer.