"Mark’s challenge is to notice those places where women are marginalised, oppressed, and violated, and to take action to bring equality." Revd Dr Simon Woodman
"What a blessing, to be able to look at the person you're talking to and consider their wholeness above your own. That's the sort of sacrifice that brings the statement 'we are all one in Christ Jesus' true here-and-now, and not just something we say we believe in."
- Dr Charlotte Naylor Davis preaching on the parable of the labourers in the vineyard from Matthew 20.1-6, on Sunday 5th March 2023.
Listen to this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/god-is-not-fair
When I read this parable and started to think about it, in my head I called this talk ‘God is not fair’.
I was struck by the end of the parable, which in the NIV reads ‘I have not dealt unfairly with you’, but in other versions tends to be ‘I have done nothing wrong by you’.
I was struck because I read it and it does seem a little unfair if I’m honest. Anyone else kind of feel for the ‘early’ day workers?
Maybe you are better than me!
So I set out to understand what was wrong with me, if I identify with that petulant lot… But also because I believe we deeply misunderstand God if we think that God is a God of fairness instead of justice, mercy and love. None of which are quite the same as fairness in my experience.
I hope this idea will make more sense as we go along.
I must admit to being nervous today, I know your usual preacher and I follow his sermons, but also I know the things that you as a community are involved in with regards inclusion and accessibility, and I’m very pleased to be here among you. So I over engineered my sermon in prep.
I read so many things on this parable that my brain began to swirl.
I wanted to find a way to explain the parable or make it clear. It felt like I needed to get it right.
But the thing about parables is they aren’t often clear. They often have more than one meaning, as we’ll see.
But the genre of Parables exists to provoke us to think, or ‘imagine’, as much as they do to teach us.
This parable occurs in Matthew’s gospel, a gospel in which Jesus is not shy of making bold, clear statements about how his followers should behave or indeed what they are doing wrong. So I suggest to you, that when we come upon a parable, it is there to provoke something more than simply a clear meaning we can easily grasp.
Which is good – because this parable in particular is not easy to understand, and it helps me greatly to think that is part of its purpose.
I read this parable again and again, and read many commentators who said different things, and still couldn’t quite get it straight in my head.
See there are interpretations that put it firmly in a context of a Jewish audience, they say this is about Jesus saying that God will bless those who come late to relationship with God – i.e. the gentiles.
But that doesn’t make sense for me of the brilliant sentence at the end: ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last’
And there are interpreters who say that this is a straight allegory – God is the landowner and we sinners are the workers who come at the 11th hour; which is nice but does kind of make God not very nice and a bit controlling in a weird way.
And then there are some really fun ones who say this shows that God is in favour of capitalism and the sort of exploitation that seems to be on show here.
And well, I can’t even explain how annoyed those ones made me, but again they seem to miss out the key phrase at the end.
And why tell us about the kingdom of heaven?
And why make a parable where we feel so confused about what on earth the landowner is doing?
And all of them seem to miss out on the phrase at the beginning: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this:….’ Few embrace the implications of ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last.’
The key to all of it for me is the genre of the story.
A parable is a creative engagement.
Like a storyteller telling a fairy tale Jesus invites us into a slightly different world: we are being invited to imagine, to think differently. In fairy tales we don’t expect everything to map directly onto the world…maybe we should be ready for this in a parable?
Because the beginning verse is crucial
‘The Kingdom of heaven is like….’
Why does Jesus need to tell a story like this?
He seems to be asking us to imagine… to stop thinking in the way we always do, and to step inside the kingdom of heaven.
Well, just before this, in fact as part of the same conversation, Jesus has been telling the disciples that it will be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel go through the eye of a needle.
They cannot fathom such teaching. They quibble with Jesus: ‘look, we left everything to follow you’ they say, ‘what will we have in the end?’
Jesus tries to reassure them that those who leave things for him will get a reward and says, ‘But many who are first will be last and the last will be first…for the kingdom of heaven is like…’ and then he begins this parable.
When they can’t understand, can’t shake their worldly understanding of how they think God rewards people, Jesus tells them a story.
And in this story everything is strange – the landowner keeps going and getting more workers, not typical for a landowner the manager should do that – it’s an extraordinary amount of work , he doesn’t seem to have any budget for the work but keeps going and getting more people so that those who need work have it, and at the end of all that he pays everyone what they need to buy a days’ worth of food instead of paying them by the hour.
This vineyard is not normal.
This landowner doesn’t obey the rules of economics
He doesn’t even seem very good at business to be honest.
What Jesus does is tells a disruptive story.
A story that makes you go ‘huh’?
That makes you realise that your way of assessing what is ‘right, or correct’ may not work in the world of the story and therefore our way of doing things may not work if we want to establish the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven does not obey the rules we make in this world.
The kingdom of heaven has deeper principles – the last will be first and the first will be last.
Now, if you, like the disciples and the rich young man and to be honest me are still going ‘huh’?
Aside - One of the great joys for me of the New Testament is it is evidence that there never was a perfect follower of Christ, and that there never was a church that got it completely right. It always makes me feel better reading the New Testament.
These guys are following Jesus around and they still don’t listen properly and get it wrong all the time, and are confused about who he is and don’t always know what to do.
Maybe its just me but that is reassuring! I recognise myself in that.
You see the very next part of Matthew’s gospel is some disciples getting it wrong again and even though Jesus has just said TWICE that the last will be first and the first will be last, two of the disciples ask which of them will get to be first.
Actually, in a hilarious comedy moment they get their mummy to ask for them
Talk about missing the point entirely.
So Jesus has to say to them again and this time he gets it really clear:
“The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them…it will not be so among you but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant’
And his example for this is himself. His service.
None of it seems fair to the disciples. From the rich young man to this bit about serving each other, it doesn’t seem fair. They absolutely sound like the early day workers in the parable.
And yet Jesus just will not let up with this teaching of the last being first.
The parable sits in between these two pieces of teaching, where the teaching that the first shall be last and the last shall be first is essentially said three times.
And it’s not a rule – the rich young man had rules; it’s a value. Something you have to apply.
So much harder than rules…. but so much more important.
The parable invites the hearers to imagine the kingdom of heaven as a place where this value applies, and then disrupts all expectations.
The next passage in Matthew has Jesus explain they must be servants to one another as he is for us – giving his life.
This all begins in God’s crazy generosity ends in Christ’s servanthood and ….and somewhere in the middle we, the followers of Christ, are challenged to live out of this kingdom value.
What on earth then, literally, does that look like?
Because Jesus seems to expect us to follow this value.
I work a lot in the areas of inclusion and accessibility – and I hear talk of what is fair often.
I mainly work in activism or education around these issues when I’m doing them, so the conversations I mainly have are about how hard it is to be inclusive.
How difficult it can be to consider what we say all the time about gender and sexuality in case we get it wrong, OR, how difficult it is to make things accessible for disabled people because it doesn’t seem fair to make everyone change just ‘in case’ a disabled person needs something.
Quite often the grumbling or resistance comes from people who generally do good things, like the workers that came early in the day, or the rich young man, they have been doing all the things asked of them and this thing feels like more – more rules, more Things to do.
But it’s because we failed to put values in place and went for rules instead.
See in 1 Corinthians Paul deals with values vs rules.
They write to him asking what is the rule with regard to eating meat offered to the idols in the market place.
And Paul, being Paul, doesn’t give a very clear answer about those idols. He seems to say they both are nothing and are gods and its very confusing.
But about whether you can eat the meat he says, and I’m paraphrasing here – you are free in Christ to eat it, because Christ is bigger than that, BUT if its confusing or hurtful to someone else don’t do it.
He constantly asks the stronger members of the community to put aside things they are rightfully allowed if it helps others.
He even more consistently asks the rich, therefore the most privileged members of the group, to sacrifice their social niceties and rights to welcome the poor into the group.
What’s shocking about Paul’s teaching, and about the workers wanting more pay in the parable, is that no one is asking to be allowed to do anything bad, or for anything morally dubious.
The Corinthians are asking if its ok to be free in Christ, and the workers are asking for pay that any of us reading probably feel is fair.
They are asking for what is socially and morally rightly theirs, and the answer comes – it’s better to sacrifice this for someone else.
Serve others first.
I think it can be easy to think of being a Christian as NOT doing bad things.
But most of Paul’s letters are about putting others first EVEN if that means not doing something you absolutely are entitled to do.
When Paul says to the Corinthians, is to consider the most vulnerable among them instead of their own freedoms in Christ, and he uses his pay as an example. And its lovely because he does this rhetorical trick where he lays out all the reasons he should be paid, and he sounds quite indignant – he has an example from the Old Testament, an example from temple priests, and example from soldiery, and example from wine making – it’s a very convincing argument that he should paid….and then he says, but I wont take your money, because its better I don’t have money than I make a barrier to someone finding Christ.
The principle is not ‘what does God say its ok to do?’ and here follows rules.
The principle is – it doesn’t matter what the rules are if they get in the way of someone meeting Christ -give them up.
Put the most vulnerable at the centre.
Put the last first.
And his reasoning – he imitates Christ.
Christ who didn’t use his godly nature to lord it over humanity but came to serve (Philippians 2).
Christ who in Matthew 20 tells his disciples to serve one another.
Now I have to tell you I am impatient for this first/last, last/first disruptive kingdom values thing.
I read Galatians where it says ‘there is no jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ and I am impatient for that time where I see that.
Because I don’t see it.
I don’t see equality yet.
I believe we are all equal in Christ but I do not live in a world where we are all equal.
It is our job then as the church to put the last first and the first last – to serve one another, to upend the social rules and live as though it is true….and we aren’t great at it in general.
Just saying ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus’ isn’t enough.
I recently had a minor argument with a fellow minister about cancel culture. Their opinion was that its difficult these days because even when we are saying things that are ‘biblical’ we have to think before we speak in case we upset people. (now aside from the fact that we probably disagree on what’s biblical)
My opinion was, yes it is hard. Yes we do have to think. But that is good.
because hopefully we are encountering more people who don’t look like the old version of the ‘majority’. Hopefully our lives intersect with more diverse people.
And It’s a tiny thing - to think before we say something whether it is going to hurt a person, EVEN if we are saying what we consider to be the truth.
But oh what a Christlike thing – to look at the person you are talking to and consider their wholeness above your own?
That is the sort of sacrifice that brings the statement ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus’ into reality for *just* a moment and makes it true here and not only in something we believe in.
We need to still be working harder to sacrifice the privileges of those of us who are white, or male, or non-disabled, or straight or cis gendered so that our siblings in Christ can get a seat at the table.
The theological truth that all are equal in Christ is not a social reality -yet.
It isn’t true in our churches or our schools or workplaces, It isn’t true on the street out there.
I called this sermon ‘God is not Fair’.
I don’t believe in a fairness that becomes a rule that you can wield – ‘I’m allowed to do x because its fair’
Because in the world we live in now that is not justice.
And I do believe God is Just.
That God privileges the vulnerable and the poor, and it is that that will bring equality.
The theological truth that all are one in Christ, is not a social reality yet.
But our job, it seems to me, as the church is to work for it to become so.
I am impatient for that day, when the kingdom of heaven imagined in this parable – a place where first and last are all turned upside down and inside out – becomes reality.
Until then, Jesus leaves that challenge with his disciples in Matt 20
Your job is to serve one another. That is how this comes to be.
I think the parable challenges us to imagine what radical generosity looks like in our situations.
You see a denarius is what a man needed to live on, a day’s wage would be a fair price to feed a family. And the landowner gives everyone what they need, and ignores economic rules about pay. It’s not a lesson about how to pay people but a lesson for those of us who have been around a while doing the work to see that generosity disrupts the rules.
I think the parable meets up with Paul’s description of Christ, who had every right under heaven and in the manner of other gods to get the worship he was due, but instead gave all that glory away so we might know who God is.
I think the parable connects to Paul’s values - that we need to consider what others need above our own rights
And you know the real joy of that?
It requires us to listen and know one another.
How can I know how to serve you unless I know you?
How can I know how to serve my community unless I know it?
I’m kind of over the idea that I can follow Christ on my own by believing just the right things. It seems the more I read the more that following Christ is entirely linked to my knowing people and seeing that they have something of God that I need to understand.
Rules of right and wrong can be followed individually but service – that needs community.
The kingdom of heaven where the landowner pays people in a frankly crazy way, is one where the landowner knows everyone.
I get given a block of marzipan every Christmas by my mother.
Every Christmas, and sometimes on my birthday too.
Just a whole block wrapped up.
This is a sweet joke that my family find very funny.
My parents bought me up well and they bought me up to share.
I am the youngest of two, and I often had to share things – a lot of my presents were hand me downs and I didn’t care. I was so excited to get my sisters old bike one year for my birthday.
Oh what a perfect little child.
But one year I was asked to write a Christmas list and I only wrote one thing.
‘I would like a block of marzipan, all of my own, that I don’t have to share with anyone’
My parents had taught me all this lovely stuff about sharing and all it made me do was want my own thing!
But Christmas morning I got a block of marzipan. With a note saying it was just for me and I didn’t have to share it.
My mother could have doubled down on her teaching. That would have been ‘fair’. It would have been equal.
But she knew, that I just needed to feel she had something of my own.
And she still ribs me about it my pointedly putting a block of marzipan in my Christmas gifts, even now at 44…because, come on, what parent is gonna let that go, it’s hilarious.
But she saw what was needed for me to feel seen and heard. She put the value of seeing and hearing me above the rule that its good to share. Her generosity was greater than the standard agreements about pay.
This is a silly part of my life, but it resonates with me between the parable and what I feel like the kingdom of heaven looks like.
Not fairness, but throwing the rules and rankings out the window to give someone what they need.
Jesus teaching frequently disrupts our ability to be solitary or insular in our ideas of salvation or serving God.
From meeting the rich young man to predicting his death Jesus keeps throwing the disciples the enigmatic value the kingdom of heaven as a place where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It echoes the contrariness of the beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor,
Blessed are they that mourn
God is not fair.
Rather God challenges us to work with new values entirely and create this place:
A place where we must know one another.
A place where we must serve one another
A place where we must be connected
A place where the abundant generosity of the landowner disrupts the rules and equality is no longer a fairy-tale.