Thought for the week - 24 September 2023
Today is Harvest Sunday, and the blunt instrument of the Gospel of the Workers in the Vineyard makes that quite clear! I have never ministered in a rural parish, so I’ve never been able to see a church decorated with things produced nearby. In Harlesden, you would have a display of drugs, knives, guns and modern day slaves – and I often thought that would be a fantastic display, as long as we could drag all the dealers, slave masters and gang members in and say ‘look, this is the fruit of your evil work’ and make them realise that those they abused had a place in God’s house, even if they did not. I’m not sure if we produce much in this parish – debt at the casino maybe, hangovers at the Showboat, maybe some fish from the few fishermen at the front, but these are things that are taken away, rather than produced. It doesn’t really matter, Harvest Sunday is about what we produce ourselves, and if we labour for Christ, then they will be crops of love and mercy and hope, which we will use to feed others and bring them to the God in whose vineyard we labour.
The arable of the workers in the vineyard shows a group of people who are hopefully equals, but equals on the terms of their employer, not on their own terms. Maybe like a school class choosing who will play on heir football team (rugby in my case) the workers who were chosen last, were not the most skilled players or workers, or maybe were not the hardest workers or the most agile. Maybe they were not even there at the beginning, so used to not being chosen were they. In crude terms, maybe they were not much use. However, this Vineyard owner, this team Captain not only hires them for a short time, but he also rewards them just as much as the others, bringing forth the fruits of bitterness and discord among their colleagues, who look increasingly petty, particularly set against the generosity and compassion of the vineyard owner. It reminds me of something said by Mahatma Ghandi to a Bishop ‘I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike him’.
We find two lessons in this Gospel which relate to harvest. Firstly, God is free to give out what belongs to Him as He wishes and His gifts are not given out on the basis of how good we may be at using them, or how skilfully we have used them in the past, or how popular we are. No, grace to live an authentic life in Christ is without cost and undeserved. We are each given the grace we need.
Secondly, there is no limit to the gifts of God – if He gives a superabundance to one person, it does not mean He does not have a superabundance left to give to the next, and we should never feel diminished by another’s gifts, because it means no shortage, but only an increase to the whole family of God. If I love my neighbour and can rejoice in his good fortune, I do not lessen the charity within me, but, in fact, only increase it. The more we give away, the more like the Vineyard owner we become – the better Christians we become, the closer to God we get.
It is also worth remembering that God, unlike the vineyard owner, does not hire labourers because He needs their (our) help. No, He disciples us because He wants all to enter His vineyard, His Kingdom, and therefore receive everlasting life, and there is no shortage of that either. The hiring of the labourers, the discipling of Christians, is in itself a gift – once hired, once discipled, God does not need us to work in the vineyard, but to share the work of salvation. Maybe the labourers who were chosen first had to work through their own issues more than the ones chosen last? Maybe they were aggrieved because they didn’t understand?
Maybe some of us need the heat of the day on our backs for longer than others, in order to shed ourselves of the things that do not matter, the things that keep us from the Kingdom – our love of status, power, money, possessions or whatever it might be. Maybe we need to see the bad fruits of our addictions or pride displayed before us like a Festival of our poor farming in the Kingdom? Maybe we are called last and have been overlooked for much of our lives? Whichever extreme may incorporate us, we are given the enormous gift of knowing that we are free, that we are saved by Christ alone and that we are equal, one to each other, in the eyes of the vineyard owner. And there is work to be done in that vineyard, in that Kingdom, and we will be judged by how much we harvest our crops of mercy, love, justice and peace.