I have a number of prizes here. Who would like to win something? All I am going to do is read out some questions about today’s gospel reading, and you can correctly answer them for me…who’s in?
In today’s gospel reading:
1) How many times did the land owner go out and hire workers? 5 times
4) Who payed the wages to the workers? The foreman
Give those who didn’t answer the questions the prizes. Explain that I never said I would give the prizes to the people who answered the questions.
Don’t you hate it when you are not rewarded for your efforts? It just doesn’t seem fair to us that someone else gets what we deserve. We put in the effort, but get nothing in return. I have a collection of trophies here which recognise and reward the recipient for competing in an event or even winning it. Perhaps you have a collection of trophies or medals which reward you for the effort you put in
In fact, if you think about our whole upbringing, our childhood development, is all about being rewarded for our good effort. ‘Because you did the dishes, you can have extra desert.’ Or, think about the words the song ‘Father Christmas is coming to town’ ‘he knows whether you have been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake’. Even the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas is dependant on whether we have been good or not; we are only rewarded with Christmas presents if we have been good enough.
The story preceding today’s parable is a real life account of someone who wanted to be rewarded for his good efforts. The story lays down the background or the context to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. A religious man who had done everything required of him, and was now looking for God to reward him for his efforts; he wanted a prize from God for answering the questions correctly.
‘Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.'” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
He had answered every question correctly, yet Jesus never rewarded him. He was sent away empty handed and sad. He never got what he thought his efforts deserved. Why? Because even his best efforts at answering God’s expectations were not good enough, as Isaiah prophesise ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’. This is the background to Jesus’ parable; the background to Jesus ministry, his coming to earth, his death and resurrection and the kingdom of God. All our efforts to please God in the hope of gaining the reward of heaven are futile, totally useless like filthy rags, because our hearts are in the wrong place; they are sinful and rebellious towards God, even when we are doing our best, as the rich man found out. Often, when we are doing our best, were doing our worse because we are doing things out of pride.
Volunteering in community groups, attending bible studies, donating blood, giving money to the poor, even going to church, while all good and important things, will never be works worthy enough of our heavenly Father’s reward. They will never open the way to heaven. The tragic fact is that we will all go away sad as long as we think God will reward us and give us a place in heaven with him because of what we have done.
The first workers to be employed in the vineyard worked for the landowner from dawn to dusk. The second wave of workers toiled from morning tea until dusk, the third and forth group worked from lunch on. The final workers employed, worked for only an hour; a huge difference in effort put in between the first employed in the vineyard and the last.
Yet what happened when payment time came? Yes, every worker was payed the same wage. There was no extra reward for effort. No special trophies or medals for those who endured the heat of the day. In fact, those who were employed last and worked the least hours where paid first. The first were last and the last first. Totally unfair in our eyes because we are so accustomed to being rewarded for our effort. Yet, this is how God works. This is how the kingdom of God is. As one Christian said “Grace is always amazing grace. Grace that can be calculated and ‘expected’ is no longer grace.
God’s grace is that he saves all people by faith in the efforts of his Son Jesus Christ, not in our efforts, as Paul writes ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.’ Whether we are seasoned campaigners for Christ and have lifted high the cross all our lives as the famous hymn says, or are converted on our death bed after 90 years of living a sinful life, all who come to faith in Jesus are treated the same by God our Father who judges each man’s work impartially.
The only works worthy of salvation have been accomplished by Jesus Christ, whose work was that he gave himself as a ransom for us. God’s grace, his salvation, is given to us as a gift through faith in Christ and by the power of our baptism. In the kingdom of God there is no hierarchy of Christians. What great news this is for us who believe and are baptised, we have already been given our reward; all of us, from the longest service member, to the newest. Yet, as the workers in the vineyard found out, they still needed to work for the reward, still had to endure challenges and difficulties as part of the owners demands.
But they did this because of the promise they had received. They worked because they believed in the love and faithfulness of their boss.
St Paul also encourages us to do the same ‘Therefore, I urge you, friends, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship.’ We work for our Father in heaven, not to receive our reward, but because we have already received it.
Can I tell you a story that happened earlier this year? I think it sums up the parable well. (story of the man in hospital)