18 September 2011

"'... Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last.'" (vv. 15-16)


This parable is enough to give any good trade unionist nightmares! It's hardly 'a fair day's wage for a fair day's work'. But then perhaps God is not fair - if we are to read this story as an explanation of the verse that ends the preceding chapter of Matthew: "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Matthew 19:30). God is kind and generous -God is 'righteous' - but not necessarily 'fair' in the way that we might want God to be 'fair'. To understand this parable we need to realise that Jesus is talking about 'the kingdom of God' ("the kingdom of heaven" (v. 1)), and that the vineyard is a familiar metaphor for Israel, God's own people. Jesus, the Messiah, has come to redefine those who belong to Israel and thus to establish a new kingdom of God which includes those previously beyond the boundaries set by religion - social outcasts, lepers, sinners, even Gentiles (non-Jews). In this parable, the latecomers are treated as generously as those who have been working all day, much to the annoyance of those who feel they are more deserving of their employer's generosity.

God, it seems, is more generous than those who want to claim exclusive rights to God's kindness. There's a lot more room in 'Israel' than implied by geographical, ethnic, social, cultural and religious boundaries. And this idea, central to Jesus' teaching and so challenging to the Jews of his day, is one that religious people have often struggled with. We might like the idea that there is a special place for those who have served God longest and that God rewards those who have been faithful 'workers in the vineyard'. We might want to create boundaries related to what people believe, or do not believe. We might want God's 'righteousness' to punish 'sinners'. We might want God to be 'fair', in accordance with our notions of 'fairness'. But God's not - God's more generous than we are, so "the last will be first, and the first will be last".

To Ponder

"You'll get your reward in heaven." Why is the idea that God 'rewards' the faithful so common amongst Christians? Can God's kindness be 'earned' by hard work? Why, or why not?

To what extent does the suggestion that God might not be 'fair' trouble you? Why?

How good are the churches that you know at presenting the idea of a 'generous' God?

Bible notes author: The Revd David Rhymer

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