Matthew 20:1-16 Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
15th Sunday after Trinity
On a cold winter’s morning the bishop stood by the roaring log fire in his palace. His first son, a rural dean, came down for breakfast.
‘Good morning!’ said the bishop. ‘How did you sleep?’
‘Very well, Father. In fact, I dreamt of heaven.’
‘Really? And what was it like?’
‘Wonderful! Just like home!’
The bishop gave him a kindly smile and the two men stood by the fire, warming themselves. Soon, the second son – a canon – arrived.
‘Good morning!’ the bishop greeted him. ‘Sleep well?’
‘Marvellous, Father’ said the canon. ‘I dreamt of heaven!’
‘You too?’ laughed the bishop. ‘And what was it like?’
‘Wonderful! Just like home!’
After many more minutes, the third and youngest son arrived, bleary-eyed. He was the black sheep of the family, an actor and a deep disappointment to his father.
‘How did you sleep, my boy?’ asked the bishop.
‘Dreadful,’ replied the youngest son. ‘I dreamt of hell.’
‘Oh dear!’ said the bishop. ‘What was it like?’
‘Just like home. I couldn’t get near the fire for all the clergy.’ *
Jokes often bring home a truth in a roundabout way – and the way they are put helps us remember. The same applies to parables. Jesus told them, not as cute little bedtime stories, but rather to overturn people’s preconceived ideas. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is a deliberate challenge to conventional views of just reward. We may sympathise with the workers who received their wage last after a long day of labour. But the economy of grace in God’s kingdom is much wider than we often wish to understand. Firstly, the wages were as agreed; it should have been no surprise, really. The labourers of the first hour started their workday content, in the knowledge that they would be able to bring something home.
Secondly, the employer was of course allowed to do what he chose with what belonged to him. It was in his right to exceed conventional expectation.
And thirdly, there’s something else to consider: that God’s grace is freely given, and does not depend on our own merit. We do not earn more grace because we are either more pious or more generous than the next person. In fact, why compare ourselves to others at all, except to realise that we are all sinners saved by grace alone.
And then this: the other workers, those who started their work later and later in the day had had many hours to spend dreading the end of the day, at the prospect of having nothing to take home. Those who hear and respond to the Gospel last don’t have it any better really than we do; rather, they are without hope.
Think of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who ran a mile and was swallowed by a whale before obeying God’s word to him to warn the people of Nineveh of their doom unless they changed their ways. Jonah was more concerned with himself and his own reputation than with the plight of many, who, as God said, didn’t know their right from their left.
And the letter to the Romans, chapter 9, verse 15: For [God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’
So, as the parable ends, ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’; may those words help us understand, so that we may not trip up by our own complacency but rather rejoice in God’s compassion. In other words: don’t get too close to the fire; it may not be the kind you’re expecting… Amen.
*From: ‘Bats in the Belfry’ by Murray Watts