Monday, 8 September 2008



Jesus came to turn things upside down. And our reading ends with Jesus’ saying “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” The beginning of this chapter in Matthew is partly an illustration of this saying.

At the beginning of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre’s parents die and she is adopted by an aunt who mistreats her. The aunt spoils her own privileged children and sends Jane to a school for orphans, eventually she becomes a servant in a great house.

Yet at the end of the novel we find those that had treated her badly, despised her, abused her and rejected her have either died or their lives had been ruined. And Jane herself becomes the wife of the wealthy man she has loved for years.

For Jane Eyre “the first became last and the last became the first.”

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard Jesus gives us a picture of what the kingdom of heaven will be like. He tells us of a vineyard owner going out into the market place and inviting men to work in his vineyard. Throughout the day he goes out to hire more and more people. And to each one he promises to pay them ‘what is right’.

At the end of the working day starting with those that have worked the least he pays them one denarius – a generous day’s wages for this unskilled work.

But those who had worked all day complained that it wasn’t fair. They had worked all day under the blazing sun not just one hour in the cool of the day!! But the vineyard owner protests, if he wants to be generous what is it to you what he does with his money?

It is in this openness, this outpouring of care and full hearted generosity that Jesus offers his disciples and us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

You see behind the scenes the disciples have been arguing among themselves. Two chapters earlier in chapter 18 the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus gives an astounding reply. “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And later James and John’s mother asks Jesus “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

The disciples like the complaining vineyard workers expect honour, status and reward. They are measuring their work according to the values of men. But Jesus calls his disciples to be different. This call to be different is a key theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. And I think this parable is an illustration to the disciples, showing them in what ways they are to behave and think differently in the world.

Because Jesus is not interested in status or hierarchy, he rejects this worldly way of looking at people. In fact he tells his disciples that far from expecting honour, they should seek to serve people. Later on in the chapter Jesus even says to his disciples that the greatest among you should serve you, the first among you should be your slave. He tells them that he has come to serve them, even to give up his life for them.

Jesus had come to turn the world upside down. This was a hard message for his disciples to grasp. And it is a message that we struggle with still, today.

He has no concern for earthly judgments or an earthly perspective. The complaints of the vineyard workers reveal their bitterness, their self importance and their jealousy and small mindedness. Jesus instead elevates those in society that are forgotten, the ignored, the unimportant and the unemployed. He is concerned with the ones left out, those hanging around the market place – a Judean job centre - with nothing to do and nowhere to go. In this parable he echoes The Beatitudes, encouraging his disciples to look with God’s eyes at our world and not with the eyes of the Romans or the Pharisees.

And this is still a challenge for all of us today, for me today. For who do you think you are in this parable? I know who I am. I am one of the vineyard workers whose been working all day. And sometimes I look at the world around me, and I am filled with jealousy and bitterness.

In this parable Jesus offers me a way of tackling those human feelings. Firstly this parable helps me to recognize when I get angry or bitter or jealous. Naming how I feel helps me to distance myself from my emotions and realize that I have a choice. I can chose to continue feeling these negative thoughts, or I can chose to see things in a more positive and loving way and respond with generosity as the vineyard owner does.
It was a radical teaching for his disciples, what did they make of it? Peter asks Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us. Jesus was in the process of tearing down the very foundations on which the disciples had built their lives. And that work still needs to be done today. Especially as we come to this table and take this food this morning. Jesus throughout this gospel again and again with love and a great deal of patience tries to show his disciples and us what he means.
One thing I think he means is that all human merit shrivels before God’s burning self giving love. It is the vineyard owner’s open generosity of spirit and his concern for those that were in most need that were important to him.

Another episode that illustrates God’s priorities comes when Jesus is being crucified. A criminal being crucified beside him recognizes Jesus’ innocence and his divinity. That recognition alone draws Jesus’ immediate assurance of salvation. “I tell you the truth, he says to the man, today you will be with me in paradise.”

If anyone was less deserving of God’s love it was that criminal. He had committed a capital crime; a court of law had condemned him. This was Justice.

And yet Jesus accepts him with open arms.

Therefore it is God’s gift of love alone that enables us to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

I remember once when I was a teenager being asked to help out at a Christmas lunch in an old people’s home run by nuns. I thought I’d arrived in good time to do work. But when I arrived most of it had already been done. There was not much more that needed doing. So I just sat and chatted with the people in the home for awhile until their Christmas dinner was ready.

I remember going into the kitchen to help serve the food. But instead one of the nuns ushered me out of the kitchen and told me to sit down at one of the tables. So I found an empty seat and began chatting again to the people around me. And then a huge plate food was put in front of me. That was a great Christmas lunch. I didn’t deserve that lunch. Looking back I probably arrived too late to be of any help. But that did not seem to matter to the nuns. I just remember their wide open smiles of acceptance.

And may we turn again today from our worldly view of the world and open up our hearts and minds with a renewed, open, self giving love full of acceptance, as we have been accepted.

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