Faith’s Reward

dreamstime_11868296First Reading:  Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that days, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

Second Reading:  Philippians 1

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 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.”

My dear old mother used to say that there were two things it was impolite to discuss with strangers: ‘ages and wages.’  (Being Northern Ireland we also didn’t discuss religion and politics, but that is another story.)  Our Gospel reading is about the unhappiness that can be caused by becoming too aware of other people’s wages.

Our Gospel reading today presents and interesting social ethical dilemma.  A group of casual labourers are hired for the day to work in a vineyard; some are hired in the morning… when the work is not getting done he went out and hired some more at lunch time… then finally more are hired near the end of the day.  And at the very end the day the manager gives everyone the same pay.  Those who worked all day get the same as those who only worked for a few hours.

There are lots of ways of reading this parable.  We could see it as a statement about the right of people in poorly paid workers to a living wage.  The workers who were not paid in the morning were willing to work, and had the same need of food and shelter as the other workers.  Was Jesus in favour of the Living Wage?

I think there is something in this interpretation.  Social justice and the care of the poor is a central theme in the Bible.

But I think this story is not meant to make us think about employment law.  The context is that it sets the scene for James and John arguing about who is to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  I think the parable is about work for God, the vineyard is a metaphor for working for the Kingdom of God.

Specifically the parable was passed down after Jesus time as a reflection on how the Jewish Christians (part of a people who had been following Yahweh for centuries) had to accept Gentile Christians as equal partners in the work of the Kingdom.

But this is not just relevant to the first century church, it is relevant to today.  We say we are an inclusive church – this passage provides the blueprint for a radically inclusive community:

The newcomer is as valued as the person who has given their lives to the community.  This is not to devalue the person who has been here a long time – the opposite is true – we are to treasure the members of our church and community that have been here for years, but we are also to value the newcomer just as highly.

Often people who arrive in a new community or church don’t quite know what to do or where they can fit it, but we must make sure that the message goes out that all are welcome.  Not simply ‘all are welcome, as long as you fit in with how we do things’ but ‘all are welcome as equal partners in the community that we are creating together.’

There is another level to this story.  Those who worked all day and were jealous of those who only worked a few hours miss an important point.  And a point that marks a difference between the hard manual labour of working in a vineyard and working for the Kingdom of God.

The difference is that the life of faith is its own reward.

When St John describes Jesus talking about the life of faith he says:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

If we follow Jesus’ command to love, this love will lead to joy, joy that is ‘complete.’

The Kingdom of God is built with love.  Jesus commands something that affects the very core of our being.  To love is the fundamental act of being human.  It is the greatest thing we can do, the highest thing we can achieve, the pinnacle of being humankind’s achievements is to love.

And to do what we were created to do, brings the greatest joy we are capable of.

Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘if your morals make your dreary, depend upon it, they are wrong.’  And the same is true of Spirituality, Jesus came to give us life, and life more abundantly, one of the fruits of the spirit is ‘joy’ – love joy and peace.  So if your spirituality makes your dreary, depend upon it, it is wrong.

Those who were jealous of the rewards of others missed the point that the labour should have been its own reward.  It was a privilege to have worked the full day.

In our reading from Philippians we hear about the privilege of being able to believe in God.

That’s not to say we should be falsely happy all the time, or deny difficulties and tragedy.  There will be times in our lives where our hearts are broken, and we struggle.

If we live a Christian life we will be angry at times when we look at injustice and poverty.  We cannot be completely at peace in a world of suffering and pain, but we are called to weep with those who weep.  And yet, true faith is fundamentally linked to joy

We are called to joy, it is one of the aims of our Christian life.  If our faith doesn’t bring us joy we need to work at why that is.

I think there is something here about taking things seriously but not solemnly, as G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

But this is more than just having a laugh now and then, Joy is described in the Bible as the fruit of the Spirit.  Joy is something profound and significant.

Mother Teresa said:  ‘Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love – Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.’

I close with a line from Psalm 16:

‘Father God, show us the path of life.
In your presence is fullness of joy,
and at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.’

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