Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A The Revd Deacon John Wilson Assistant Curate Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“Call the laborers and give them their pay.” All the readings today touched on what some consider to be the most cursed of all words – work! First, the Israelites are told to go out each morning and collect the manna, needing to work a double shift on Friday, because they are explicitly forbidden from gathering manna on the seventh day (or sabbath). Then in the Psalm, we hear of God’s work in delivering the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Furthermore, since the Lord gave them the lands of other nations in the Ancient Near East, the Israelites benefitted from the fruit of other people’s labour. In the New Testament reading, Paul tells the Philippians that after pouring out his life in service of the Gospel, not only is he unafraid of death, but even looks forward to finally being reunited with Jesus. However, he is also happy to keep living, since he can continue serving the Church, work that is not only fruitful but tremendously important. It is difficult to overestimate Paul’s influence and impact on the development of the Church. And then the Gospel reading, which reminds me of discussions with my kids about their allowance. Our eldest, who shall remain nameless since she is sitting at the back, constantly objects to what she perceives as always getting the short end of the stick. In vain, I argue that she receives far more in allowance than I ever did, not to mention that with the demise of patriarchy, philosophically there is no reason why she shouldn’t be contributing to us out of her sizeable savings, but that is another topic. In this parable, those who have been working the longest – like my children – cry foul when the ‘youngest’ workers receive a disproportionate sum of money for their labours. Before we get to the crux of the matter – the ostensible unfairness or injustice of the wages paid – a few details would be helpful to understand more fully what is going on. First, money. The ‘usual daily wage’ that they agreed on was a ‘denarius’, a word you might know from other translations. In fact, this passage has historical importance because it serves as evidence for the relative value of the Roman denarius in the first century, since it connects it to a fair wage for a day labourer’s work.1 Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A The Revd Deacon John Wilson Assistant Curate Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16 1 France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007
Last week, we heard from Fr Frank about the servant who was forgiven 10,000 talents. According to Talmudic scholars, one talent was equivalent to 6000 denarii, or 25 to 30 years’ worth of work. There are a lot of variables to calculate, but one talent is more or less a person’s lifetime income. Thus, a talent represents the total wages over a lifetime, and a denarius, one day. Furthermore, since so many parables touch on money, wages, and stewardship, knowing these two units is helpful. The other interesting cultural bit is time. The first group of people were hired in the early morning around 6am. The second group were hired mid-morning, around 9am. The third group mid- afternoon, around 3pm. And the final group an hour before sunset at 5pm. Apparently, since back then there was no way to keep time in the night without the sun as a reference, working overtime wasn’t an option. The day ended when the sun went down. Interestingly, no one in the story was hired at noon. But having been in the Holy Land, I doubt anyone could get much work done between noon and 3pm anyway. Importantly, while our text translates the Greek as “standing idle in the marketplace”, this has a pejorative ring in English, as idleness implies a degree of laziness, but this negative connotation is entirely absent in the original. They were simply standing there with no work to do because no one had hired them. What is to be made of the wages then? Those who worked for an hour get paid the same as those who had been working a 12-hour shift through the heat of the day. If I would have been there, I would have been upset too. That’s simply not fair. This parable is not dissimilar to the story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke, where the older brother objects to the lavish treatment of his younger brother who did not deserve it. It wasn’t fair. This seems to be a recurring theme in Jesus’ parables, likely because it gets at something deep within the human heart. There is a tricky line between desiring justice and envy or even resentment. It also begs the question of what justice is. If you think about it, in our parable, the people who worked the 12-hour shift were treated fairly. The received a fair wage for their work, and beyond that, had even agreed to their salary beforehand. The question isn’t so much about FAIRNESS, but about GENEROSITY. To frame it another way, if the landowner, in his or her generosity decides to bless those who were not given the opportunity to work a full day by nevertheless paying them a full day’s wages so that they can feed their family, is this act of compassion and generosity fundamentally unjust, even wrong? It is a question worth pondering. Perhaps a key to understanding this parable is the first line of the passage, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner’. Over the centuries, various commentators have tried to identify who the various groups of labourers might represent, e.g. the 12 disciples vis-à-vis the later followers of Jesus, Jewish Christians vs. later Gentile converts, etc. Yet, the point seems to be that at the end of the day – quite literally – the bestowal of eternal life is the same for everyone. There aren’t degrees of salvation, based on the length and intensity of your service here at St Margaret’s – or anywhere else. On the other hand, it is sadly all too easy to metaphorically lean on our shovels in the shade, say our prayers, and convince ourselves that we are working, when in fact we are standing idle. More troubling still, I’m not sure that is going to result in a denarius, let alone a talent on the day of reckoning. Consequently, it’s not without warrant that the Apostle Paul warns us in second reading, to ‘live [our] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’. That’s the work Jesus calls each of us to
– something that inevitably demands sacrifice and letting go of our own desires – even if we start a bit later than the others. Amen.