Sunday, February 16, 2014

Telling our worth?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on Septuagesima 2014.
Text: St Matthew xx.1-16

If it takes nine men four days to dig a ditch which is three chains long, how long will it take six men to dig a ditch that is four chains long?

Exam questions like this are rather puzzling to many of us. You’ve probably worked out that the mathematical answer is eight days, but that’s just that – a mathematical answer. In reality, we would say, “a fortnight due to the inclement weather,” or, “three weeks if you take into account the tea breaks,” or, “six months if the men work for Rochester City Council”. The mathematical answer is very seldom the real answer.

That brings us to a problem. If we pay each man a hundred pounds for a day’s labour, then we need to ensure that the work is being done. It is surely unfair that one man who digs more than his fair share of the ditch should earn the same amount of money as the chap who leans on his spade for three days drinking tea, and barely digs a yard of the ditch.

This is just common sense, surely? So what then do we make of Our Lord’s words about the labourers in the vineyard. Those who work a full day are paid exactly the same as those who only work an hour. They complain, but the chap in charge says, “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?” Isn’t that just diddling these first folk out of their earnings, hiding behind the law of contract? It’s just not fair!


Our Lord is categorically saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this chap in charge. The one who comes to work last earns as much as the one who comes to work first. The amount that is paid them, the penny, is actually a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour, so all these workers are receiving enough to live on. There’s no question about slave labour here. The main point Our Lord is making is that God does not discriminate between the faithful Jews – the people of the Old Covenant who came first – and the Christians – the people of the new covenant who came later.

However, this doesn’t take into account the fact that the one who came to work first has clearly done twelve times more work than the one who has come last. But what is this work? Just how much is an hour of this work worth? Is this work even worth doing, anyway?”


Our Lord is challenging our sense of worth. In a materialist society, everything is given a numerical value and money is paid in proportion to that value.  This is why this parable is hard for us to understand in the present age. The work that He bids us do is simply not like the work we do now; it certainly does not pay the way we expect.

 If we expect more because we do more, then we’re clearly looking at this type of work in the wrong way.  Everyone receives exactly what they need but the first people want more, and that renders both their reward and their work ultimately worthless. They don’t see where the true value lies. Further, those who complain about it are sent away. How may we understand this?


Remember, that Our Lord Jesus is the true vine and working in the vineyard becomes the community of God’s chosen people. The labour is cultivating a relationship with God. It is what we get when we complete a task, or run a race.

St Paul; tells us:
” KNOW ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away.”

The reward is everything we need to live life well. If we believe God for purely material gain, then we gain nothing and our labour is a sham – there is no room for grasping for more. God is not a wish-granting genie who rewards us when we please Him. In so thinking, we actually lose our reward. God has offered us a wonderful opportunity to work to get to know Him. We can choose to take that opportunity or refuse it in favour of what we think is better, but is actually worth much less. What is clear is that those who get to return to the vineyard are only those who receive what they are given with gratitude. Many are indeed called but few are chosen. Those who are not chosen rule themselves out by their attitude and intention.


As we begin that walk into Lent, now is the time for us to challenge the materialistic elements in our lives. Do we rely on God’s goodness or do we seek to make a profit from our attempt to buy God’s favour? Do we see everything with a price tag or do we cultivate the things in our life that are truly priceless? How do we live in a materialist age without compromising our commitment to loving our God first and our neighbour as ourselves?

We can only reassess our views by stepping back from our lives through prayer, meditation and considering our actions. If we allow it, Lent will help us to do just that and our vision of Our Risen Lord will be all the clearer for it. Is that worth doing, or do we have the wrong sense of worth?

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