Sunday reflection

Dear all,
“Are you envious of my generosity? So the last will be first and the first will be last.” 
from Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard, St Matthew 20:1-16, NIV.
“Who is wealthy? One who is happy with what they’ve got. Is your glass half empty or half full?……I think I’m happy to have a glass. Be grateful for the glass we have.”
from Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ Thought for the Day, Radio 4, 18th September.
 
The parable of the workers in the vineyard was one that sometimes came up in discussions when I was a chaplain with the Black Country Industrial Mission. In an area so much associated with the industrial revolution, whole families had sometimes been involved in making nails or other items, often vying with their neighbours for the work. That could then create an atmosphere of rivalry and competition that is still not entirely eclipsed in some areas. Today, the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath are annually lauded for successfully going on strike for fairer wages compared to what male workers received and all this is why this parable is still sometimes hard to hear in that and other similar locations.
In the story Jesus tells, workers have been set on for the day and have agreed the wage they’ll receive. Throughout the day, more workers are taken on and this is presumably because there is plenty of work to be done. Perhaps the vineyard owner is considerate of those first workers and sending them more help; were they glad of the further help at the time? Did they chat as they worked or perhaps shared their food, getting to know one another as they did, or were they already well known to one another as they vied in the marketplace for the work available? Whatever the circumstances, at the end of the day all the workers are paid the same wage whenever they started – but those who had first accepted the rate are now unhappy because they have worked for so much longer. 
Perhaps that’s understandable, given that so much less effort and labour was required from those who began later. But the first workers got what they had bargained for originally and accepted. Now they’re resentful, because of the good fortune of the others – who have also received what they bargained for, due to the generosity of the owner. Rather than being thankful that they all have money to take home to their families, that the work is done and the owner kind, there is grumbling and a sense of grievance from some, although not all. There’s a risk for the owner too: in the face of the disgruntlement, it may be that it will in future be difficult to find workers for the whole day if they think that others can work for fewer hours and receive the same amount. The owner seems willing to take the risk – but how does he feel in the face of the grumbling? There’s a touch of exasperation in his final comment that the last shall be first and the first last. 
A parable being an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, Jesus is talking here of the kingdom of God, its inverse values and the generosity we sometimes take for granted. It’s a complex matter applying that today, in the midst of the economic circumstances created by lockdown, the furlough scheme and the severe unemployment expected as the pandemic continues.
My granny used to remind us that not all our riches are in the bank and, as Rabbi Mirvis suggests, wealth is to do with being happy with what we have. That’s not easy as the  Covid-19 figures increase again and uncertainty grows once more. But that’s why this parable is so important to these challenging times: mercy, generosity and grace are hallmarks of God’s kingdom even if that is sometimes confusing when it seems not to be deserved. For that, we can be grateful – but are we? As we consider the awful circumstances we’re facing now, on this Battle of Britain Sunday perhaps we should remember the price paid in adversity during World War Two by the Few on behalf of the many and appreciate the true cost of the freedom and work it’s so easy sometimes to  take for granted.
With my prayers, as I ask for yours,
Christine
Guardian of the Shrine Church of St Melangell

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