Scripture for Sunday, 24 September 2017:
Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Modern culture tends to have an ambivalent attitude towards inequality in the economy. We accept that circumstances may cause some to pay more than others for the same thing. But when our sense of worth – which is intrinsically part of the identity we attach to our employment – is challenged, as in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers, we find ourselves surprised and balking.
However, Jesus was trying to illustrate to his followers that God’s economy is not like that of humans. In some ways, he was summarising the whole book of Job, which tells us that human beings cannot make sense of God’s justice, and have no understanding the process of creation.
But to look at this from the point of view of modern western individualism is to miss an important point: the vineyard owner actively goes out to seek workers, and in the end the harvest is gathered. This calls us to understand an important tension in the Jewish faith, between collective and individual responsibility. This is something that is celebrated at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year: using imagery of sheep and shepherd, the worship is a reminder that we are judged by God individually, yet the use of the plural form in the prayers is a reminder of communal responsibility.
What is important in the parable is that the harvest is gathered, and those who participate in gathering it are given the full daily wage – in other words, enough for their sustenance. All this can be found in the book of Job, and it has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with God creating and running the universe and going out into the world to invite humanity to participate. Human concepts of fairness and judgement are rendered irrelevant.
It challenges us to be focused on doing what God calls us to do, regardless of whether others do more or less. This is the essence of community, and this week concludes a tripartite rendition of characteristics of Christ’s kingdom, with Jesus guiding his followers in reconciliation, forgiveness and (avoidance of) judgement, that the community of faith may be mutually supportive to carry the message into the world. That is the harvest.