The labourers have been hard at work: all around us there are cut fields, full barns, plentiful stores. And here in church we have the fruits of harvest – carrots, apples, bread. God has blessed us with plenty and we have come to sing our gratitude.
So it’s good that we have heard a gospel reading dealing with harvest and plenty. But where we might expect gratitude we hear grumbling instead.
“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”.
Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’ and we try really hard to nod our heads wisely as Jesus declares the largesse of the landowner, who pours out abundant grace on those who only worked one hour. We know in our heads that God loves us all with a love so outrageous and so generous that it cannot be described as ‘fair’.
This parable may be trying to convince our heads that this is a story about God’s grace and we should accept that, but don’t we find our hearts get left behind because they are still crying out “but it isn’t fair!”.
30 years ago, when I was a young teacher, I took a school assembly on this parable of the workers in the vineyard. I told the story, and concluded that God’s love is not meant to be fair – it is for us all, regardless of how hard we work, or how rich we are.
Assembly ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, the children and teachers trooped off the first two lessons of the day, and by coffee time I had nearly forgotten what I had said. Until I entered the staff room. Immediately I was cornered by some of my colleagues – how could I tell that story, how could I believe that, it is patently NOT FAIR. Next I’d be saying that newly-qualified teachers should earn the same as the head!
But of course I was a newly-qualified teacher – it seemed to me that rewarding the one who the least, who was quaking in their boots, who wondered whether they’d have enough money to get through the month, was not such a bad idea.
I told the story because I believed in the grace of God and God’s outrageous love, but I read it rather differently because I could identify with the low paid!
So can we try to help our hearts feel this story from the other point of view?
The ones who were not hired had to endure the constant failure to be picked – first thing and then at 9 and noon and three. Not until 5 o’clock, when there is only one more hour to work, are they hired… and even then they must wonder what they will receive. Will it be enough to feed their families that night?
Imagine, then the flood of relief to receive a full day’s pay – enough to live on, despite all the waiting and the worrying. And imagine how grateful you would feel, to be given enough.
Poorer people – like these relieved and grateful ones in the parable who only worked one hour – have much to teach us about gratitude.
In May I was lucky enough to go to Zimbabwe for just over a week, to see some of the projects which the URC support through our giving to Commitment for Life & Christian Aid.
The very first place we visited was a garden project, where a water pump has been installed to enable older people – many of them widows – to grow their own food. The gardeners came out to meet our bus with singing and dancing. Once they had sat us down in the shade of tree, one of them, Florence Kona, said,
"Our lives have changed. My child is now a builder in Mutare. We have learnt about book keeping, recording monies, cleanliness and how to spend money wisely. This garden has given my family better food and money to buy things we need. We hope you continue giving.
We thank you, we have prayed for you without seeing - but now we see you face to face!".
The people we met wanted to express their gratitude for the help we give – not grumble that we are so rich we could afford to fly out 7,000 miles to see them.
We are here because our harvest is plentiful – but we are very conscious that it is not so in every part of the world. And even in countries of plenty, not everyone gets a share – ask those families who rely on food banks and community larders to get through the month without hunger. I’m sure in this harvest celebration we want to put on record our gratitude, not our grumbling.
Jesus often used parables to talk about the kingdom of God – the way we should live our lives. But I don’t think he simply meant us to hear this story and think ‘we should be grateful and not grumbling’.
It is good if this parable makes us want to cry out against injustice, because when we are truly grateful for what God has given us, we want fairness for all, because all are God’s children.
This parable speaks of the generosity and giving of God – of God’s grace - which is boundless.
As we give thanks for what God has given us, we are challenged to recognize how blessed we are, but also, I hope stirred to seek justice so that all God’s children can be fed.
Those of us to whom so much has been given need to give thanks, and then spend our lives and our strength trying to be people who are as generous as God.
Our gratitude and our generosity should be boundless – as boundless as God’s giving to us – until the whole world rejoices in having plenty to eat, and the whole world knows of the boundless love God pours out on us all.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.