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God’s generosity

Septuagesima BCP

12 February 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

There are many situations in life, which cause people to feel mildly aggrieved, and which are perceived to be unfair. In order to reflect on today’s parable of the workers in the vineyard I’d like you to imagine being in an unfair situation. Perhaps you were a middle or the youngest child who felt not to be a priority in comparison with the eldest – maybe think of those handsome early retirement packages of yesteryear which these days are not so readily available or attractive – or get frustrated about the changing pensions scene – consider how others seem luckier in receiving benefits from the system – think about the unfairness of having to take the strain of a lazy colleague at work (you know the answer to the question ‘how many people work in your office’? – ‘about half’) – think about those who have 3 months sick off work when you know you would only ask a month…the list of grievances could be endless…I’ve even heard some clergy are a little envious about Swan Hellenic cruise opportunities which never come their way during the busy Easter period…though I can genuinely say I rejoice in the good fortune of those who do receive such a blessing! All of us can count many blessings. But aggrieved labourers in today’s gospel give the ‘evil eye’ to the boss because of his generosity to those who didn’t work as long as them, and it is their envy which is the crux of the parable.

Yet despite apparent unfairness, justice is in fact maintained. The murmuring workers received their agreed pay, and are told by the lord of the vineyard that he did not ‘injure’ them, and that it was lawful for him to do what he liked with his own resources.

The whingers’ complaint isn’t really about money though, but mainly that “thou hast made them equal unto us.” They are estimating their personal value in contrast to others…and are not so much angered by their own treatment, as envious of the good luck of the latecomers. Their rigid idea of justice would limit the householder’s freedom and exclude his spontaneous generosity. The Gospels are, of course, replete with tales of abundant generosity…the loaves and fishes feeding several thousand people…the copious quantities of wine provided at the wedding reception at Cana…the teaching that forgiveness ought almost to be limitless (seventy times seven times). And the workers in the vineyard aren’t so much paid, as generously rewarded. For me a key indicator of a healthy spiritual life is this generosity of spirit, since in the beginning, and at the end…all is gift…everything. This is why thanksgiving is at the heart of worship – ‘Eucharist’ – ‘Thank you.’ All is gift.

In understanding the Lord to be generous loving and merciful…the temptation might well be for us to idle along until late, and say to ourselves that it doesn't matter what we do because God will overlook everything…but we have plenty of guidance about how we shall be judged, and how to put the generosity of God into practise:

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Matt 25:35-36)

There are many occasions when we might be tempted to glance with envy, and with an evil eye at the good fortune of other people, and it is good to remind ourselves at such times that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. For a start He does not pay wages - he gives gifts (Romans 6:23). A gift, by definition, is not something people can lay claim to or have a right to. God is just, but bestows his gifts according to his own design and not in accordance with human reckoning. Indeed our human expectations are constantly reversed in the gospels, and we are deeply disturbed when the first are made last, and the last first. Today’s parable follows on from St. Peter asking Jesus about future reward: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then, shall we have?” The promise Jesus gave, was to receive a ‘hundredfold’ (other ancient texts say ‘manifold’) and inherit eternal life…BUT…many that are first will be last, and the last first. In the context of the church situation Matthew was addressing, we note that latecomers (Gentile converts) are treated and welcomed as equals with Jewish converts, who had long been aware of their identity as having being chosen and beloved of God. In the context of our own modern day situation here at St. George’s, our life together in Christ should have marks of generosity which rejoices in each other’s gifts, and delights in newcomers to the church bringing freshness and different outlooks, which enrich and enliven us all.
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