During my sabbatical break I intend to visit a few other churches. Last Sunday I found myself at Nailsea Methodist Church where minister Deborah handled Matthew 20:1-16.
A straightforward and clear message invited us all to avoid being grumpy when others were doing well if it was not at our expense. It also encouraged us not to begrudge those who came to faith late in life, especially as they might have done so because of our labouring long hours for the same reward. We can all only be who we are and do what we can do, so do that, would be my summary.
But, as ever when pondering a well-known passage, my thoughts drifted to context. Where did Matthew put this tale? What can we deduce from where he put it? It's a story unique to Matthew, which puts us on our guard, knowing that he had an axe to grind and sometimes used his Jesus stories to sharpen it.
We have had teaching on forgiveness, divorce and riches in the immediately preceding material. The last line of chapter 19 has been that the first will be last and the last will be first. So does this expand on that? Yes, to some extent.
First thing to remember is Matthew's axe. His Gospel is all about the status of the law of Moses in the light of Jesus and in the light of the fall of Jerusalem. Any material unique to Matthew is likely to illustrate this point. So, says this story, if you want rules you've got them. A generous contract of employment for a day's work, signed at the start of the day and honoured at the end. The rules are kept.
Second thing, which you maybe do not know, is that this parable is based on a story from Jewish folklore, in which an employer rewards a hard-working employee for achieving more in two hours than other labourers managed in the whole day. His audience may well have been familiar with that.
But what might Matthew's readers have missed about the rules? Because the vineyard owner has to be God in the story. Israel is always the vineyard. And God (who likes to seek and save the lost - Matthew 18:10-14) comes a-seeking for employees.
The Gospel of grace is a new thing. It is a gospel where people who have been waiting all day for work don't get sent home with insufficient money to buy supper on the way. You can play by the rules if you want to; if you do you'll be treated fairly. But if you accept the wonderful free good news of the grace of God delivered in Jesus Christ you will get a better deal than the lawmakers and lawkeepers could ever have imagined.
If you are a follower of Jesus and have committed your life to that for a long time, good on you. But make sure you have ditched the idea that you are in a meritocracy. For the people who come to faith late after a lifetime of sin will know, better than you, that they did nothing to deserve it. Nothing. Thing is, neither, my friend, did you.
And forgive me getting all messianic on you but whenever Jesus calls people 'friend' in the gospels he is about to prick their bubble. So the story ends with Matthew's little coda, again. Lastly beats firstly in the topsy-turvy world of Jesus.