Sermon for Trinity 15 – Mass Sunday 24 September 2017
Trinity 15 HM
‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ (Mt 20.16)
Today’s parable occupies the same territory as that of the prodigal son. We know that story is really about the generous father. Today the generous injustice or unjust generosity of the landowner is front and centre.
However, perhaps depending on how we feel life has treated us, we fixate sympathetically or, maybe slightly grumpily, like Jonah, on the lottery-winning outcome for prodigal and the unbelievable good fortune of the eleventh-hour labourers. And the parable is about them too: as so often in Jesus’s teaching, it is about that large section of people who seem to have little going for them, who get it wrong and suffer the consequences, the younger sons and latecomers of life; by extension, us on a bad day.
At the heart of these stories is the Gospel of reversal: the last to arrive, the feckless younger children, the most unlikely winners of anything, do inherit the kingdom. This is never because of their own ingenuity or heavy work schedule; it is not because of any self-improvement course they have taken: it is always because of the graciousness and generosity of others, ultimately of God.
I have a soft spot for precariously situated younger sons and farm labourers. It was thanks to the bloody-minded imagination of two farm-labouring youngest sons that the first of my family, my only English forebears, made it to Australia. While not zero-hours labourers like those in the parable, they were the eighteenth century’s nearest equivalent, the youngest sons of tenant farmers, inhabiting the most insecure rural status. As they grew to manhood people were deserting their native agricultural Somerset in great numbers, often for mining areas, but they had a bigger idea.
Two cousins, James and Thomas, decided their prospects were so appalling that transportation to Australia would actually be an improvement. They planned, committed and confessed to a crime (the theft of six straw beehives and a hundredweight of honey from a mutual uncle) calculating correctly that this would be rewarded with transportation for seven years.
Like many big ideas this one was conceived in a pub and enacted before sobriety set in. Happily for them the calculation proved accurate (the alternative sentences, 14 years or life, being considerably less appealing). After many adventures they became prosperous hoteliers and ferry operators on the mighty Derwent river just outside Hobart, brought nieces and nephews out to Victoria when land-grants for free settlers were on offer, and the rest is history. Two hundred and fifteen years, hundreds of thousands of sheep and a mountain of wool later I stand before you today, having made my way back, rather more comfortably, to a city which they only knew from 18 months’ in a stinking prison hulk on the Thames before setting sail for Tasmania. I lack their both farming and business acumen and I doubt they thought much of parsons.
So the entrepreneurial desperation of younger sons and latecomers is not only dear to me but responsible for my very existence. I don’t believe for a moment that, in their later prosperity, they and their landowning family ever paid their employees the same amount for one hour as for twelve. But today’s story is about the Kingdom of God: close as Australia is to that beatific state, we have to cut them some slack. And it is fair to say that their story is not one of simple hard work or just deserts. It is a story of a gamble taken, of good fortune and opportunity taken, of generous possibilities understood; and it is a story of imagination, risk and sheer brass neck. They didn’t deserve the outcome, only the sentence.
That is where the Kingdom of God comes in. These parables model imagination and risk, and a love of life. They are about the boundless, foolish, wasteful generosity of God; and generosity is a close relative of risk. You could say that generosity is the ultimate enactment of risk, giving something away with no guarantee of getting anything back. That is what the cross is really about, not penal substitutionary atonement, as Fr Julian was reminding us last Sunday evening. That risk-taking speaks of imagination: imagination on the part of the divine giver to look beyond the transactional gift or the receiver who just keeps everything safe but barren (think of the parable of the talents, and man who buried his for the duration of his custody).
Imagination informs our response to God; without imagination how could we begin to take up God’s offer, how could we seek to live by it, this bizarre generous view of the world, let alone create this extraordinary activity of worship, mixing music, performance and teaching with prayer and offering, to make our approach to God worthy of his welcome. Imagination is how the landowner can see the grubby zero-hours worker who’s filled the gap in his workforce to get the job finished as of equal value to the the one who’s worked hard all day. Because the Kingdom is not about our work, it’s all about gift, grace.
The most important gift of the Christian imagination, rather than the instinct for material self-improvement which drove my ancestors (which I don’t at all despise), the most important gift of Christian imagination is to see the world through God’s eyes. To see innate rather than transactional value in people, allowing acceptance and wonder to flourish rather than judgement and and resentment.
Fr Henry Wansborough OSB writes about today’s Gospel:
‘…Our love of God is a consequence of our being loved by God, not a prerequisite for it. What the early birds and the last comers share, and what should unite them, is that both have been chosen to work in the vineyard.’
We know well that the most important experience of life, being looked on in love by the other, is not something which we earn: it is something which depends on the mysterious preference and generosity of someone else.
The world of the Gospel is peopled with life’s latecomers, who find themselves with some form of disability or disadvantage. They are the physically damaged, the psychologically damaged, the spiritually damaged, the economically damaged. They are the losers, the latecomers, the prodigal sons, the outcasts, the overlooked, the we think we can safely ignore or shun. They are found in the midst of the Gospel because they are in the midst of life. Some of them sleep here every day.
Jesus has a clear prejudice in their favour, not least because he teaches us what we keep unlearning: that God’s ways are not our ways, that God does not work from the arithmetic of the calculator but from the fullness of a divine heart. All of us are chosen, called and loved. Especially the ones we most resent.