Harrowing Of Hell
September 24, 2023

Laborers in the Vineyard

The Very Reverend Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

To watch the sermon click here.

Are you envious because I am generous?

In the name of…

Good morning! It is a joy to be with you today. I bring you greetings from the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York – known more colloquially as York Minster. I have had the great pleasure and rather weighty privilege of being the Dean of York since moving back to England from Chicago almost a year ago, having previously been the Dean of St James Cathedral in the Windy City.

Now I arrived in York conscious of being an ecological ‘bad guy’. I’m something of a frequent flyer, and a devout eater of red meat, so I felt, as part of my rather significant ‘new beginning’ that I should do something to redeem myself – and so I signed up to buy an electric car. I negotiated a good price with my local dealer, and it was all set to be ready for me the day I got off the plane… but it wasn’t. A week passed… a month passed… I finally collected the car some four months late – and was given a stern warning to drive safely, because if I damaged it, a replacement part (let alone a whole new car) would take many further months to be acquired.

And I gather this can be something of a challenge over here. Because I was reading an American newspaper on the flight over the Atlantic on Friday, and I gathered that Detroit is not a good place to be right now. A long-standing industrial dispute involving the United Auto Workers and the so-called Detroit Three of car manufacturers has recently escalated enormously.

The article I read said nearly 150,000 workers were now on the picket lines of the motor plants, demanding a 36% pay rise over four years. But Ford, Stellantis and GM are not charities – and actually, they are not really car manufacturers. They are really money manufacturers, whose job, of course, is to generate income for their share-holders, and they do their job well. In the last decade the Detroit Three have posted net income of $164 billion – $20 billion of it just this year.

And any decent, church-going Christian should understand clearly that the union’s position is not just outrageous… it is unbiblical. For we heard it loud and clear, and it must – surely – be the text on which any preacher today must preach: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

Because – surely – the landowner in today’s gospel reading is God, and what God says must – surely – be correct. He can pay what he wants, because it’s his money, and those beneath him need to stop their moaning, and get on with the labor – labor which, manifestly, is divinely mandated.

And that – surely – must be what a preacher says to good, church-going folk like you this morning. The message is quite clear: God, clearly, is endorsing the right of those whom he has blessed with resources to manage them well, and we are free to use our wealth however we wish – especially to make it generate more wealth for us!

And that would be fine, except that it might just be the case that you are envious because I am generous. So let’s start again.

In the name of…

So, as I was saying, I was reading an American newspaper on my flight and discovered that nearly 150,000 workers were now on the picket lines of the motor plants, demanding a 36% pay rise over four years.

You’ll not need me to tell you that the great financial crash of 2007 hit industry hard. The auto workers, through their unions, agreed to give up cost-of-living wage rises and defined benefit pensions, and temporary workers currently sign on at a far from generous $17 per hour. They did their bit to keep the companies going – but the tide has turned, which is a fact that their bosses have simply ignored, whilst generating $164 billion income this past decade, $20 billion of it being this year.

The plain fact of life, which we all know, is that people need a certain amount of income to survive, let alone to live with any degree of dignity. And the landowner in today’s gospel reading – a figure who clearly represents God – is and has to be correct. People – all people – need the dignity of being able to work and receive pay that is ‘right’. And so, not once, but five times across the day, he goes into the marketplace, sends people into the vineyard, and volunteers – unlike the bosses at the Detroit Three – that he will pay them ‘whatever is right’.

And any decent, church-going Christian should understand that the message is clear: God demands of us to provide 100% employment at a guaranteed minimum wage that is a proper, ‘right’, living wage. And such an economic and industrial policy is biblical and not something which any Christian can ignore.

And that would be fine, except that it might just be the case that you are envious because I am generous. So let’s start again…

Because the problem with all this is that you and I both know – or at least know of – some Christians who would endorse the first attempt at a sermon on this especially disquieting and complex parable…. and, equally, we also know some Christians who would endorse the second attempt!

But Scripture is the Living Word of God and demands of us both intelligence and honesty. And if we bring intelligence and honesty, we have to start to shed self-interest, whatever that interest may be. We have to ignore the temptation to make this parable, or anything else in Scripture, a reflection of us and our desires, rather than a reflection of God and the Kingdom of God.

And the trouble is that both of those readings bring pleasing temptations, whether you want to be the greedy capitalist or the generous communist. Both of these readings focus on the transaction and the money… but they fall short in focusing on the Kingdom.

Now it is not the place of a preacher to give a lecture in economics, and I am beyond certain there would be a good number of you here that are way more qualified to undertake such a task then me. But I can tell you one simple truth about economics that is not irrelevant when we read this morning’s gospel.

For we should always remember that under capitalism, man exploits man, but under communism, it’s the other way round. And Jesus – well Jesus preached neither capitalism or communism. Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.

And so we need a third sermon – a sermon that takes us beyond the temptingly easy paths of promoting economic models to explain Jesus’ challenging words. And such a sermon needs to make us address the question at the heart of this parable. The question that is nearly the last remark uttered by the landowner who clearly represents God:  Are you envious because I am generous?

Except that isn’t really what the landowner says. For if you peel this parable back to the original Greek, what you will find him saying – literally – is this: Is your eye evil because I am good? Or, in other words, ‘does God’s goodness make you mad?’

Because, as both our reading from the end of Jonah, let alone this complex parable remind us, God’s goodness and God’s grace do not always sit easily with us fallen human beings. For God’s goodness envisages a world turned on its head, where the first are last and the last first.

This parable follows immediately on from Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. A figure who is wonderfully pious and observant, but whose eye has become misfocussed – has become ‘evil’, putting his considerable wealth in a more prominent view than his love of God. He departs from Jesus grieving, as he cannot bring himself to make God a greater priority than wealth. That leads Jesus to shock his disciples with the famous line about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and making them cry out, ‘Then who can be saved?’.

And the point Jesus makes to them, and to us today in this parable, is that – actually – God is not offering salvation as any kind of economic transaction or reward. Salvation – whatever we might mean by that – is not what we get as a living wage in return for going out into the vineyard. For better or for worse, God freely gives us salvation, without us earning it at all – something which truly does turn the world as we know it on its head.

The challenge is whether we can even begin to match God’s generous spirit in our response. Curiously, humans are often resistant to the idea of getting something for nothing – despite that being at the very heart of what, in the trade, we call the ‘atonement’.

For God has our backs. That’s the rather simple message at the core of our readings today. God has our backs because God created us and loves us in a manner so overwhelmingly me generous it goes beyond our human Richter scale of appreciation. And we don’t always find it easy to understand and acclaim God’s generous love – particularly when we find it lavished on those whom we don’t feel deserve it.

But the real call to the vineyard is to reflect God’s gracious love and let it influence our lives, so we can help build the kingdom. Where I am now privileged to work in York, deep generosity has resulted in the ministry of a cathedral or minster attempting to serve the world and build the kingdom for nearly 1400 years, and here in this part of Seattle, similar generosity is needed in the vital mission and ministry of Epiphany.

So wake up and smell the coffee! Let the values of the Kingdom influence your approach to economics, contracts, salaries and anything else to do with wealth. Get your eyes focused properly to see and never forget God’s grace, and make sure that day by day, when God asks you are you envious because I am generous, we can make a better reply than Jonah or the grumbling workers in the vineyard. Amen.