The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s058g05 Lockleys Sunday 25 18/9/2005
"they grumbled .. saying .. you have made them equal to us" Matthew 20.12
The author George Orwell is probably best known for his quotation in his book "Animal Farm" 1945 a spoof on Stalinism: "All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others."
It is wonderful that Jesus spoke in parables, for this means that his words can have a multitude of meanings. And if they can have a multitude of meanings then there can be no one correct or definitive interpretation. This is actually very convenient.
Perhaps the first way of interpreting this parable is therefore to observe that it is a parable and not reality, therefore it doesn't mean that all people will literally be treated equally. For the Church has traditionally taught that Christians are in some ways special and favoured over the rest of humanity. Salvation is dependent on the correct espousal of a particular creed, and this implies that others cannot actually be treated in the same manner to us.
Another way of interpreting this parable is to observe that the labourers are put to work in the vineyard, and we know that the 'vineyard" is another name for the Church. So the parable means that members of the Church will all be recompensed equally. This we can just accept, because we know that the ultimate recompense is our presence in the kingdom for all eternity. We, Church people, will all be equally present. We reason, like the brothers, James, John and their plucky mother that actually there will be a hierarchy in heaven, it's just that this is "hidden", so again, some will be more equal than others. Much of our thinking is not dissimilar to this. We revere the saints. Who would ever claim to be an equal to St Paul, Mother Theresa, even the Blessed Virgin Mary? We don't even aspire to be, for heaven's sake!
The beauty of this interpretation is that it allows us to believe that those who do not work in the vineyard, in the Church, miss out on any recompense from God.
So by various ways, and I would hardly suggest that I've exhausted all the possible ways, we end up essentially saying something like -- we actually do not believe these words of Jesus. And this, if nothing else, should cause us to stop and ponder.
Here I express some considerable sympathy with those who want to take the Bible literally. I want to say that these words are important, and the subterfuges of personal depreciation and a high view of ecclesiology (the importance of the Church) have led us away from an important teaching of Jesus.
The difficulty with the association of the vineyard as the Church is that we only inherit this parallel from the ancient people of God. Both Isaiah and Jesus criticise this identification, saying essentially that for some inexplicable reason, the vineyard of God, for all the tending and nurture, has only produced sour grapes. So if the ancient people of God are criticised for only producing sour grapes, we can be sure that if we as Christians only produce sour grapes, we will be in no better light and we will suffer the same fate.
But rather than go on with an exhaustive overview of scriptural quotations to back up my argument, I want to turn for a moment to the here and now. Each and every one of us in this congregation here are equal. Some may be 'foundation members' of this parish, others only relatively late comers -- like myself and my family. But we are all equal, and thank God that it is so. For if all the relatively newcomers are not equal, then the future of this parish and congregation is precarious indeed. If we look at latecomers as "also-rans" then it is very unlikely that there will ever be raised up in this congregation people willing and able to take us forward into subsequent generations. So might I suggest that we all have a vested interest in being equal, of seeing the good in others who follow on after us.
Jesus himself was aware that his ministry was not the be all and end all. He promises the disciples: "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these" (John 14.12). But perhaps we scoff. Who could do something greater than set up such a lovely building as this? If we do scoff, then most likely we will find our own prophecy will come true, and our parish, our diocese, indeed our church will die. We will indeed literally be 'hoisted by our own petard'.
Those who killed Jesus had a vested interested in their religion rewarding those who were compliant and damning those who weren't -- not treating people equally. They were locked into death rather than life.
Turning now back to the world rather than the specifics of this -- or any particular congregation. What is true for a small group of people is equally true in society in general. We have a vested interest in seeing all people as equal, so that there will be people willing and able to take society forward into future generations.
So these words may lead us to think that Jesus' words are true and that they ought not to be watered down by the subterfuges of personal depreciation and a high view of ecclesiology. The vineyard is the world and all of creation. All people are invited to work in this vineyard, and all are rewarded equally. The purpose of the Church is not its self-preservation or self-aggrandizement but to exist to recognise and reward the place of all people in the kingdom. When we do this I am sure we will be known for the sweetness of our grapes rather than the "sour grapes" of the parable.
I suspect that the Church will condemn herself and future generations to a continuation of all the things we lament in our own society, if she continues to be characterized by "sour grapes" because God treats all people equally.
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