Thought for Evensong – The Sunday next before Advent, 22nd November 2020

Psalm 149, Ecclesiastes 11 and 12; Matthew 20: 1 – 16

For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Psalm 149: 4

Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything. Ecclesiastes 11: 5

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last. Matthew 20: 15 and 16

In this pre-Advent period we look forward eagerly to the fulfilment of all the promises and prophecies contained in scripture. We do so in circumstances where the world seems to have lost its nerve. Political leaders who have prided themselves on the military or economic might of their countries have been humiliated by a virus that is reluctant to be controlled. All the scientific brains are working to find a vaccine, and we feel powerless as we wait, if not in fear, then with misgivings over the future. The verse above quoted from Ecclesiastes 11 reminds us that our very existence is a mystery, and this corporate world loss of confidence comes about because humankind realises it is not in control of events. Creation is the work of God, the earth has been loaned to humankind to be good stewards of its resources, and in due time Jesus Christ will return. We must remember from Psalm 149: 4 that God is not vindictive; God is love and He takes pleasure in creation and the ingenuity and gifts of the human race, but He is also a just Judge who does not turn a blind eye to wickedness. He seeks the good of the humble and wishes to bless all who come to Him.

Our reading from Matthew 20 is a parable Jesus told in response to the false religion of the Pharisees. They were full of pride and fervour for the Law, but this pursuit of perfect adherence to the myriad rules and regulations was dry and lifeless. The story Jesus told was about a landowner who possessed a vineyard and employed workers on a daily basis, numbers varying doubtless according to the season and tasks that needed doing. The first group of workers began work at daybreak for the agreed flat rate for a full day’s labour. At three-hour intervals the owner, seeing idle workers still hanging around in the market place, employed further batches of people. He undertook to ‘pay whatever is right’ (verse 4). Having commissioned new groups of workers at 9, 12 and 3 o’ clock, he even went to the market place at 5 o’ clock – presumably because the weather was fine and the harvest was abundant. At close of work the landowner instructed the steward to pay the wages, beginning with a full day’s pay for the workers who had only done an hour of work. This obviously incensed the workers who had toiled all day in the scorching heat, to see everyone paid the same, so much so that they protested, expecting now a greater wage. But the landowner reasoned with them, saying they had received the just wage for a day’s work; how he treated later arrivals was entirely his choice.

The message to the Pharisees was unpalatable. They thought it wrong that people could be admitted into God’s kingdom at the last minute, particularly the Gentiles who were not recipients of God’s original Covenant. Underlying this hostility was also self-righteousness that they ‘deserved’ a place in the Kingdom by their own efforts, because they had always worked faithfully. Why should latecomers receive the same blessing? They failed totally to understand that every one of us has no merit in our own strength, and it is all by God’s grace that we are saved (Romans 3: 23 and 24). There is a warning to us too, when we can sometimes adopt an attitude like the Pharisees. We lead a good life and attend church regularly, and then sometimes resent God’s grace when someone ‘bad’ makes a last-minute decision to enter God’s Kingdom – rather like Jonah resenting God’s mercy on the city of Nineveh when they repented, while he thought they deserved judgement.

Thankfully, God’s grace is another mystery we cannot fathom. John 3: 16 and 17 remind us that God does not want to condemn anyone (‘the world’), but that all may find forgiveness through trust in Jesus – as we watch for the return of Jesus in glory. As humble recipients of God’s grace, however late in the day, we need to play our part in helping bring in the harvest.

Kevin Boak

Lay Reader

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