In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a friend and colleague who regularly posts thought-provoking memes and snippets on his Facebook page. Last week it included a piece inspired by the American writer Stan Rushworth, an indigenous elder of Cherokee descent. It described the differences Rushworth saw between a Western settler mindset of “I have rights” and an indigenous mindset of “I have obligations”. The piece went on “Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I am born with obligations to serve past, present, and future generations, and the planet herself.”
I’m been thinking about that a lot this week. Every time there is a new story on the news about Covid restrictions, and I listen to the various people talking about their lives, of the impact it is having, I found myself weighing up that difficult balance – rights versus obligations.
And when we reflect on Jonah and the workers in the vineyard again we can hear that tension – my right to what I am owed, to what I think is fair, to what suits me against my obligation to serve God and work to the benefit of others.
The parables of Christ’s teaching often allows us to see ourselves in those parables, in different ways. But of course, it is more comfortable to see ourselves in a certain light. For example, it is more easier to see ourselves as the workers who come late to the vineyard but are rewarded equally, because that gives us the promise of a heavenly reward no matter how late we turn to Christ.
It is much more difficult to see ourselves as the workers who have been working in the vineyard from the beginning. These characters do not help our own image of ourselves. Where the people without work are in need of mercy, the all-day workers, despite having been given exactly what they were promised, are envious, self-pitying, ungracious and ungenerous. Who wants to see themselves like that?
And it is certainly not the way we want God to see us. So this can be an uncomfortable parable.
But through the vineyard owner role, Jesus is trying to tell us something about God. The first is this: God understands what we are feeling. He is even compassionate about those emotions – the vineyard owner calls the workers ‘Friend’. He doesn’t get angry, but he does remind us that what we are feeling isn’t fair either. Would we really deny others the gifts that we want for ourselves, and are happy to receive? And, of course, the answer is ‘no’.
So how does this play out for us in our daily lives?
Well, to return to that idea set out by Stan Rushworth, perhaps in this pandemic we have an opportunity to think about how we balance what we demand and what we give.
So as we think about how life is changing, whether we are talking about the use of face coverings in church or the ability to go to the pub with our friends, or for example how our daily choices affect potential environmental damage, where is our focus?
Wearing a mask, abiding by physical distancing, reducing plastic waste or not driving if it isn’t necessary, these can all be acts of love. They say ‘I take seriously your wellbeing’ and that of creation. Yes, we might be inconvenienced, and have to change the way we do things, but we are not being done out of God’s grace, we are not being cheated. God still offers us salvation, that is our reward.
As workers in the vineyard we are called to two tasks: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Mt 22.37-40)
These are the obligations of every follower of Christ.
(Artwork: ‘The Labourers in the Vineyard’ by Eugène Burnand)