Preached at the church of St. John the Baptist, Beeston, during September 2017.
May I speak in the name of the Living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
As Mathew melez in your messe
In sothful Gospel of God almyzt
“My regne”, He saytz “is lyk on hyzt
To a lorde that hade a vyne, I wate.
Of tyme of yere the terme watz tyzt
To labor vyne watz dere the date
“That date of yere wel knawe thys hyne.
The lorde ful erly up he ros
To hyre werkemen to hys vyne
And fynde ther summe to hys porpos
Into accorde that con declyne
For a pene on a day and forth thay goytz
At the date of day of evensonge,
On oure byfore the sonne go doun,
He sez ydel men ful stronge
And sade to hem with sobre soun
“Wy stonde ye ydel thise daye longe?’
Thay sayden her hyre watz nowhere boun.
‘Gotz to my vyne, yemen yonge,
And wyrkez and dotz that at ye moun”
And there I’ll pause, because we haven’t quite got the stage of speaking in tongues at St John’s Beeston. No-one knows who wrote those lines of poetry. They are written in a manuscript which has survived from the fourteen century, and they’re part of a poem scholars call “The Pearl”. It’s an extraordinary piece of literature: highly complex in its use of language, passionate in its Christian faith. and completely surreal in its story. It tells the story of a man who is distracted with grief at the loss of his daughter, who falls asleep in a garden and dreams that he is standing on one side of a river, with a young woman standing on the other side. She tells him that he cannot cross the river yet, and sympathises with his pain. During their conversation, she tells him the story of the workers in the vineyard, and teaches him about grace and salvation. The poem ends when he sees the Heavenly Jerusalem on the other side of the river, and plunges into the water to try to swim to it, only to wake up in the garden where he fell asleep, made wiser by the teaching he has heard.
In the lines I quoted from this anonymous medieval poem, we can hear the same story that we heard in the service just now. A lord who had a vine, workers who were hired to tend it, the calling in of the other workers later in the day at “evensonge, one oure byfore the sonne go doun”. I studied this poem as a student, and it came to mind as soon as I knew I’d be preaching on this parable today. The Parable of the Vineyard is one of the great weird jewels in the Christian inheritance. It begins with Jesus offering to show his disciples what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like, and then telling them a story of blatant unfairness. Christians have been puzzling over it ever since, and its very strangeness has been attractive to generations of them.
In the second century, the ancient bishop Irenaeus wrote about this parable. He was Bishop of Lugudnum in Roman Gaul, or – as we would say – he was Bishop of Lyon in the South of France. Big on vineyards, the South of France is. Very French parable, this. Perhaps the workers stopped occasionally for some cheese and crusty bread. Irenaeus wrote that this story assures us that salvation is available to everyone who takes part in God’s work, no matter when they were born or where they fit into God’s story. Abraham, Moses, St. Paul, even Irenaeus himself, they could all receive their denarius at the end of the day.
It didn’t matter, Irenaeus said, when they had arrived in God’s world history, they were equally valued. And he saw the guarantee of that value in a detail of the story – the penny given to the workers. Like today, coins in the Ancient world often had the face of the King or Queen stamped on them, to mark them as authentic. And Irenaeus imagined each person turning over the coin they’d been given, at the end of their labours, and seeing the face of God as their reward.
Some time later, Martin Luther, the Catholic monk battling with his conscience, found great comfort in this story too. He looked at the workers toiling all day, and demanding higher wages than those who had just arrived, and saw the unmerited grace of God. The vineyard story, Luther preached, shows that we cannot earn salvation, we cannot bargain with God, we could never attain salvation from our own virtues. What we call a reward is a free gift from God, and it cannot be measured or traded or counted up. It is God’s unbelievable goodness, that baffles our attempts to compare or exchange it.
The reason I’ve been looking into the past, to Irenaeus in ancient Gaul, and Luther in Renaissance Germany, and the anonymous poet in medieval Northumbria, is not to find the right answer to this parable. That’s not how parables work. When Jesus wanted to give us an inkling of what God’s Kingdom is like, he didn’t lay out a set of principles or provide a formula. We probably couldn’t have understood him if he had. He told a story. We have to tell that story to each other, and we have to try to see ourselves in that story.
We have to do that together, and we each have to do it ourselves – because belief in the Kingdom of God isn’t something that can be passed down from a lectern, or written down in a book. It has to be sensed for ourselves, built up in our own vision of the world. It has to be something we glimpse with our imagination, and something which we look forward to when we dream about our future. What does it mean to us? How should we act now we’ve heard it? We’re not alone – we can look to the centuries and centuries of faithful people who have heard and been inspired by this story. But they saw what it meant for their time, not ours. We can’t look to them to answer our questions. We have to wrestle with the problem for ourselves.
When I read this Gospel passage again, I was struck by the fact that it depicts people doing exactly that – wrestling with the problem. There are workers in this story who don’t understand what the Lord is doing. In the generosity of the vineyard owner, they can only see unfairness to themselves. In the money bestowed on others they feel they’ve somehow been cheated. If I’m supposed to ask “where am I in this story” I think I probably know. I’m uncomfortably reminded of phrases like “I’ve worked hard to get where I am today”.
Well, I have, as it happens. I’ve got degrees to prove it. And there’s a folder at my Mum’s house where I think you can find all my school and university reports. If anyone’s interested? No, this Kingdom is a vision of reward beyond merit, but it is a reward which challenges some of what I think about myself. What I pride myself on, what props up my self-esteem.
It’s also a Kingdom of God which is uncomfortably obsessed with money. Think of how many Gospel stories involve coins, work, money. The parable of the talents, the parable of the indebted steward we heard last week, the parable of the lost coin, the story of the widow’s mite, the merchant and the pearl of great price. It can sound a bit vulgar, really. The stories Jesus tells which offer a glimpse of the Kingdom of God are about the radical overturning of human value systems, but they do that using money. They talk about how much you get paid an hour, and how many hours’ work you get assigned on the spreadsheet. Someone in this story got paid, and they’d worked practically zero hours. Feels a very modern story when you put it like that.
Oddly enough, that’s something our anonymous fourteenth century poet would have understood. According to my university tutor, the Parable of the Vineyard was a popular subject for preachers and poets in the fourteenth century, because the Black Death had just happened. A huge calamity had taken place which suddenly meant that there were thousands fewer agricultural workers in each area. As any economist – or any medieval farm steward – will tell you, that means that wages went up. A days’ work in the fields changed in price, and people heard this parable calling to them from the Bible. Like us, they wanted to know what it meant for them.
So I’ve told you what Irenaeus of Lugudnum thought of this parable. I’ve told you what Martin Luther thought of it and what an anonymous medieval visionary poet thought. I’ve even suggested what Bloomfield of Beeston thinks. The Kingdom of God is seen when an old man turns over a coin and sees the face of God. The Kingdom of God is glimpsed when an earnest Christian realizes God’s grace is free, not earned. The Kingdom of God is seen when a teenage girl sitting by a river teaches theology to a man who thinks he can’t bear to go on. It is reflected when a labourer is paid a day’s wages for an hour’s work. Where is this Kingdom for you? Where can you glimpse this vineyard?