The Generosity of God

Matthew 20

The Rev'd Margaret Holt


Whenever I hear this parable from Matthew 20, I think of a particular day in Amman, Jordan when I was working there - we went to pick up some workers to help us unload a shipping crate that had arrived from Australia with clothes, shoes, hospital beds, all sorts of things. Just like in the gospel story, it was a dreadfully hot day (38C) and Ahmed said we had better get 6 or 7 men from the ‘pick up’ point for a day’s work. I had no idea what he was talking about but it seemed that the Seventh Circle, which was a roundabout in a very busy part of Amman, was where men looking for work hung out just like the men in this story. They waited at the 7th Circle and people who needed labourers would go there. We arrived with our truck and the great crowd of men waiting there gathered around, Ahmed called out

‘6! 5 dinar and drinks!’ and six men quickly jumped in to the back of the truck and off we went… so, it still happens like our gospel story in the ME – our 7th Circle was the Market Place mentioned in the gospel reading! Not all of the men there at the 7th circle would have got work that day but they would have stayed there all day hoping…

The Landowner in Jesus’ story went out to the Market Place at regular intervals during the day to hire more labourers. He offered the normal daily wage to those he hired at the beginning of the day and then after that he just said ‘I will pay you a fair wage.’ At the end of the day the foreman was told to pay them all the same amount – the daily wage… and those hired first grumbled – ‘we have worked for you all day in the hot sun ‘and you paid them, who worked only one hour, the same as you paid us!!’

Am I being unfair to you?? The first group of workers had agreed to the daily wage and the ones who came later agreed to a ‘fair wage’ and the landowner just gave them more than fair…!

Yes, it could be said that it is unfair that some of the men worked for all day and some for only one hour and they all got paid the same… but that is Grace…

I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right… (to do what I want with what belongs to me!) Are you jealous because I am generous??”

When I think of the crowds of men standing at the 7th circle waiting for some work I wonder; did the landowner in Jesus’ parable keep going back because he needed more workers in the vineyard, or did he simply want to give as many workers as he could a day’s wage so their families could eat?? Maybe a bit of both....

…. And perhaps, in the end the most powerful point is that God is generous beyond our understanding; generous in love, in compassion, in his gifts, in his forgiveness as we saw in the parable in last week’s gospel reading when the Master forgives his servant his entire debt, and you will remember in that parable the servant then goes out and refuses to forgive a fellow servant the small debt that was owed to him….

We are challenged with that parable to forgive freely as we are forgiven, and in this parable, we are challenged to be generous, beyond what would be deemed to be fair…. This is what the Kingdom of heaven is like, said Jesus…

North of Amman in Jordan, there is the vast ruin of Jerash – one of the Roman cities of the Decapolis. It is one of the most impressive Roman ruins left anywhere. When I lived in Jordan, it cost 5 dinar (which was roughly $7) for a non-Jordanian citizen to get in to Jerash which is incredibly cheap. Local Jordanians were charged 1 dinar, remembering that their cost of living, their wages, are much lower than ours. I went there with visitors many times because it was so spectacular and had a wonderful restaurant! On one of these visits, I was standing in the queue behind an American who was very upset and rude about the fact that he had to pay 5 dinar when the locals only paid 1 dinar. It was not fair because everyone should pay the same, he said, and added salt in to the wound by declaring very loudly that they didn’t do this in Israel…. Everybody paid the same in Israel, they were fair there!! (and also had a higher cost of living I might add…) Well, saying something like that to an Arab was asking for trouble but everyone was surprisingly calm. The Jordanian man giving the tickets just said, it’s 5 dinar or get out of the queue, you are holding everybody up! Considering how much money American tourists (and others) bring with them when they travel, it was incredibly small minded, but he would say it was a matter of principle but what is the principle?? That everyone should pay the same? Some would agree with him and say that was fair but 5dinar was very cheap for such a spectacular site. Tourists would earn far more than the average Jordanian and surely, it is their right to charge their own folk a lesser price? Especially as most Jordanians wouldn’t be able to afford to visit the site otherwise…. Unfair implies injustice, but in this case his idea of fairness was surely INJUST….

It is much easier to go on about fairness when one is well off and not struggling to stay alive or feed the family every day. Fairness is often nothing to do with justice and this parable challenges us to not only be generous with what we possess, but to be generous of heart and in spirit, reaching out across barriers that sometimes seem too great to bridge…. In a world struggling with greed, power imbalance, self-interest, injustice and mistrust … let me tell you a true story of St Francis of Assisi that is not so well known:

It is the feast day of St Francis in two weeks, and we tend to think of Francis with birds and animals, but most people probably don’t know that Br Francis travelled to the Middle East during the Crusades. He set out for Egypt during the Fifth Crusade travelling aboard a ship with the Crusader army. At that time, the Muslims still controlled Jerusalem, but to reach there, the crusaders decided to first capture the fortress of Damietta in Egypt and gain control of the Nile River. Francis tried to convince them not to fight, he believed that he had a word from God that they would lose the battle, that this was not right… he asked permission to go across to the Muslim camp and speak to them. This was refused but, after the battle, when the crusaders had retreated to their camp, Francis with his brother Illuminato crept out of the crusader camp and walked across the no man’s land between the two armies…

By the Spirit of God, they got to the Muslim camp, and through it, with crosses on the front of their dirty brown habits, without being killed. That was a miracle in itself. The Sultan was impressed about that and he was impressed with Francis – this dirty beggar, incredibly brave and disarmingly passionate about the good news of God’s love in Jesus…. (which is kind of ironic seeing as they were in the middle of a crusade…) They spent days together in an attitude of mutual respect and understanding, talking about the things they both shared - their belief and love for God, prayer, kindness to the poor, justice and peace...and Francis promised that he would try and convince the crusader army to withdraw peacefully. He was unsuccessful in stopping the crusaders from attacking again but incredibly the meeting and discussion between him and the Sultan had profound positive consequences in Christian/Muslim relationships for many centuries afterwards. It did make a difference…

With all the issues swirling around us – political, social, environmental, health… we wonder about what difference we can possibly make in it all, but we can choose to be generous, to be kind, to be just and compassionate, to walk across the no man’s land that can separate us from so many…

And to pray to have the openness of heart and generosity of spirit that reflects the Kingdom of God’s love and grace.

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