Authors of our own discontent

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15

Philippians 1: 21-30

Matthew 20: 1-16

                              ©Suzanne Grimmett

“Over a long time, the coming and passing of several generations, the old farm had settled into its patterns and cycles of work—its annual ploughing, moving from field to field; its animals arriving by birth or purchase, feeding and growing, thriving and departing. Its patterns and cycles were virtually the farm’s own understanding of what it was doing, of what it could do without diminishment.

(The farmer) Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a “landowner.” He was the farm’s farmer, but also its creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter.”[1]

Whether it be farm or vineyard, there is in nature that which should summon us to a certain humility and recognition that we are only a small part of a bigger story. What I just read to you was an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, the slow, gentle tale of one man’s life and relationships with the past and with the land. The land itself plays a big role in this story, having its own quiet resistance to human impatience and desire for rapid financial gain. Creation has its own rhythms and patterns which demand the kind of careful attention and release of our self-centred gaze that we may attend to the life around us. The human will can be the greatest cause of human unhappiness when the desire to serve ourselves outruns any capacity of the earth or humanity to sustain such self-interest. Humankind seems always to be asking the question, “What do I get out of it?”

It is natural to desire personal reward for effort. Indeed, so natural that we hear on the lips of St Peter, just before Jesus shares this parable of the workers in the vineyard, a question about his reward.

“We have left everything and followed you. What then we will have?

This sounds a lot like “Look at me and everything I have done. Now what am, I going to get for it?’  

Jesus reassures with an extravagant promise that whatever is left or laid down in following him, will be given back a hundredfold. That sounds like a promising return, but before any of us thinks this is all about a good future investment strategy, we should attend closely to the parable of the workers that follows and Jesus’ words that, “the last will be first and the first will be last”. The workings of justice on God’s terms can bring about a great reversal.

The parable describes labourers who are hired early in the day for an agreed wage, and others who are hired much later receiving the same reward. Perhaps, like the farm which ‘has its own understanding’, we may recall that in a vineyard, vines do not mind who tends them and the grapes are happy to be harvested by those who are weary or those who a fresh on the job. Our capitalistic ideas of fairness and the competitive edge of what we are owed has no currency or meaning in the soil of a vineyard. The labour is needed to tend the vines and all are called to do what they can to care for the land and bring growth and harvest.

The idea of fair wages is therefore a human social construct. God, it seems, is not invested in the capitalist systems we construct and maintain to ensure we receive every bit of a reward that we believe is our due. The ones with the problem in this story are the laborers, not the land or the landowner. Perhaps those complaining workers imagine the landlord judging them, or looking down on their abilities. We humans are prone to projecting our fears and anxieties on to others, assuming they think and feel as we do. We even imagine gods with the same self-serving motivations as we know rage in our own heart. In the parable, the laborers in the vineyard are quick to take offence and believe they have been personally cheated and disregarded. The workers employed first are given what was agreed upon as a fair wage, and yet cry foul when others are given as much. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” asks the landowner.

Pertinent questions indeed, and ones which we should allow to challenge our own thinking as we let this parable do its work in us. How often do we allow our discontent to grow because someone has not acted as we believe they should, whether or not it is our business to make such a judgement? In God’s economy, there is no scarcity and no competition. There is only the work to be done, the vineyard to be tended. Those who can work are invited to work, receiving what they need.

How often do we forget to be thankful for what we are given because we are distracted and envious of what others have?  Or perhaps, do we feel more comfortable with only getting what we believe we have worked for, and fear an encounter with the reckless generosity of God? Writer Flannery O’Connor says that “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”[2] Jesus’ stories can lift us from a world where everything and everyone is in competition and take us to a space where we are set free from the storm of our desires to live gratefully and mindfully in every moment. This is what grace does, because we have no longer anything to prove nor justify and can accept our life and the life of the world as gift to be honoured.

There is a dimension of justice in this parable. The workers were to be given the appointed daily wage- enough to live on. Biblical commentator, Pablo Jiménez describes his interpretation as a Latino man in the light of his own experience seeing day labourers who wait in marketplaces for someone to hire them. He comments that when they are not hired, they will likely not eat that night.[3] The landowner in the parable gives to all a wage sufficient for their daily needs. There is a generosity here that is tempered by attending to needs rather than wants, and an all-encompassing call that gathers everyone to work for the kingdom with whatever strength and gifts they have. In a competitive manual labour market, those not employed early were possibly less physically able or youthful or strong. In God’s kingdom, the gifts of everyone are embraced and attention is given to the daily needs of all. Living in God’s economy means taking responsibility for care of our neighbour as well as ourselves. A report delivered this year by the Australian Council of Social Service showed one in eight Australians are living below the poverty line- unable to meet their daily needs. As laborers in God’s kingdom, how are we called to respond?

Recognising that we are only a tiny part in a much bigger and interconnected story can not only keep us humble, but might also keep us attentive to how things actually are, leading us to compassion as we look past ourselves to the needs of our neighbour and creation. We are called to attend to what is ours to do and stop projecting our fears and desires on to those around us. Others may never act as we would wish, but we can change ourselves, with the help of the Spirit, who gently helps us face ourselves and release our need to control. We then may begin to attend to the God revealed in the glorious complexity of this world. Such attention will shift the focus from our own determined self-interest to the work required if justice is to be known on earth. It will make us more alive to the needs of our neighbour, more in harmony with the patterns and rhythms of creation and more joyful in our surrender to the power of love that creates and sustains us in life. We might then move from being the problem child who is continually stamping their foot at the unfairness of the world to a joyful disciple of the risen Christ who calls us into the mature labour of gratitude, compassion and mercy.


[1] Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow (Port William) (p. 198). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

[2] From Flannery O’Connor Collected Letters as quoted in Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (p. 353). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Pablo Jiménez in Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (p. 352). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition