A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 20 September 2020, gospel reading Matthew 20.1-16, 'The Labourers in the Vineyard', a parable of the kingdom of heaven.
Oscar Wilde famously said that the cynic is the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
In that outlook everything can be weighed, measured, assessed, priced. There is no room for value, appreciation, delight, joy.
Lockdown showed us that things we value are infinitely more precious than things we can put a price on: being in church, seeing friends, visiting relatives, getting outside. How do you put a price on those things?
Prices change, but value doesn’t.
When many people today talk about ‘worth’ or value they are thinking about the ‘bottom line’, about a person or a company’s bank balance, and not their worth to the Common Good.
According to Forbes ‘Real Time Net Worth’, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has a net-worth of $115 billion. He himself would say that his real worth, his real value, is what his Foundation is doing to eradicate malaria globally.
But in a priced obsessed world the tech entrepreneurs, the celebrities, the hedge fund managers, the oligarchs must be the most significant because they top the rich lists. They are first, and the poor are last. That is how it is.
Except that Jesus Christ declares that is not just how it is: the priorities of the kingdom of heaven fly in the face of that, he says, ‘so the last will be first and the first will be last’ (Matthew 20.16).
Jesus proclaims a kingdom that is value obsessed. Each person created in the image and likeness of God is of infinite value.
We see this in the parable. The landowner, who is said to be like the kingdom of heaven, rewards the labourers not on price grounds or daily wage but on the value of the presence they have simply by working in the vineyard.
The first worker is as valuable as the last and they are not measured by price. Their value does not lie in a transaction for their labour or even what they have contributed.
And this gets the grumbles going and that is about a perceived injustice based on price, not on value: the grumblers are talking in totally different terms from the landowner, who asks them ‘are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20.15b)
Many people today feel themselves to be of low worth, not quite making it, not valued.
Low personal self-esteem is a blight of our times. But we cannot just generate esteem for ourselves; it is a vicious cycle and people feel increasingly worthless the more they are told they should value themselves.
But we gain self-esteem when we are held in esteem by others and when they show it. We receive esteem when we are valued and held to be precious, not when a price or measure is put upon us.
In God’s eyes human value and worth cannot be priced and go up and down. For love of us God prices nothing yet spends everything. As St Paul says to those entrusted with the care of the Church: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained [or ‘purchased’ Greek periepoiēsato] with the blood of his own Son.’
So the parable tells us we are of infinite value to God, who is the source of our life and our esteem. God’s love for you is unlimited, as seen in Christ’s death on the cross. Other people’s opinions, perceived judgements or what we think they think of us, wither away in relation to how we stand before God.
The grumblers are those who measure people by price and time, who say they don’t merit what they have received; the landowner, the kingdom of God, is generous in valuing each one irrespective of when they ‘turn up’.
The Church – established on the Apostles - is Christ’s chosen foretaste of the coming kingdom of heaven and is the crucible in which men, women and children endeavour, by God’s grace, to forge out the life of that kingdom. So it is all the more important for the Church to be a place of value not of price.
That means we seek to shape a culture of abundance and not a culture of scarcity: so that we rejoice in what we have and do not bemoan what we do not have.
This task begins in the human heart and spills out into our corporate life too.
A culture of scarcity is a culture that penny pinches and puts prices on things and people; a culture of abundance values, cherishes, treasures people upon whom no price can be placed.
‘Are you envious because I am generous?’, asks the landowner, the kingdom of Heaven. In fostering a culture of abundance, like the kingdom of heaven, let us make it our business to esteem and value others as God does, to invite them into labouring in the vineyard of God and may we be generous in valuing them such that our hospitality is boundless.