A penny a day

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20 - Year A
Matthew 20:1-16

Try this one on for size: A landowner hires workers at nine in the morning. They are told to expect payment of one silver penny – a denarius – for their day’s work. Additional workers are hired at three in the afternoon. Still others are hired towards the end of the day to reap the last corner of the field before the sun goes down. With the field finally harvested, they all line up in front of the paymaster – some of them dog-tired and dusty with blistered fingers, and some of them barely having broken out in a sweat. Each receives the same silver penny in his pay envelope. “It’s not fair”, say some of them. The response from the boss is the following: It’s my money – may I not spend it in the manner I want? The agreement was as follows: work/penny. I have adequately fulfilled my promise. Quit your griping.

Don’t try to develop pay scales for a company based on this parable, please. At the same time, give a thought to the good things which can be said about adequacy. Adequacy is under-rated. I’d have liked to have said at the end of my life that I had achieved something excellent and to have been rewarded somehow for that. Now – two thirds of the way through the slog – I’m beginning to say that I quite desperately hope to have been an adequate husband, father, Christian, priest, pastor, preacher, writer. Unless we are Chaucer or King Tut, we’re going to be forgotten a hundred years after our demise, aren’t we? And so, other matters – matters pertaining to basic adequacy – become more important. Will I die in some state of grace? Will I have loved and been loved?  Will I still be in conversation with my children? Am I reconciled with my heavenly Father and in communion with the fellowship of his saints? 

If the priest, who visits me at my bedside, asks me the question “Have you had enough?” – he or she may not be asking me whether I’m fed up with the chemo or ready to make my departure. The priest may be asking me whether I’ve "had enough" - whether I have received the adequate things of this world – the promised silver penny - things which people less educated than me, born in more straitened conditions than I have ever had to endure, with shorter lives and fewer resources than me, have nonetheless managed to acquire: a sense of peace, a thankful heart, a place in human community and an assurance of God’s love and favour.

As you might have guessed, the background of this parable is very specific. Jesus asks whether the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Law, are any better off than those lapsed Jews who, late in life, have come back into God’s graces through the ministry of Jesus. It may well even look forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant promises of God at a point which is late in time. The answer which Jesus gives to this question, however, is what I have explained without making recourse to the particular background of the parable.  It's this:

There is one task. There is one reward.

If you are bothered by the hints of mortality here, and the possibility that you won’t amount to all you imagine, or that the time is somehow short - then I am sorry. Strive to excel in whatever your calling is—fill your boots! 

Remember, though, that "all flesh is grass". 

We will not neglect the tasks of faith and love—faith, which unites men and women to God through Christ and love, which lifts others up into his light. These tasks are your required and achievable labour and the simple coin received at the end of the day, your only and greatest reward.

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