The right kind of anger?

Matthew 20:1-16  – The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Christ Church Highbury, September 24th 2017

When were you last angry?

What was it that made you angry?

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As far as I’m concerned, the last time I was angry is a pretty typical example of ridiculous anger. And actually, it was more being peeved than angry. I’d had to make two trips on consecutive days to Euston’s lost property office (both during rush-hour) in order to collect my Dad’s iPad, which he’d managed to leave in Watford the previous week. The first day, it hadn’t arrived (apparently it can take several days for an electronic item to travel from Watford to London). The second time, it turned out I needed a signed letter to collect it on my Dad’s behalf – a piece of info that I was not provided with the day before. All ended happily, but it was frustrating!

We all get angry for different reasons and in different ways. Some people will have a short fuse and lose their tempers quickly. Others may take a long time to get wound up, but once they’re angry, my goodness you’ll know about it! We all have pet peeves that drive us wild; and what sends someone into a frenzy might be like water off a duck’s back to someone else.

Today, I want to encourage us all to be angry. In the right way…

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To avoid confusion, the workers in this passage are NOT angry in the right way! Verse 11 describes those who had worked all day as ‘grumbling’ about the fact that those who had only done a couple of hours’ work had been paid the same as them.

Grumbling seems something of an understatement. I expect that they were livid! I don’t know how many of you have experience of labouring hard under a hot sun for hours. It’s tough work. Every penny of their wages would have been sweated for. With the arrival of fresh labour every few hours, their toil would be more and more evident. The contrast between those who had worked since early morning and those who had only been hired at 5pm would have been stark. If the first ones there had known every labourer that turned up that day would be paid the same, would they have worked so hard?

Were they right to be angry?

As the landowner in the parable points out, they had been promised a denarius for their day’s work and this (as a footnote to our passage tells us) was the usual daily wage for such labourers. They had not been deceived or underpaid. As the landowner responds in verse 15: “are you envious because I am generous?”

This is the issue. Not that the workers who had toiled all day had been underpaid; but that they felt that the latecomers were overpaid.

The landowner’s generosity stands out in a culture where those he is providing work to, are very much at the bottom of the pile in terms of social and economic standing. Labourers gathered overnight in the hope of being picked for casual work. They owned no land to tend themselves; they often were without a permanent home; and they were poor. The tasks they were picked for were often brief but urgent, especially during the harvest season. To get a whole day’s work would be an achievement. To be paid a day’s wages for less than a day’s work would have been virtually unheard of!

The workers are angry, but it is not a righteous anger.

It is an anger that Jesus uses to illustrate the conflict between society’s desires and those of the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom, generosity is central. Our God, like the landowner, is generous to each of his children. They have responded to his call and in turn he responds with generosity – it is not about the earthly values of earning recognition or reward.

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Take the landowner’s final words in this passage: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

It goes against everything their society – and ours, especially with our love of queueing! – stands for. The greatest reward is not for those who have worked the longest. It is for those who came last, for they received a much greater reward than they felt they deserved.

On Wednesday, the passage from Mark’s gospel that contains this verse – chapter 10 – was the reading for morning prayer. In this instance, the words are spoken by Jesus at the conclusion of his interaction with the Rich Man who asks how he might enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus instructs him to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor – and says to his disciples “how hard it is for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”. As Jesus explains to his disciples who will receive eternal life in his Father’s kingdom, he concludes: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”.

As the Wednesday morning prayer group discussed this passage, I shared with them a story from our recent parish weekend away, that involved this verse…

…in July, at our parish weekend away, we had what is now the traditional Christ Church weekend away quiz. I love quizzes and was very happy when a team partially made-up of the winners from last time invited me to join them. Their quiz talents were obvious and we managed to win by just half a point! However, our quiz master declared that too small a margin of victory; there was a tie-break with the 2nd place team; and we lost. Then, the quiz master pulled a blinder, declaring: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last!”. All of a sudden, the last placed team had won!

There were gasps as I told the story. In fact, over the summer I’ve told a few people this story and they’ve been similarly shocked. [It’s perhaps indicative of how well my competitiveness is known that my Mum’s first question was “I hope you didn’t get angry and cry!”] Of course, it was only a church quiz and the prize was chocolates and wine – it wasn’t the test for entering the Kingdom of God! But what it was, was an illustration of how difficult our society still finds this value. And, in fact, knowledge and pride in knowledge can be as much of a barrier to accepting God and His Kingdom as earthly wealth can be.

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I believe that what this parable teaches us is not only the order and love that determines those who join God’s Kingdom, but also how we might try to embody its values on earth. To show God’s Kingdom to the rest of our society – aware that it is profoundly counter-cultural.

As I mentioned earlier, the anger of the workers who arrived first was not a righteous anger – it was selfishness and greed. But I do believe that part of our calling is to be righteously angry when we see things in our society that need to change, that are not compatible with Christ’s teaching and God’s Kingdom. Where our generosity of heart, mind and material goods seeks to reflect the generosity of the Kingdom.

There may well be situations that have immediately crossed your mind. And, unfortunately, there are many aspects of our world where righteous anger has needed to be the response to society’s injustices.

A handful of examples include:

  • The setting up of foodbanks to support those who have no way of buying food. Perhaps because the system has let them down, or their circumstances have changed.
  • Providing support to refugees who cannot get support elsewhere and who are vilified by many in our society.
  • Protesting political decisions that we don’t believe are in the best interests of society.

I could go on, but I want to tell you about one particular initiative that has emerged out of righteous anger, and that is particularly relevant to this reading.

The labourers employed by the landowner were at the bottom of the heap as far as Palestinian society was concerned. When we think of our own society, who are the equivalents? Perhaps it’s those caught up in zero hours contracts, or who try to make a living in our newly evolved ‘gig economy’ – they don’t have to wait in a marketplace for a job, but wait by their phone, hoping for a call. It also includes cleaners, who are often unseen by those who own the places in which they clean and, who in London especially, often have to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

A few years ago, an initiative emerged out of a church in the City of London out the anger felt as a result of the injustices that the cleaners of London face. How could the lives of cleaners be improved? A seed of an idea emerged that involved paying a living wage and providing benefits. It took a few years to develop, but this year Clean for Good officially took on its first cleaners and first clients – and I’m delighted to say that Christ Church is one of them!

Clean for Good pays its cleaners the London Living Wage, and provides them with sick pay, holiday pay, national insurance and pension contributions. In doing all of this, they are putting some of the last in our society first. Bestowing generosity upon them, showing that they matter, and demonstrating Kingdom values in a society that does not often reflect them.

I’m sure Clean for Good has and will face opposition – there will be people who think it’s not worth the expense; or that investing in people they generally don’t think about is a waste of time, energy and money. But such attitudes match those of the labourers who worked all day

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I want to leave you with three challenges from this morning’s passage…

Firstly, to ask God to make you angry about injustice in our world, to show you specific situations where your anger can be channelled into productive actions.

Secondly, to ask God to inspire you to be generous. Generous out of anger and generous in your way of life. That could be as simple as letting someone get on the train ahead of you; or paying for a suspended coffee in a coffee shop that will go to someone who needs it; or using your God-given skills and talents to help those who may need them.

Thirdly, to show our society that there is another way that comes from another place. That in God’s Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and that our earthly society should seek to be more like the kingdom of heaven.

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