24th September, 2017


Over the last few weeks I’ve been moonlighting as a guest lecturer at Trinity Methodist College. For better or worse I’ve been teaching a course on preaching. While I accept that I still have a great deal to learn, it’s been really fun thinking about all I have learnt over my last 15 years of preaching. The bigger challenge has then been to pass on some good ideas to people who in some cases are yet to give their first sermon.

In mentioning this, I’ve already broken one of the first things I was taught when I was doing a similar course at St John’s college many years ago. My lecturers were adamant that as a preacher you should never talk about yourself. Their point was a good one. If a preacher tends to self-reference they can easily disappear down the rabbit hole of self-examination, which can be very self-serving. The purpose of preaching is not to have an audience to listen in on our inner thoughts.

And yet there is a tension, because sometimes the best way to invite a congregation into self-reflection is to first share a personal story. While the sharing of testimonials is not a sermon in the formal sense, many Christian communities embrace the sharing of personal stories because it can help us to gain a fresh perspective on our own story.

This is the same reason that some of us like reading biographies or auto-biographies. I can remember Margo Cole once telling me that she read a lot of biographies and had a definitive preference for them over auto-biographies. Her argument was that self-reflection only gets a writer so far, after all we all have our blind spots. I agree with her. On two occasions I’ve read auto-biographies only to wish that I hadn’t, because the lack of self-awareness of the writers meant that the interest I had in these public figures was greatly eroded by the end of their books.

That said, personal stories do have a place in preaching, but we need to know why we are choosing to share them and they need to be used sparingly. I am going to tell a personal story this morning, but I do so, not because I’m working through some past issue, or because I want to attend to my inner narcissist, but rather because it’s the best story I have to offer when thinking about the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard.

Back before I first came to Auckland to study at St John’s, I was a student at Victoria University. I attended a local parish, which was my home for six years all told. I first attended that parish because they employed me as their Youth Minister. I did that job for two years, and remained as a parishioner after my time in that role concluded.

The role of the preacher was greatly revered by this community. There were many things they celebrated as a community, but there was a particular focus on a high standard of preaching. In fact, there were quite clear rules about who could and couldn’t preach, largely based around experience and level of education. Both of the vicars I experienced in my time there were excellent preachers, but the parish was also blessed with a number of talented lay preachers and assistant clergy. It was wonderful to be exposed to so much talent at a very formative time in my life.

One Sunday I arrived in church to hear that we had a guest preacher. When the time for the sermon arrived my vicar introduced a young man, stating that he had met him in a café a week earlier and had discovered that he was a student of the religions of the world. Following their very interesting discussion he decided to invite this student to preach on that day.

What happened next was even more surprising. I recognised the young man who got up to speak and I knew exactly where I knew him from. You see, at the time I was doing post-graduate study in Religious Studies. As a post-graduate student I was involved in teaching undergraduate students. The young man about to preach, pulled out a notebook, the notebook that he recorded things in at the first year tutorial I taught every week. I can still feel the steam coming out of my ears. One of my own students, who was not a member of my church or any other church, was about to give a sermon using material I had given to him.

Suddenly I found myself feeling like one of the first labourers in the vineyard. I had been in that community for many years. I had never been asked to give a sermon, and here was someone who knew far less about a subject than I did, about to preach to me. It did not feel very fair.

Can you think of a moment like that? A moment when you’ve felt passed over, or more deserving of an opportunity than someone else? Maybe it was a moment when you simply felt taken for granted? Are we able to take those moments and rationalise them away through understanding that while we might feel we have missed out, generosity has been shown to someone else?

It is very easy to skip past the difficulties of the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard and focus on the generosity of the landowner. After all, we typically assume that the landowner is a metaphor for God. We are so keen to affirm the generosity of God that we overlook the fact that the landowner behaves like a real jerk.

How so, you may ask? Firstly the landowner is clearly trying to pinch pennies. The evidence for this is that the landowner goes out to hire people many times. What this suggests is that like a true capitalist the landowner is trying to keep costs down by hiring the fewest labourers to get the job done. But the real proof of the landowner’s bad attitude is when he hires the few remaining labourers. It is to this group he asks, “Have you been standing idle all day?” The answer to that question is no. The labourers have not been idle, rather they have been seeking employment all day. So maybe their response comes through gritted teeth, “Even though it’s harvest time and there is lots of work to be done, no one has given us a break.” The fault for the lack of employment is not the labourers, even though that is where the blame is put.

To jump over these nuances of the story is to ignore the many questions it raises in favour of finding a simple point. You have heard the simple explanations before. God is generous. That’s a simple interpretation. All people are treated equally in God’s realm. Again, we can all get our heads around that idea. Maybe the point is that this system of payment is a just one because all the workers are paid enough to buy bread for that one day. And finally, this parable is actually Jesus putting the disciples in their place because in the preceding verses they dared to ask what their reward for following him would be.

I suspect that Jesus was not trying to give any simple answers at all, but rather created a story with a number of fish hooks so that people would continue to talk about the meaning long after the story was told. As I’ve already suggested there are a number of conclusions that can be reached through reading this story.

One that I have not mentioned yet, is that this story could be saying something about how we compare ourselves to others. The first labourers to be hired have no problem accepting the money offered to them at the start of the day. They accept the terms offered and get on with the job. It is only when they realise that others, who have done less work, are being payed the same amount of money that they begin to complain.

I have mentioned before Max Ehrmann’s famous poem Desiderata. The poem is really a collection of ideas that seek to guide the reader towards the path of happiness. There is one line that I keep coming back to that says, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Here Ehrmann eloquently points out the inevitable outcome of measuring ourselves against others, vanity or bitterness, both being states that undermine our ability to be happy.

I was alarmed to discover that there is growing evidence that there has been a dramatic increase in depression and suicide among our university students. Of growing concern is the number of young people who in previous generations would not have been considered as being at risk. I’m talking about young people from stable family homes, with little financial pressure, who are often considered to be top students in their area of study.

What the evidence suggests is that these young people are being negatively impacted by social comparison. What this means is that in competitive environments where young people are encouraged to be “The Best”, they are more likely to compare themselves in an unfavourable way to their peers. Being “The Best” at something is an unattainable goal, which means that people who might be very very good at something actually believe they are failing. Competitive environments can become extremely toxic as they change our friends and potential allies into rivals.

Maybe this is what the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is telling us today. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the way we look at each other, especially when it comes to seeing members of our community as rivals to be competed with. Maybe we need to take that a step further and be kinder to ourselves by appreciating what we do have, rather than worrying about those who are doing better than us. More than that, perhaps Jesus is suggesting that we need to work together as an entire community, to affirm the rights and dignity of all people.

– Reverend Richard Bonifant