. Generous Inclusion.
Leviticus 25: 8 – 12
‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.
Matthew 20, 1-16
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. 4 He told them, you also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right. 5 So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?
7 Because no one has hired us, they answered.
He said to them, you also go and work in my vineyard.
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, all the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.
9 The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 these who were hired last worked only one hour, they said, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.
13but he answered one of them, I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?
16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
In September of 1892 Dvorak arrived in New York, he was there to take up his post as director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music. His job was to educate American music students, and to found a school of American music.
Dvorak grew up in a village in Bohemia, an obscure part of the ancient Habsburg Empire, in what has now become the Czech Republic, an area that had remained largely untouched by the great industrial and social revolutions of the era.
Dvorak’s musical talent and hard work took him to Prague, where he began to be recognised as a composer of international standing. He often sought to express a sense of national identity in his music by incorporating elements of Czech folk music, and by writing music inspired by Czech history. Listening to Dvorak’s music now, out of historical context, it is easy to miss to that writing music expressing Czech identity in Habsburg dominated Bohemia was a political act. Dvorak wanted his people to be free.
By the 1890’s such was his fame that he was offered the prestigious job of musical director in New York with the kind of salary enjoyed these days by a Premier League footballer. So Dvorak left his homeland, a place stifled by the Habsburg’s backwardness, and arrived in New York, the most modern and exciting city on the planet.
He found New York bewildering and fascinating, for instance he walked daily to Grand Central Station just to look at the trains. He also took an interest in the music of black Americans, and of the Native American Indians, finding surprising commonalities between this music and the folk music of his homeland. This proved to be the inspiration for his New World symphony in which you can hear the sounds of central European music dancing and lamenting with the music of the indigenous peoples of America, with Negro Spirituals, and with the propulsive rhythms of the locomotives.
Dvorak had been commissioned to write a symphony that would give expression to American identity. Music can speak for a nation, and inspire a sense of common identity; this is what the American Conservatory of Music wanted from Dvorak, to write in music just who this new and cosmopolitan nation actually was. Dvorak told the New York Herald, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
However, the New World symphony was not received with universal enthusiasm; Dvorak’s advocacy of African and Native American traditional songs as sources for American concert music was challenged by many who argued that American music should be informed only by the European heritage of so many of its citizens. For example, the composer Amy Beach, who had British forebears, wrote a ‘Gaelic Symphony’ in response to the New World Symphony. To be clear, Dvorak’s New World symphony did include European musical influences as well those as from Black and Native American song, but it was the Black and Native American influences that caught people’s attention. Dvorak had naively wandered in to American racial politics.
The question was, ‘who is an American?’ Not everyone could accept Dvorak’s answer. The racism latent in this controversy is made apparent by the comments of a Boston music critic who accused Dvorak of being a “negrophile,” adding that American music could not grow out of such “primitive roots.” In fact the National Conservatory had been set up to include otherwise excluded black Americans, allowing them to study free of charge.
As it turned out Dvorak was right and the Boston music critic wrong, the music of Black America became the sound track of the United States through jazz, blues, rhyme and blues, gospel, Motown, Hip Hop, Rap…the list goes on.
Why am I telling you this?
In our gospel reading we heard the parable of the ‘Workers in the Vineyard.’ Through the course of a day a landowner hires men to work in his vineyard, at the end of the day he pays all the workers the same, despite the fact that some have only worked for part of the day. The last to be hired actually worked for a very short time yet got a full day’s pay. When those who worked longest complained that they should be paid more the landowner states that they were paid the agreed amount, and that he can be generous with his money if he so chooses.
The landowner’s decision is not just generous, it makes commercial sense, his generosity ensures that there will be a workforce fit and ready for the next day as a denarius was about a day’s pay, and that’s about what it cost to feed an agricultural labourer and his family for a day. Starving people don’t make for a good workforce.
The lot of those who only worked for a part of the day is not actually better than those who worked all day, as those who had sought work but not at first found it had the worry of their families having nothing, whereas those who worked all day knew they were secure at least for that day.
In our first reading we heard the introduction to Old Testament laws concerning the Year of Jubilee. This contains some more surprising biblical economics. The promised land was parcelled out equally among tribes and families so everyone could make a living, and every fifty years, in the Year of Jubilee, ownership of the land returned to the original owners to ensure no one became a slave, and no one became too wealthy and powerful. However, this system, that favoured equal opportunity, was ignored as time went on, and so the powerful gained ownership and exploited the weak. The parable of the Vineyard draws on Old Testament imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard, the workers in the vineyard had a God given right to a living, a right which the rich and powerful over time had obliterated. The parable is political as well as spiritual.
However, this story isn’t just about the injustices of first century Israel, it’s about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is anywhere in heaven or earth where God’s will is done, anywhere including workers in a vineyard in first century Israel, and including the people of America in the late nineteenth century trying to work out their national identity by hiring a Czech musician.
In the Kingdom of Heaven people are not valued according to economic worth, or racial prejudice, but according to the generous love of God. Our very salvation depends, as the Book of Common prayer says, on God “not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.” We are not rewarded according to our poor labours, but according to the generosity of God. As our salvation depends not on our merit, but on God’s generosity, we cannot point the finger at others and say they are not deserving.
Jesus concludes the parable by saying, … the last will be first, and the first will be last. The Kingdom of Heaven turns upside down man made structures of power and status. Think of Moses before Pharaoh, or David before Goliath, think of the Old Testament prophets speaking truth to corrupt despots, think of the early Church persecuted by Rome becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, think of the move from serfdom to citizenship brought about by modernity in Europe, think of the abolition of slavery, think of the campaign for Civil Rights in America, as Mary sang, God scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He puts down the mighty from their seat: and exalts the humble and meek.
I think Dvorak’s New World Symphony is prophetic, not so much in the ‘predicting the future’ sense of the word that we are all so fascinated with, but in the true sense of the word ‘prophetic’, that is speaking the values of the Kingdom of Heaven into this world. Those who wanted to deny Black and Native Americans a full share in their nation are like those workers in the parable who wanted to deny others a full share in the day’s pay.
Perhaps Dvorak’s own heritage as a man from a country that longed for political freedom made him alive to the struggles of Black and Native Americans, perhaps it was his deep Christian faith that enabled him to see the humanity of others, but whatever the reason, I think that the New World Symphony is what the Kingdom of Heaven sounds like.
In the Kingdom of Heaven everyone is equally valued in the sight of God, the Kingdom of Heaven overturns the prejudices and cruelties of this corrupt world, that’s why in the Kingdom of Heaven, the last will be first, and the first will be last. Let us pray, and work for that day.