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It’s Not Fair! Philippians 1.21–30 Matthew 20.1–16

Supermarket and airport check-in queues are the worst! The first to arrive can easily end up the last to be served, as you have to guess which is the fastest-moving queue and join it, only to see your neighbour gliding past whilst your are stuck behind someone who has to pay for extra baggage or has the wrong identity papers. The temptation to join the faster queue is very strong, but is always a risk – perhaps the same thing will happen to you again! And if someone dares to queue jump – well that is just the ultimate frustration, especially if you are British!

Labourers in the Vineyard
Jesus told a parable that challenged our sense of fairness. A landowner needed labour in his vineyard. Perhaps it was the harvest as he plainly needed as much labour as he could get. In those days, as perhaps in agrarian cultures today, the place to get or find work was the market-place or main square. The landowner kept returning to see if more labourers had arrived later in the day, and finding them at regular intervals employed them, agreeing a fair wage. Even when there was only an hour to go before sundown, he found some to help finish the day’s work. These last got their pay first and perhaps they were pleasantly surprised to be given a whole day’s wage. Imagine the anticipation in the minds of those who were further back in the queue and had worked much more of the day. If the boss is being so generous, then we’re bound to get even more than what was agreed! Imagine their feelings when they all get exactly the same. You’ve guessed it – they grumble. If there were a tribunal, they would be going straight there! Of course, they wouldn’t complain about how little they got in comparison to the late comers, that wouldn’t look good. Oh, no! They would say that this landowner would create unrest throughout the whole market-place with his unpredictable wage-policy. It would create ill-feeling and unrest amongst the work-force. He should be brought into line and comply with normal practice lest the whole labour-relations structure come tumbling down!
Challenge to Assumptions
Of course Jesus’ parable causes upset and reaction! His parables are meant to provoke and challenge, but they do so with good reason. Why was Jesus telling this parable in the first place? It was in response to the ongoing dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, principally through Peter. Peter had exclaimed that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. What would their reward be? That in itself was a response to the rich young man who had turned away unable to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus. The disciples were astounded at such a thing, having assumed that it would be good to have a rich person join the cause. Surely rich people were a sign of God’s approval? Jesus teaches his followers that their assumed values are the opposite to those of the Kingdom of Heaven. Those considered first by worldly standards will be last and vice versa. It is harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle!

Early Church Concerns
We can look at some of the ways in which the challenge of this parable can be applied to our society, but the next thing to ask is why Matthew included this parable in his gospel? It helps to recall the background to the writing of this gospel. Matthew was concerned about the unity of the Church. His community of believers drew strongly from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. The young Church was fragile and although all rejoiced to worship and follow Christ, they came from very different cultural backgrounds. Matthew tells his story of Jesus in such a way as to try and draw those of both sides together. He emphasises the importance of Jewish scriptures and how Jesus had not come to rubbish all they held dear. On the other hand he emphasises that Gentiles can come to Christ with a genuine and real faith. In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard we see how those who came late in the day are given the same gracious treatment as those who had been there all along. Perhaps Matthew wanted to challenge a grudging attitude amongst Jewish believers that they felt hard done-by when Gentile believers came swanning in shortly before the second coming, without having had to shoulder the burden of the Laws of Moses. There was perhaps, an underlying assumption that Gentiles didn’t deserve such free grace from God. Matthew reminds them all of a parable Jesus told that seemed to address these attitudes.

How do we interpret this parable for today?
If that is one way in which the parable could have been interpreted then, what about nowadays? As with the two interpretations we’ve already considered, we start with those things which concern us. What are the issues with which our society is concerned now? Let me suggest two: the banking and sovereign debt crisis in the EU and the movement for a living wage.
Very much in the news at the moment is the economic situation of the world, mainly driven by the debt crisis in the Euro-zone. Greece needs to borrow billions in order to stay solvent. German citizens, meanwhile, can understandably resent that fact that it is their money which is being swallowed up to pay for the debt. It is probably more complex than that, but that is how I understand it as a non-economist! I was interested to hear further discussion of this, though, because there is more interdependency between the nations of the EU than this scenario presents. Germany exports more to the rest of the EU than to other parts of the world. Having the same currency makes a big difference. If the EU were split into better off and worse off halves, the market for German goods might not be as profitable. Again, I stress that I am not an economist and I’m sure others will be much better informed. But a theologian has pointed out something we may miss in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. When the all-day labourers complained about the generosity of the landowner towards the one-hour workers, perhaps they forgot how relieved they might have been to get fresh muscle in when they were feeling weary at the end of the day. Perhaps they forgot how the afternoon workers brought fresh drink and snacks with them which they shared. Most of all, they forgot they had agreed a fair day’s wage with the landowner when they agreed to go and work in the morning. A banking crisis occurs when trust is lost. Those with capital, as I understand it, are unwilling to risk lending it, and then the whole system of lending and borrowing collapses. Kingdom values are about interdependence. Perhaps a good economy is one which values and promotes a true sense of interdependence between all those who participate in it: lenders and borrowers; workers and employers; the more able, experienced and hard working, and those not so fortunate.
Living Wage
The second concern is one that may not be in the headlines, but is a real one: the movement for a living wage. A living wage is not the same as the minimum wage. The concept of a living wage is that which is enough to sustain someone’s family or household. Citizens:MK has adopted this as one of its current projects. Tesco’s has been a focus for the campaign to persuade them to pay their workers a wage that is nearer to sustenance level than the legal minimum. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard emphasises that the landowner agreed a fair wage. The all-day workers accepted this in the morning, but resented the evening employees getting the same. But they, too, needed a wage that was fair, a wage that was not just in return for work, but which would sustain their households. The grumbling employees forgot that they were all dependent on a fair employer, regardless of the number of hours they might have worked. We are so much influenced by “the language of justice and rights” (as the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs puts it) that we forget the values of covenant and forgiveness which lie at the heart of our faith.

Are these interpretations of the parable too political? Maybe, but if we remember that God cares about the whole of human life, including the way in which we treat each other in society, we might see how Jesus’ parables apply. Spiritually the message is clear: we all depend on the generosity of God. Whether we have worked hard at keeping our religion for years or have just come to faith, God is gracious and saves all of us with equal mercy & love!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Risen Christ,
you have raised our human nature to the throne of heaven:
help us to seek and serve you,
that we may join you at the Father's side,
where you reign with the Spirit in glory,
now and for ever.