Dear Church Family
Greetings from Carol and I. Today’s reading tip toes into the realm of labour relations.
I started work in 1968 in the era of strikes and ‘work to rule’ protests. There was no greater hotbed of unrest than the student body of the Polytechnic where I was struggling (via day release and evening classes) to obtain a vocational qualification in Chemistry.
It was demanding working four days a week in a lab in Central London and, going on from a crowded commuter train, straight to evening laboratory sessions that did not finish until 10 pm. However we were keen to get the qualifications that would help us to promotion.
Imagine our frustration when we arrived to find the college blocked by picketing militant students over some esoteric problem we had never heard of. My fellow students and I felt we had real lives in the real world and could not afford the luxury of this kind of stuff. We cried ‘It’s not fair! We just want to get on with our work.’ Looking back, I would be more compassionate to the fact that young people were taking a real interest in seeking justice for others but the world is black and white when you are 19.
This week our hearts have gone out to confused students seeking to start their further education amongst more COVID generated chaos. Many a weeping student was crying ‘foul’ and ‘not fair’. I am also not without sympathy with the government trying to find its way through a maze with no map because no one has ever done this before (I am a softer as a 68 year old than I was at 19). In todays reading the workers were confused.
(Mat 20:1) “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard.
(Mat 20:2) He agreed to pay them the regular wage, a silver coin a day, and sent them to work in his vineyard.
(Mat 20:3) He went out again to the marketplace at nine o’clock and saw some men standing there doing nothing,
(Mat 20:4) so he told them, ‘You also go and work in the vineyard, and I will pay you a fair wage.’
(Mat 20:5) So they went. Then at twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
(Mat 20:6) It was nearly five o’clock when he went to the marketplace and saw some other men still standing there. ‘Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?’ he asked them.
(Mat 20:7) ‘No one hired us,’ they answered. ‘Well, then, you go and work in the vineyard,’ he told them.
(Mat 20:8) “When evening came, the owner told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.’
(Mat 20:9) The men who had begun to work at five o’clock were paid a silver coin each.
(Mat 20:10) So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each.
(Mat 20:11) They took their money and started grumbling against the employer.
(Mat 20:12) ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’
(Mat 20:13) ‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin.
(Mat 20:14) Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you.
(Mat 20:15) Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’ “
(Mat 20:16) And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.”
I have read many commentaries on this passage and they all take their own slant. Several have suggested that, in the culture of the day, there was ample work for all at harvest time. If those employed later in the day had been bothered to be there at the start of the day, they would have been hired. If you read the text you can see a frustration in the farmer that comes out in the words used: –
‘standing there doing nothing.’
‘wasting the whole day’
‘still standing there’
Those who turned up at the start of the day were the good guys, the industrious ones. Maybe they were even a bit pompous (like me at 19). ‘We work hard. We are good boys. The world will reward us and punish the scroungers and the ones that butt into other people’s problems. They think ‘if ever a worker earned their silver coin, it was us.’ How furious they were when it came to pay day.
It was a deliberately provocative story.
· Was it fair that a thief that had misused his whole life found forgiveness on the cross?
· Was it fair that, when God did bother to turn up, he preferred the company of tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes, whilst good pious Pharisees missed out?
· Was it fair that Gentiles without the first clue how do law and religion were suddenly the favoured ones?
No it was gloriously, splendidly, stupendously unfair.
The first workers had something the five o clock labourers did not have. They had the joy of devoting the whole day to fruitful work. There was no sense in the text that those who turned up late were having fun. In fact they were doing nothing. Charles Spurgeon the 17th Century evangelist was once asked, after a meeting, how many disciples had been won for Christ that day. He replied ‘four and a half’. The questioner responded ‘four adults and a child?’ Spurgeon corrected him ‘quite the reverse four children with their whole lives to offer the Master and one adult with a mere handful of years to give.’
This passages celebrates the unfair. God is clearly biased. He is biased in our favour.