It’s not fair!

Mummy, Daddy, it’s not fair! Any parent knows that anguished cry. From an early age we have a keen sense of justice, injustice is sorely felt. Just have a look at newspaper headlines and see how many of them are to do with justice: whether it’s punishment of criminals, how many A-levels you need to get into Uni, or even the football score: ‘We was robbed’. We have a great need to see fair play.

We care because we are made in the image of a God who passionately seeks justice. But God’s approach is so much bigger and more challenging. Jesus told a parable about it. His disciples had wanted to know what rewards they would have for their faith, and in answering the question he tells a story – the gospel reading we just heard.

This landowner is a wealthy man who needs a job done. So he gets up early in the morning, and makes his way down to the first century equivalent of the job centre. There, casual labourers are waiting to be hired for a day’s work. In v.2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. That’s the standard rate – enough for a man and his family to buy food and get by for a day.

But in v.3 and 4 ‘He went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle – presumably there was no one else hiring that day – and he said to them ‘you also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right’. It must have been a busy day – perhaps it was the grape harvest, because every couple of hours the landowner is back in the market place again, hiring more and more men. Each set are offered a fair wage. They would assume they would be paid by the hour – say half a denarius for half a day’s work. Not as much as they need, but better than nothing. The alternative would be no work, no pay and no food.

Much later on, as the shadows are lengthening, the landowner passes through the market place one more time. In V. 6 and 7 ‘he found others standing around. ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ ‘because no-one has hired us’ ‘You also go into the vineyard. And off they go, redeeming an hour’s pay from an almost wasted day.

Here comes the crunch, in v.8 and 9. ‘When evening came the owner of the vineyard said to his manager: ‘call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last. When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage!

A whole denarius! A day’s wages! Imagine their surprise and joy. The family will eat tonight after all. No doubt the first ones were rubbing their hands in anticipation. New clothes, a trip to the pub.

But in V.10.’Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received the usual daily wage’

It’s not fair! We’ve slaved for you twelve hours, through the midday sun, we’re exhausted. And you’ve only given us the same as this lot who lent a hand in clearing up! We deserve more! It’s not fair!

What would the trade unions have made of it? Would any employer stay afloat if they operated this way? What is Jesus doing?

The landlord explains in v.13. ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?’ They made an agreement. They would have been perfectly happy with it if they had been the only ones employed. But the real point of the parable is not that you should read the small print. It’s why the landowner did this.

In v.14b ‘I choose to give this last the same as I give to you. Are you envious because I am generous?’ If the landowner wants to give a day’s wage to a man who’s only worked for an hour – well it’s his money and his generosity. He does it because he cares for his people.

For most of history agricultural labourers lived a hand to mouth existence. With no dole, a day waiting to be hired in the market place meant there would be no supper that evening. If a man could be hired for the hour before dusk, that was better than nothing, but the family would still go to bed hungry.

The landowner knows this. Being compassionate, he does not pay the workers an hourly rate – he gives them a flat sum – so that everyone will have enough to live on. He remembers the needs of their families, he is kind and just.

He gives them a living wage. It isn’t so much a reward for work done, as an attempt to meet their needs. He sees beyond the work they do. He cares for them as individuals.

It’s so important that employers see their workers as people, and not as a means to an end. For those who work in management or in human resources, the principle of this parable is really important. Others of us may have cleaner, or run a group with volunteers. It’s quite similar

Treat your staff with humanity and justice, take an interest in them. You and they are children of the same heavenly Father. That makes economic sense too. Way back in the 19th Century Cadbury and others found that a happy workforce is a productive workforce.

What about the rest of us? We’re not all employers, but we are all consumers. Consumers have power. We can choose to buy products which are made fairly. We can do our bit for better working conditions. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Fairtrade. Like tea or coffee. The people who grow it get a fair wage and some of the profits get fed back into the community. That means it costs more, but it’s really good quality. If you don’t buy Fairtrade, give it a try.

You might also want to consider where you do your shopping. Do the farmers who supply the shops get a fair deal? We know there are some supermarket contracts that farmers really want, and other supermarkets that grind them into the ground. Isn’t it worth paying more for justice?

I said at the beginning that we seek justice, because we are like God who is passionate about justice. This parable is not just about economics and employment, it’s also about the justice of God. In verse 1 Jesus says ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like this.’ In other words, the boss man represents God, the workers are you and me, Christian disciples, and the vineyard is the work that God has for us to do. What then does the story tell us about God and how he deals with us?

The first thing is that God is fair. Jesus’ disciples wanted to know what rewards they’d get. After all, they had been with Jesus form the beginning, trusted friends who had worked hard alongside him.

They are like the hired men who came first and worked throughout the day. But in the parable God treats them no differently to people who came much later on and did much less work. Why?

The reason is that we all have the same need for love, forgiveness and eternal life. That comes as a gift. We do not earn God’s love or a place in heaven. It is given as a gift to all who repent and trust in Christ. All have done wrong, all equally deserve God’s judgment. If God were to apply just desserts and fair play to human sin, then hell would be our reward. Instead, Jesus gives up his life, offers the sacrifice, that we might go free. Whenever we celebrate Holy Communion, we commemorate the wonderful strangeness of God’s justice which allows Christ to take our sin upon himself.

So, because it all depends on what God has done, not us, there are no gradations in God’s Kingdom. All are treated the same – all are there because of God’s grace and forgiveness, not what they have done. It’s not as if there’s big mansions with rolling acres in heaven for those who have done well, while you and I have to be content with a little flat. No, we will all be there because of God’s grace alone.

What does this mean for the here and now? It means we should not be proud, or put on airs and graces. We should not think highly of ourselves or look down on others because of our position, or the strength of our faith, or the fact that we hold all the right beliefs and know the truth. No, we are all thankful recipients of God’s love. So we should not permit there to be hierarchies of Christians, some who are considered better than others.

Remember the thief on the cross. The man who had lived a life of crime who turned to Jesus and said ‘Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’ The Lord replied ‘I tell you the truth, this day you will be with me in Paradise.’ The person who turns to Christ, even on their deathbed, is cleansed and born again and shares in eternal life as surely as St. Peter. For salvation depends, not on us, but on Jesus. God’s justice is compassionate, loving, and so much greater than we could ever imagine. What a wonderful freedom it is to be loved for ourselves and not what we do! Amen.

Punch ups in church

How do you feel when you hear the word conflict? What images come to mind? Perhaps you think of war zones – they’re often called conflict. Or maybe people getting angry, anxiety, unpredictability. Conflict is usually experienced as a negative thing, most people try and avoid it.

Our gospel reading today is all about conflict and reconciliation. It has some detailed prescriptions – at first sight it seems like a straightforward rule book. Yet underlying that guidance are some important principles, assumptions that reveal a lot about what Christians believe and how our beliefs affect how we live together.

I’ll be looking at the passage closely, so please do turn with me to page 18 of the New Testament: Matthew 18v15-20…

‘If another member of the church sins against you…’ That’s very revealing. Jesus assumes that his followers will sin against each other, he expects that when they organise their life together into a church they will experience conflict, he knows offence will be given and taken. He’s not saying that’s a good thing, of course not! He just has a realistic expectation of how community life will be. Why is that?

There are two reasons for conflict. Firstly, God created variety. We are all different and so inevitably we understand issues differently, perceive different ways of reaching our goals. At times that variety leads to conflict. And conflict is not in itself bad. For when conflict is worked out maturely, talking through different views can lead to a deeper understanding of a situation and a better resolution in the end.

But as well as being created in a wondrous variety, we have also gone our own way. As Jesus described immediately before this reading, in the parable of the Lost Sheep, we are sinners. Sin can end up worsening our differences, so that conflict turns sour, becoming argument and division.

Jesus knew this would happen. He was entirely realistic. He knew that none of his followers would be perfect, that we’d all be on a journey for the rest of our lives. And because the church is made of ordinary people being changed by the grace of God, then the church will never be perfect this side of heaven either.

So don’t be upset when you find that churches have arguments just like anywhere else. Many times I’ve heard people say ‘We’re Christians so we ought to get on’, ‘Conflict has no place in the church’, or even ‘I used to go to church but I was disillusioned by the arguments’. I know it’s tempting to hope that a Christian community will be a refuge from all the conflict in the world around us – but that’s not the case. We still get things wrong, we disagree, we sin against each other. The wonderful thing about being the church though is that we can resolve our issues with the power of the Holy Spirit according to the pattern of Christ. 

That’s the second assumption, that resolution is a good thing – in v.15 ‘if the member listens to you, you have regained him.’ But why would we want to? Might it not be easier just to be ‘right’? Isn’t it simpler not to speak to each other rather than go to the trouble of trying to sort things out? People do that. They isolate each other.

Christians must seek resolution because God gives us that example. The Christian message is all about reconciliation! Listen to 2 Corinthians 5:19: ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.’ God has not counted our trespasses against us, but has forgiven us. God has been reconciled to us and has committed to us the message of reconciliation. So as we have been reconciled with God, so we need to be reconciled with another. Reconciliation isn’t a kind of prelude to the gospel – it’s not exaggerating to say it is the gospel – and the reconciliation we have experienced with God overflows to those around us.

Therefore wouldn’t it be a wonderful vision for the church to be an arena where difference and conflict could be expressed and worked through in a healthy way which models God’s love.

Look at v15: ‘if a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’. Jesus encourages us to lean in, to engage with the other person. When there is disagreement, when we might naturally wish to divide, he urges us to move towards each other.

Either person could take the initiative. If you know you’ve done wrong, obviously you should apologise as soon as possible – elsewhere Jesus says leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled, and then offer the gift. But if someone’s upset you, you could be waiting a long a time for them to make the first move. Can you even be sure that they know they’ve upset you? Perhaps they just have a direct manner, or the skin of rhinoceros – maybe they’re wondering ‘why is she not talking to me?’ So rather than talking about them behind their back or complaining to someone else, we need to go and speak to them.

I once had a guy who used to send emails. And they were real stinkers. Aggressive. Disparaging. People used to dread them ‘Oh, I’ve had an email from, let’s call him Sid.’ One day I plucked up courage and had a chat with him. It was hard to do because I had to be vulnerable and admit where I’d been upset: ‘When you said such and such, I felt hurt and discouraged’. It turned out he had no idea his language was so strong. I won’t say it was miraculously cured, but it did get better.

Confronting someone and owning how we feel is hard. It takes real courage and prayer. A small caveat too – if you’re in the minority of those who find it easy to point out what’s wrong and don’t mind confrontation, then you might just like to pause and think about how others might experience it.

If we can do what Jesus says in v.15 openly, humbly and without aggression it’s amazing what the response can be. By hearing and understanding, listening for emotions, we can clarify issues and perhaps discover where there have been different assumptions at work.

For instance, when I first came to this Group some churches said they would like to see more of the Vicar. So I took lots of services. Three or four on a Sunday, all over the place. Soon people said ‘We don’t see much of the Vicar – he’s always dashing off after the service to go somewhere else’. Through discussion, I realised what was going on: I assumed that seeing the Vicar meant up front, leading worship. But there was also a need for accessibility, relationship – I realised that was quite right and we needed to provide for that too.

Getting to the point of understanding each other can take time. So there may be more than one meeting. In v.16 Jesus says that outside help may be necessary, not in the sense of ganging up on someone, but as witnesses, or mediators who can reframe issues and find a way through.

In v.17 ‘if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church’. In New Testament times this meant a church meeting. Nowadays, for the most difficult situations, organisations need to have formal procedures which give protection and try to ensure justice is done.

And then ‘if the offender refuses to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector’. Before they met Jesus, his disciples would have viewed Gentiles and tax collectors as outcasts. Jesus modelled a welcome to such people – he encouraged them to turn back to God. In other words, though someone who has committed a serious offence and has refused reconciliation might be excluded from the church, nonetheless if they repent, they are welcome back.

This will mean forgiveness. We’ll look at that in the reading for next week. All I need to say now is that we forgive one another because we have been so greatly forgiven by God.

Jesus ends with a few related sayings. Verse 18 tells us that the church acts with God’s authority. ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’. And, in v.19, when we resolve our issues, and agree a way forward before God, he honours that process and commitment.

This implies that the way we act in reconciliation shows our response to the love of God, his justice and forgiveness. Our processes of reconciliation model God’s justice, forgiveness and love to other people. The response they and we make has eternal consequences, which means we should take reconciliation very seriously.

Finally, v.20 Jesus says ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. I’ve sometimes remembered this when I’ve come out of a vestry in a country church and viewed the gathered multitudes. Prayer group leaders often use this verse at the beginning of meetings. But look at it in its context.

It’s about reconciliation. Placed at the end of this passage, it seems to mean ‘When two or three are gathered together to work through their differences in my name, then I am there with them.’ Have we not had that experience? That talking through points of conflict can lead to greater understanding and wisdom as God’s Spirit helps us? That if we had not come together and taken courage to speak honestly, we might never have found God’s will? That in sharing our perspectives and feelings we discover mutual respect and understanding as children of God? And most of all, that when reconciliation happens and wounds are healed, the love and power of God flows. God’s blessing comes in reconciliation, let us follow Christ’s way in becoming peacemakers in our shared life together.