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.