Matthew 20:1-16 and Isaiah 40:3-8
Reflection by Anne Stewart
Rumour has it that Martin has been preaching up a storm over the past couple of weeks, leaving me with a bit of work to do this morning if I am to try to live up to what he has been offering. I just want to say that even if I don’t come up to his high standards today, and even though he has been working here longer than me, I do still expect to be paid the same! Yes, I have read the parable of the workers in the vineyard so I know how the pay scale is meant to work in the kingdom of God. Rest assured strike action isn’t imminent.
Today’s parable, as is the way of Jesus, is another attempt to draw a picture of what the kingdom of God is like. It might help today, to start with something of what occurred before this parable is told, and from this we might get some idea of what might have led to Jesus feeling the need to tell this story. In the story that immediately precedes this, there was a rich young man who wanted to know what he had to do in order to inherit eternal life. The understanding there was that we have to do something before we can receive – we have to earn our rewards. In simplistic terms it is often portrayed as the need to be good, in order to get into heaven. This can be a very useful means of getting your children to behave but also highly manipulative and completely at odds with how we know God to be through what we know of Jesus. Maybe this earlier story helps to shape today’s parable where the workers are also concerned that what they do is rewarded accordingly. Jesus does what he does so well, he tells a story about people being rewarded not for what they have done, but simply for turning up. This is a tough one for us to swallow isn’t it. His does not sit easily with our ideas of fairness. We have a situation where one worker turns up at the start of the day, another about mid-day and another towards the end of the day and then they find they are all paid for a full day’s work. Given our frameworks for thinking on these matters, this just doesn’t make any sense at all. In fact, if we discovered this kind of thing occurring we would be rushing for lawyers and unions to enlist their help in expressing our indignation! It blows our minds and confuses our senses because we have been programmed to believe in fairness and a belief that we are entitled to get what we deserve. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work – something received for something given. The idea of contract comes naturally to us – you give me your day and I will give you what you are owed for it, or what you deserve, in return. To see it any other way means we have to reconfigure our basic conceptions of how we do life together. Which, of course, is why Jesus tells the story.
So how about we do a bit of reconfiguring and see where that leaves us. What if we were paid according to what we need? This would mean that the person who works two hours a day still needs the same amount of money to live as the one who works for eight hours. There are basic needs we all have to try to meet, food, shelter, and clothing, to name a few. How many hours we work is irrelevant, we have to pay for these basic needs whatever arrangement we have come to. This is where the zero-hour contracts we have in our world, really hurt. People, often young people, who, so desperate to have work, agree to these contracts and then find they aren’t getting the hours they need, to be able to fund their lives. But, according to their contracts, the employers can keep them employed and give them whatever hours it suits them to pay for. But if the hours don’t generate sufficient income to pay the rent, or feed whoever needs to be fed, then the most basic point of having a job becomes superfluous.
Despite our need to cover these basic needs, this seldom determines what we are paid. Mostly it’s about something called ‘market forces,’ supply and demand, and other devices we have for excusing that ever increasing desire for more and more. The churches method for determining payment to those it ordains to Ministry of Word and Sacrament has another methodology again. The stipend paid is understood as a living allowance based on a level considered to cover what it costs to live. I actually quite like that approach. Then I watch someone who has lived under that system for the past thirty years of paid work (for most of which it was considerably lower than it is at present) and see the challenges in affording a home to live in in retirement. Then, by way of contrast, I see his daughter, not yet 30, newly married with one child, able to buy an amazing home in Wellington because she and her husband are paid under the predominant system of our day which has as one of its drivers, the fear that you might be able to earn more elsewhere, so the powers that be pay you more and more and more, in order to keep you. I am not criticising either situation – just observing!!
It doesn’t seem to matter whether we are speaking of a first-century field worker, or a single parent working a minimum wage job with no benefits, this parable of the workers in the field still arouses indignation among those whose needs are already met. When we have enough it can be really hard to see the reality of those who do not. Or, we try and explain why it is like that for them. We can appeal to the concept of fairness, or set free our assumption and prejudices and find reasons why the poor are poor, why our own level of comfort is justified, and why we ought to be passionate that ‘they only get what they deserve.’ Maybe here Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God there is a new way of viewing the value of work, by keeping the value of the worker central—even that worker who has only been working since five o’clock.
The landowner, in the parable, you see, has another agenda. The landowner is paying his workers according to grace, where a reward given has no need to be earned. I don’t think that Jesus told this parable to lay out a plan for how we were to be reimbursed for our work forever more, though. I doubt he was writing the textbook or trying to establish a policy for remuneration that would be adhered to from that day forward. Maybe we get a bit stuck in taking the parable literally and forget that it was a means by which Jesus ‘explained’ how the kingdom of God works. The kingdom of God does not operate in a way we might describe as logical. This parable very clearly shows that grace is not given to reimburse us for what we have done. Instead, grace, is distributed by an altogether other methodology. It is lavishly poured out on everyone, whether we have done anything or not. So, we can be the last to the table, we can have worked the least amount of time but the offer remains the same, acceptance, inclusion, love. All of it offered even to the bad guys, even to those not like us, and even to those who we might struggle with.
Sadly, this lavish distribution of grace is a problem for many Christians. Can you remember your children struggling with this too? Fairness is etched into our very idea of ourselves. When our children are small they scream, IT’S NOT FAIR when a sibling gets something they don’t have, or gets more of it than they do. They want everything spread evenly – or fairly, as they understand it. Then they grow and begin to work for their money and they begin to think they might need more than others, because they are better at their jobs, or they work harder, or they have trained longer, and the concept of user-pays creeps in. Then the idea that one worker who does less than another should get paid the same as the one who worked harder is NOT FAIR. Do you see the progression? Evenness is everything through the eyes of a child but then, when we mature and evenness is just not right! Do you see why Jesus keeps telling us to keep the mind of a child? Because if we did we would just accept what is offered and get about the task of living out our thanks. Instead we start on the judgement trail – with words like, I worked harder and longer than you, I need more, and what’s more I studied harder and longer. Those nebulous things, market forces, come into play and suddenly someone is worth more than someone else and the system of hierarchy and competition is given the space to grow and reshape who we are.
What does this parable tell us about how we do and be church? This parable is about generosity and the struggles we have to give or receive it. But of course generosity is not generous if it is calculated, or measured, or if it has to hold to some system of accountability. Generosity is not always something that we are comfortable with, though. When something is given for no reason at all, aren’t we usually just a little bit suspicious? Maybe, when it comes from someone we know well, someone who’s heart we know to be just plain good, then it’s a little easier to trust. Is that telling us that when we offer generosity we need to know the people we are offering generosity to and receiving generosity from? This is why our vision in The Village is so heavily bent toward knowing our neighbourhoods, so they know us and trust us enough to allow us to be generous with them. Maybe we have a basic distrust of generosity because we are so programmed to contract – to returning the gift – to a quid pro quo understanding of life. Surely we must have done something in order for something to be offered! How could we possibly accept without there being a good reason for the gift? We have to deserve it! Have you heard yourself when this you have been offered generosity (I hope you have!), did you say, really? Me? Why? Are you sure? What did I do? So we try and account for the generosity, to measure it, and we struggle with how to return it. In the end we end up deconstructing the generosity and reducing it to something we have somehow proved ourselves worthy of. We demean the abundance of God’s grace when we need to explain something we just can’t explain. If we are to be witnesses to God’s abundant grace then we need to model this way to our communities. Perhaps a good place to start practising this is in how gracious we are with each other and then with those we have yet to know. Gracious in how we give and in how we receive.