We live in a society which we like to think is fair. We believe in the rule of law and our laws are made by people, in the main, we elect. Every few years we get the chance to re-elect, or elect the other lot, to make laws which we hope might be better. But the deal is, we obey the laws as we elect the people who enact them. So, we think, we live in a fair world. We respect courts; we want justice to be tempered with mercy. We want people dealt with fairly – even if that means, at times, the fair thing to do is to deprive someone of their liberty by getting them to do unpaid work in the community or, if they are dangerous to go to prison – after all that’s fair. If you’ve offended against the community you should make reparation for it. And, of course, it’s that time of year where wage settlements for those in public service are being argued about. I mentioned in a meeting that the URC stipend is linked to inflation and that means next year it goes up by 2.4% – as will our contributions to the stipend bill. That might be fair – after all wages should keep up with inflation – but very few people in our society will get such an increase as there is a public sector pay cap which may, or may not, be lifted – and if it’s lifted will it be lifted enough? Around wages we wonder if our society is as fair as it could be. Survey after survey says that we want higher taxes if that pays for the NHS – which we all use. Yet we vote on more than taxes – if that was all we voted on any party which said they’d fund the NHS as much as it needed would win a landslide. Maybe in the privacy of the polling booth we rethink how much tax we want to pay. In our fair society, however, we have people sleeping on the streets. In our fair society, the government tries to deport people to their deaths as a supposedly fair system has dismissed their asylum claims – last week the Home Office had to bring an Afghan lad back from Kabul as they had deported him despite two court orders not to. So, things may only appear fair from the perspective of the rich and powerful.
In both our readings today we are asked to think about fairness, plenty, provision and jealousy – themes which recur in our lives.
I love the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. I think it’s exciting, has many lessons for us now but that, above all, it’s humours. I love the idea of the Jews longing for the fleshpots in Egypt. Moses must have been infuriated after all he’d done for them. Of course, the people – the whole congregation of Israel – were hungry and when we’re hungry we get into a bad mood. Hunger and grumpiness seem to go together. In Egypt, the people may have been slaves but now, in their hunger, they remember being well fed slaves! Maybe slavery was better if it meant a full belly. Of course, as we know, God provides for them but we miss some of what happens here.
We’re used to thinking of the story being about not having to work on the Sabbath – God gives them a double supply on Friday so as not to have to gather food on the Sabbath – but there is more going on here. God gives instruction on collecting the food but the implication is that they people should only gather what they needed. If they gathered more than they needed the excess went off. So, they had, of course, to depend on God’s provision each day and not hoard food for the rainy day. More than that, however, God teaches them about having enough, having plenty but not excess. God gave them enough for their needs any attempt to get more, to hoard, to get richer than one’s neighbour ended in worms, foulness and riches being melted away.
Something similar is going on in our reading from St Matthew in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. One must ask if it’s fair that the guys who came in at the end of the day get the same reward as those who have toiled all day. I think we’d be cross if we had got there in the morning and got paid the same as the late comers.
Yet if we read our Gospel passage with the memory of the Exodus passage we may make some headway. In the Wilderness God was trying to fashion a new people, a people who weren’t slaves, who lived in fidelity to His Covenant and, to use Christian terminology, as faithful disciples. They were to embody an alternate way of living to Egypt. The ways of domination, submission, rich and poor, powerful and powerless were to be left behind. And what better way to teach this than to give daily bread which could not be hoarded. No new rich class was to be established. The bread, the manna, was nothing fancy, nothing over the top – just simple daily bread. Everyone has enough manna but no one has too much. Those in power receive the same as those who were at the bottom of the social pile. Those who work all day and those who don’t work receive the same. The able and disabled receive the same – plenty, but not too much; and it’s a gift.
This idea is embodied by Jesus when he feeds the crowd with just a few loaves and fish and is at the heart of the Our Father when we pray “give us this day our daily bread.”
We look again at the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Jesus is using the world as it is to show how the Kingdom – the world that will be – is different. In this new world, everyone receives the same; the bread necessary for all to have plenty is given. This undermines all the old distinctions and divisions and, as such, is troubling. §We think it’s unfair as we’re used to the world as it is with its certainties based on division, dominance and destruction. Instead of wages being used to formalise difference the owner of the Vineyard in Jesus’ parable uses wages to express equality and solidarity. The economics of this model are deeply subversive as they are not based on the competitive nature of the market place, nor even equal pay for equal work but, instead, they are based on the idea of Plenty but not too much. The parable envisions an alternative social order – just like God tried to form in the Wilderness.
Jesus, however, does more than simply propose a different model for how our society should work. He exposes things in our society which we take for granted, which we see as fair, natural and, dare I say, divinely ordained. Jesus exposes things we see as being always with us – winner and loser, superior and inferior, insider and outsider, honoured and shamed. Jesus’ parable makes us uneasy as, often, when we pray we mean “give me this day my daily bread” when, instead, we were commanded “give us this day our daily bread.” We’re in this together. The workers in the Vineyard get this – or at least the ones who had worked all day. It’s translated rather more strongly in the New Revised Standard Version than in the Good News version we use in Church. In the NRSV they say: “you’ve made them equal to us.” This wasn’t a compliment! The worker didn’t just want their daily bread but to have a society where differentiation based on work mattered.
So what do we do with all this? I’m not advocating you all go and join the Communist Party of Great Britain – just in case you were wondering! §In our society work plays out this winner/loser split. When I was out of work some years ago I found that my identity was rather confused. When I moved to Manchester I spent some time looking for a new teaching job – at that point my main income came from teaching – and I was between churches for some time. It seemed odd to introduce myself as I wasn’t a teacher or a minister or at least wasn’t a practising one. It struck me how much of our identities are bound up with what we do. It also strikes me that society’s sense of worth is bound up with our jobs. A neurosurgeon is perceived to be more valuable than a fire fighter, a news reader seen as more useful than a nurse, a politician more useful than a policeman – at least if utility and value is indicated by salaries. In the parable, the Vineyard owner has compassion to the men who tell him that no one had hired them that day and they were, therefore, without the means to provide bread for their families.
Many people in work, especially clergy, like to brag about how busy they are – after all if we’re busy that must mean we’re needed and useful! It can be a way of feeling superior, to make out – and tell others – that one has a demanding job so one must be valuable. The money earned by work is connected to status – a better salary means a better house in a better area with better status – never mind those left behind.
Now I’m not saying we should all demand a pay cut, should all live in poor accommodation or all become poor. What I am saying, however, is that the kingdom operates with a different economic model – a model that does away with the exploitation of the way the world works, where there are winners and losers, superior and inferior. Jesus calls us to a new world order and to expose the spirits at work in the world as it is, to resist the unfairness of the world as it is and to work for the world to come.
Will you pray with me?
O God our disturber,
whose speech is pregnant with power
and whose word will be fulfilled:
may we know ourselves unsatisfied
with all that distorts your truth,
and make our hearts attentive
to your liberating voice,
in Jesus Christ, Amen.