Monday, 12 September 2011

It's not fair!

I realise it's only Monday - but struck by an item of news about modern day 'slavery' and inspired by a reflection by Anna Carter Florence on the hardship of waiting here
I've just sat down and written a first draft of the sermon.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard:
it’s NOT FAIR!

This last week a disturbing story emerged of workers allegedly held in slavery on a traveller site in Leighton Buzzard. In 21st century Bedfordshire, grown men were picked up in vans and promised labouring work and somewhere to live at £40-£80 per day. But when they got to the caravan site they were put in small sheds or rundown caravans with too little food, had their identity papers taken and their heads shaved and were made to work with no pay – whilst being told that of they tried to run away they would be beaten up.

And all this in a neighbouring county to ours. At first I could scarcely believe it – and then as news of the case grew it became clear that this is not the only place in our country – today! - where this has happened.

How desperate and vulnerable do you have to be to say ‘yes’ to someone who pops up out of the blue and offers you work? Well, apparently the men were picked up from soup kitchens and day centres for the homeless, and the mentally ill. You and your life have to be pretty much at the bottom if an unknown job in an unknown place with unknown people looks like a good choice. Desperate people, with very little in their lives, desperate for work.

There are people like that in Jesus’ parable. When we hear the story, it is all too easy for us to sympathise with the workers who were hired first – they work hard, all day – in the scorching heat. They have toiled and slogged and earned their daily wage. And then they find that the slackers who have only worked since 5 o clock in the evening get exactly the same wage. Like children, the workers grumble about the landowner’s decision ‘It’s not fair!’.
When I was teaching, I once did an assembly on this parable – and as I entered the staffroom at break, nearly 2 hours’ later, my fellow teachers were nearly ready to lynch me because they had been so incensed by the unfairness of the story. It is not fair on those who worked harder – we can see that, feel it on our bones. The union reps in the staff wanted me to understand that we needed pat differentials in life, to help us all to feel valued for the work we did! The way the landowner acts in this story - it’s just not fair.

But just for a moment let’s look at the story another way: from the point of view of the desperate workers who had no work. All day long they had been in the marketplace, waiting to be hired. Each time someone came looking for workers, they might have stood up a bit straighter, tried to look ‘hire – able’, strong, hard-working, reliable, tough. And each time they weren’t hired we can imagine how their shoulders might have slumped.
Early in the morning, the fittest looking ones are hired & go off to work, knowing they will be paid that day and have something to take home to their hungry families. At nine o’ clock, some other lucky ones had gone off – to at least do most of a day’s work. At noon and at 3 the same person had come back and hired a few more. But by five there were just the most desperate left. No point in going home early, no money in their pockets, no food to share with anyone. Another day with no work, no pay, no hope. Just the sort of desperate men who might jump at any offer of work – however uncertain they are about the offer. Then the question ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’
“because no-one hired us”,
‘then go into my vineyard and work til evening’.
After a couple of hours it’s pay time. No wage has been agreed – they line up not knowing what they might get – what fraction of the daily wage they might be given. And they are given the whole day’s wage.
Unless we’ve done that kind of piece work we can only imagine how it feels to unexpectedly get the full day’s wage. But then those who have worked half a day – and even all day in the hot sun – get exactly the same agreed daily wage. Much grumbling ensues: and the landowner asks the grumblers ‘are you envious because I am generous?’.
Would you begrudge the desperate men their daily bread?

You see it’s all too easy to see this parable as one which is not fair to those who work all day. But what about those who wait all day? How hard is it to spend all day not knowing whether you will be chosen or not, and beginning to suspect that you might have missed your chance. And wondering what you will eat that night.

And we know that Jesus told this parable because he had people coming to him and wanting to know who was going to enter God’s kingdom, and how, and what reward his followers could expect.

We know that when we hear this parable we burn with the unfairness of life, in which those who work tirelessly for God and for others have to bear the sting that God loves a wretch who turns to God after a life of debauchery just as much as he loves each one of us. We work in the heat of the day, and get no more reward than those who don’t.

But have a heart for those who wait, for those who are desperately unsure of their reward, for those who only find out at the last moment that all will be well. Give thanks to God for God’s generosity, which extends grace to all and to each: do not be envious because God is generous, but be glad because you know your reward. And trust the grace of God to see that all will be well for all God’s children.

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