Thursday, 2 March 2017

“Am I being unfair to you?” - workers in the vineyard

Matthew 20: 1-16  - for the Women's World Day of Prayer

Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is one that is really hard to listen to without a visceral reaction.

Years ago when I was a school teacher it was my turn to take assembly, and the reading was this parable. I tried to explain to the school that Jesus is teaching us that God does not treat us as we deserve, but pours undeserved love on us all. Even so, at break time, as I went into the staff room for my cup of coffee I was nearly mobbed by the other teachers. Even an hour and half later they were burning with the injustice of all the workers being paid the same. ‘It’s not good enough – it’s not fair!’ they said – especially the union reps.

I wonder how the story makes you feel? And what is your reaction to the question “Am I being unfair to you?”. Perhaps you, too, want to cry out ‘yes! It is unfair!’.

Perhaps you have been told that this is a parable about God’s grace, which flows freely and fully to everyone – that God is, if you like, unfair, because he embraces the holiest saint and the wickedest sinner and all of us in between. But still, our guts say ‘it is not fair!’.

And perhaps we should listen to our guts. And perhaps that’s why the women of the Philippines chose it for us today.

I haven’t ever travelled to the Philippines, so when I knew I was going to speak today I talked to a friend who went there last summer. She explained to me that people there still live and work pretty much in the way the parable describes. A few rich people own most of the land and they hire people to work just when they need them – no contract, no sick pay, no health and safety rules. My friend went to visit some workers in a harbour in Manila, and they said ‘many charities want to build schools or hospitals for us, but what we need is fair wages, then we could afford to support our families ourselves’:
these workers were just starting to form unions to protect their interests and to encourage the workers to work together for better conditions for everyone, rather than simply being in competition with each other for the best work available.

Meanwhile there is no rush hour in Manila, because so many workers work in call centres, operating on US time: and the heath services are frustrated because no sooner have they trained nurses than they come over to the UK to work in hospitals and care homes, so that they can send a chunk of our higher wages home to their families.

This is the sort of world Jesus describes – life is uncertain, competitive, full of anxiety, and definitely loaded in favour of the rich land owner. When the moment for being paid comes, the workers turn on each other. So what is Jesus wanting us to feel and think and do in response to the story?

The boss in Jesus’ story acts in a peculiar way – paying the ‘last minute’ workers more than they might have expected. And so we assume he is saying something about the kingdom of God, where people will be treated with generosity and grace – and we assume that he means us to equate the boss with God. But perhaps Jesus also wants us to feel the burning in our guts caused by injustice, and to ask  how we should act in a world where such treatment is dealt out to others on a regular basis.

We cannot just put Jesus’ story in a ‘religious story’ pigeonhole, focus on God and forget about the people, or think holy thought and ignore the gnawing sense of unfairness. This is a story of good news about God’s love, but it is also a story about how our world should be, and how we should act in it.

In a world where such unfairness exists, we who call ourselves people of God need to feel that injustice in our guts, and ask what God would have us do with it.
I think Jesus is calling us to act to make the world more fair, to advocate unity not competition, to work so that others, who are just as deserving of God’s grace, can also receive a fair share of the world’s resources.
And so as churches I hope we think about fair trade – not just when we buy our tea and coffee and dried fruit but asking ourselves whenever we see a bargain price ‘how much has the worker or the grower been paid?’ ‘has someone been cheated so that I can get a lower price?’.

The women of the Philippines know that their land needs God’s kingdom of grace and love and justice to be honoured. But it is also true in this land. In September last year it was reported that 900,000 workers in the UK are employed on zero hours contracts – given no guarantee about how much work they might get in any week, even though the rate of pay is decided.
As people who know God’s grace we need to ask our neighbour the question the boss asks the workers “Am I being unfair to you?”. And where the answer is ‘yes’ we need to act to change things.
So God’s kingdom of grace and love, peace and justice will be built, in Jesus’ name.

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