31 March 2019 That’s not fair! Matthew 20:1-16
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
Let us pray ……
When I worked for Trigon plastics as a slitting machine operator, I was 17 years old, and I got paid $1.50 per hour. It was 1981. The day shift bloke, who operated the same machine, did exactly the same job, who was in his late 20’s I guess, and had a young family, he got paid $3 per hour. He was paid twice as much as me. I always thought that was unfair.
But was it unfair? And the answer that question probably depends on who you are asking. Our employer would probably have said the pay was fair. In those days a 17 year old could be paid less than what was called the adult wage. The $1.50 an hour was legal minimum wage for a person under 18. My older work college may have thought it unfair, but he certainly knew that he being paid just $3 an hour was not a lot of money and he needed every cent to survive. And from my perspective, of course doing the same job, producing at the same rate, why should anyone be paid differently from anyone else?
So perhaps what is fair depends on whose eyes you are seeing it from.
But those feelings are quite powerful. They speak to us of value and worth. How am I valued? Behind the questions are a series of relationships. I wonder how many of us can easily recall situations when we feel that we have not received a fair go. Some of those stories stay with us for a long time. And perhaps they are a little too easy to call to mind.
So this morning let’s think in our reading and imagine seeing things from these three different points of view. The labourer hired at the start of the day. The labourer hired later on. And the landowner.
So first of all there is the labourer who has been hired at the start of the day. He has agreed to be paid the standard rate. A denarii. A day’s wage. The monetary system was much simpler in those days. A days wage was enough to pay for the cost of living for that day. The life then of a labourer was simply hand to mouth. Even today in poorer countries, those who live on the land are some of the poorest and most vulnerable.
Some of you will have travelled to countries where groups of people hang out at a particular place, hoping to be offered a day’s work. It is not uncommon especially in places where people are desperate for work.
So we have to imagine a very different world. You wake up in the morning, you go down to the village square or wait at the gate, and the local landowner or manager comes, and offers you a day’s labouring job for the standard rate. That is your life.
As our story progresses, the manager goes out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.
So we have a simple story, a manager comes back again and again to hire workers. That question which we could see in negative terms, ‘why are you standing her idle all day?’ Is most likely because no one has given them a job, because no one has hired us, they say. It is not because they don’t want to work, in fact, most likely they are desperate to work.
So we have three perspectives here. The workers hired at the start of the day. They will be pleased, maybe relived that they have a day’s work ahead of them and they will get paid the money they need for their family to cover the cost of living for the day.
And then we have this second group of labourers. They have missed out on being hired at the start of the day. They might be idle, there is not much to do, and hope against hope, that something might still work out perhaps. Or perhaps they have given up hope and have nothing much else to do. They are almost certainly anxious, not getting the money for a days living, what this will mean for their family.
And then the manager turns up again, and again and gives them work. We need to imagine their surprise, relief, their delight, the relief of their families. They are going to get a job after all. We are not told in the story of what their expectations might be. But they know they will get at least some payment.
At the end of the day the people who were hired first grumble because they see everyone being paid the same.
13 But the landowner he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
The landowner asks them, maybe asks us, are you envious – in Greek the phrase can mean is ‘ is your eye hurtful’, is your eye evil’. The question about being envious is not so much a feeling but how you are seeing others.
So we come to the contrasting ways of seeing.
And the contrast here is between feeling entitled and resentful. For the people who have worked all day. Or for those who have had the extraordinary experience of being hired later, of seeing generosity and being grateful.
There is also a subtle contrast in the story between what is fair and what is just.
We can all agree with the labourers who were hired first. They have worked harder, put up with the hot sun we understand why they are grumbling. We could hear them say it is not fair.
But we are also being asked by Jesus to imagine a different set of formulas. Remember the story started off with Jesus saying ‘the kingdom of God is like this.’
The justice part of the story relates to the payment of a denarii, a day’s wages. You see every one of these labourers is in a similar situation. Without getting the standard days wages, there is not enough money to pay for a standard days food. So it may not be fair, but the landowner is recognising a justice question. Everyone needs to be fed. No one should go hungry.
Where you are hired at 6 am, mid-day or 5 at night, our needs are no different from each other. The landowner, the third person whose perspective we are being asked to keep in mind, is likened to the King in this new ‘kingdom of heaven’. It is a different formula. One that we in our economy would not see as fair. Receiving not on all we have done, but what we all need. What do we need to survive? To live?
How do see things? To see with an envious, evil eye - from a point of envy, resentfulness entitlement. Or to see with a Kingdom of God eye from a position of grace, blessing generosity. How we see says everything about our relationship to Jesus and our understanding of God.
So this morning there is a series of challenges for us.
First about a recognition of our common need. We all need to live. We all need love, grace, forgiveness. There is no calculation around these things. As humans we share fundamental needs.
There is a justice question here, rather than a judgement and fairness question. None of the people who I see in my work or ministry, want to be hard up, want to a bad parent, want to struggle to find some where to live. We can all point to the mistakes we have made, we can talk about bad luck and good luck, but here today we come to an understanding that what is good for them, and especially what is good for those in the most difficult places, is also good for me. Everyone needs a denarii, everyone needs the fundamental things present in a just society that make it possible to live and thrive and enjoy the blessing of the community.
We need people to be paid in a way that they can live. We need to support those working to provide housing and support the well-being of parents and children. It doesn’t matter which political party you support. These are the justice challenges, the kingdom challenges that Jesus speaks about again and again.
The story today is also asking us about how we see our blessings in relation to another. We often probably compare upwards. The resentment of those who are wealthier than us, or even the resentment of those who we think of as some way, undeserving. Living lives of grumbling resentment is not how the Kingdom of God works. Living people, who receive the unpredictable surprise of God’s blessing and abundance and generosity. We may not think it is fair, everyone tells us that being first is what it is all about. But here the rules are changed. Expectations are reversed.
Free week in a couple of weeks. Is a good example of the different ways we can see things. It is a messy difficult thing. But we as a church are providing people, anyone, those who pull up in the latest Porsche, and those who come with cars that only just passed their last warrant. We are providing the very opportunity to give and to receive freely. It is quite subversive in a way. It does not sit with the rules of our economy. People donate amazing stuff that they could have easily sold on trade me. Others come and take bags of stuff away that they couldn’t possible use themselves.
We all know times that things have been unfair, perhaps many of us carry those stories all too tightly. Being treated poorly might even have become our main story.
God as the landowner in our Gospel says don’t be mutters, complainers, grumblers, egogynzon - we are warned. Justice is central, but it may not be quite the same as your view of fairness. Be people of God’s kingdom. Do the thing that speaks of our faith and trust in God. And remember the God revealed in Jesus is a God who changes our expectations, provides for our needs, is surprising and always generous.
In the book of James we are told that mercy triumphs over judgement. The Kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says. AMEN
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