The parables of Jesus are extraordinary texts and they speak to people from all sorts of times and places. The fascinating thing about this parable is that when you read it with those who are among the poorest people in the world they don’t worry about the advice not to take it literally or to think about its spiritual significance – they start talking about workers, bosses, pay and rights.
I know that we could say that this parable is really an extended narrative metaphor about the grace of God. And I think that’s true in a way. BUT, today I want us to listen first of all to those who immediately see themselves in this story and who are very stirred up by it. They are not often the kind of people who get to preach sermons in churches, but their voices demand to be heard.
I can remember talking about this parable with the congregation when I as minister in Salford, right by what was once Salford docks. People then could still remember the days when men would have to queue at the dock gates and hope that someone might take them on. Just like the workers here, waiting in the public square. The youngest and fittest would of course always be taken on first and the older ones, or the thinner ones, would be left until last. Sometimes men would dye their hair to make themselves look younger in the hope that they would be chosen first.
I can remember a time when I was in the Philippines just a couple of years ago – and we went to the docks and met the men working as stevedores there. They were also hired in the same way as the workers in this parable; the work was casual, uncertain and favoured the strongest. There was also little attention to Health and Safety and there were plenty of injuries. But the worst thing was to be left standing, waiting to be employed, in the heat of the day. This parable is still real life for some people in today’s world.
I’ve also found this week a beautiful account of some campesinos (peasants) from Nicaragua discussing this parable – again people who completely recognise the scenario in the story. One of them says that the boss is unfair… and that if he was giving (say) ten pesos to the ones who didn’t do much work then he should have given extra to the ones who had worked all day. (He has a point I think!). The same campesino says that the boss was, in any case, robbing all of them because he was giving them only wages and not a share in the profits! The boss says he has a right to do what he wants with his money, but that’s false – because the money is made by the workers… Another campesino called Oscar says he admires the boss because he is trying to make sure everyone at least has work. Olivia comments that Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God to come it won’t be the unequal world we have now. Felipe says that God is bringing a world in which people aren’t divided because they are paid different wages. And Olivia says that the story tells us that God takes the part of the last ones more than the first one…
When I hear testimony like this from people who are actually inside this story, I notice that even though I know, at one level, that I’m supposed to be celebrating the generosity of the vineyard owner, what really gets to me is how unfair the whole system was (and indeed is) that one person has all the cards in his hand and all the power. There was clearly such a glut of workers that he could set the wages how he liked and though this employer is generous he clearly need not have been. And what’s also so tragic is that such a system sets the workers against one another. The system leaves them being envious of other workers who have been paid the same as them for working fewer hours and not in the worst part of the day (imagine forty degrees and no shade..). I know we’re supposed to think badly of them for being unreasonably jealous, but I’m not convinced that it was unreasonable. We have laws now about equal pay for equal work, and I’m glad that we do. I know that the employer was, within the terms of his day, being generous. The rate for a day’s work was a good one and he was giving that rate even to people who hadn’t worked the whole day. He wasn’t doing anything illegal and he was paying over the odds. But I’m still left feeling angry about the whole system. And it has to be said that even things that are generously meant can actually turn out to be unfair. So I can understand that the workers protested… now I understand a bit more about what it might be like to experience work and pay in this way…
I think that during this time of Covid-19 we have come to recognise as maybe we haven’t for a while, that what we pay people doesn’t match their value. Many of the people came to realise that we relied on in lockdown were not the highest paid at all, and often they were the lowest: delivery drivers, carers, the people who empty bins, cleaners, shop workers… We could not have survived without them…
In Citizens Somerset – of which we are a member – we are developing a campaign (with others around the country) to make sure that care workers are paid at least the Real Living Wage. At Work-Wise we offer support to those who are seeking work in a world where you often have to be able to use a computer and upload a CV even when what you want to do is be a cleaner. And we learn how unfair the world as we know it really is..
I am so struck by what one of those Nicaraguan campesinos said; that God takes the part of the last ones, more than the first ones. God has a bias towards Tower Hamlets rather than Canary Wharf, towards the ones at the back of the queue to be hired, towards those who cannot work a computer or make an on-line application. And, in the new world that God promises, all people will be given what they need.
The meaning of a parable is always up for debate – and there’s no-one right and fixed answer. But perhaps one way we can understand a parable is to ask what the story does to us when we read it and how it leaves us wanting to respond. I think it leaves me wanting to say that if God is gracious and generous then I need to live and act in the world in such a way that grace and generosity are my normal (even if that’s not the world’s normal). And I can see that sometimes the bountiful act of someone who has much to benefit from the system does not cut it as a response. As someone who lives in the rich West, I have to recognise that that’s often me. The owner in the parable thought he was addressing an injustice by treating everyone equally. But of course it didn’t really work, because something much more radical had to be done. This parable challenges me to look for the more radical thing. And it challenges me to listen to the experiences of those who work in the heat of the day while I enjoy the cool of the shade. I cannot escape the challenge that my rage at the ‘generous’ employer provokes.
But I also have enough imagination to grasp what it’s like to be one of the ‘last’ ones. I was always picked last for netball, and I would be at the dockside or outside the vineyard too. I know I live in a world where I’m not always the ‘first’ and where I wait, anxiously sometimes, for hope to come. We all know, I imagine, the sense of longing for someone to come and fix what is wrong or hurting or distressing… and sometimes it takes a long time. We have all waited in the heat of the days of our lives for God’s love to come. And so from the parable I receive the grace of encountering the God who wants everyone to have fulness of life, who wants everyone to receive their ‘pay; who wants all of us to come into the vineyard of his love. That is grace for workers, for retired people, for children and the old, for all of us who wait together for a better world to come. Amen.