This post is based on Jesus’ parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), as I am preaching on it on Sunday. If you think it reads like a sermon, that's because it is one. It draws on a number of New Testament scholars.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.
Jesus preached in Galilee, a place of rural villages. Previously most of the people had been peasant farmers, each family with its own plot of land. In Jesus’ day this was changing. It was part of the Roman empire and the Romans imposed heavy taxes. Every time a farmer could not pay the taxes he would have to sell his farm. Then he would become a day labourer. Day labourers would turn up at the market-place hoping to get work for the day. If they did not, they would have absolutely no money. There were no welfare benefits, nothing. In those days it was common for people to starve to death because they had no money to buy food.
In the parable the landowner goes to market to hire labourers for the day. He hires some, and agrees the usual daily wage. They start working. A few hours later he goes again and hires some more. He goes again at midday, then again in the middle of the afternoon, and again just an hour before sunset, and each time he hires a few more workers. Then at sunset the work finishes and they all queue up for their wages.
You would expect that the people who worked all day would get a full day’s wage and the people who only worked part of the day would get a proportion. Instead he pays them all a full day’s wage. They all get the same. The response is exactly what you would expect:
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.
The landowner replies
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?... Or are you envious because I am generous?
The landowner is not acting as we would expect. This is not free market economics. The landowner is getting a full day’s work from some of them, but being extra generous to others. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like that. God is like that.
The envy in the parable, when the people who worked hard all day are angry that the others should be paid the same, is exactly what happens today. People say ‘I worked hard for my money; why should other people get away with not having to work?’
In order to survive we all need some of the world’s wealth. The wealth we depend on is not the money. Money is only a means of exchange. The wealth we depend on is the land, the earth, the things that grow in it, the sun and the rain. These are given by God. We did not earn them. They are gifts.
On top of that God lets us contribute to the wealth by caring for people who need help, or by creating things – building houses or making machines – but we can only do these things because we have brains and muscles, and these too are gifts from God.
This process of adding to the wealth is unequal. Just as, in the parable, some people worked hard all day for their wage while others only did an hour’s work, so also today, and in every society, some work harder than others. We all spend some of our lives not working at all; when we are little children, when we are too old, when we are ill, we depend on other people to do the work to look after us while we give nothing in return. Some people spend their whole lives needing to be looked after. In our modern industrial society there are also people who are able and willing to work but there are no jobs available.
Even when we are in the prime of life some people can work harder, or longer hours than others. We are not at all equal in our ability to work. We all need to receive, but some of us can do more of the giving than others. This is not a mistake in the way we are made. Although some people cannot work to help others, there are always enough people who can.
So just as the landowner gave everyone a day’s wage, even though some did more work than others, so also God provides us with a world full of good things, enough for everyone, even though some people can do more than others.
God gives us freedom. We can if we choose pay attention and notice how much we are given. We may then feel like saying ‘thank you’. So all over the world, in many different celebrations, like Harvest festivals, people come together to express their joy and thanks. The obvious way of showing our thanks is by sharing the things we have been given. Most of us can do at least something to help others in need.
However we are free not to. We can if we want live for ourselves, take what we want for ourselves, and ignore other people.
The adverts encourage this with all that nonsense about ‘you deserve it’. In reality none of us are owed anything. None of us deserved the right to live. None of us earned our first drink of our mother’s milk. It was a gift. If you have strong muscles, you did not earn them. If you have a clever brain, you did not earn it. It was given to you.
Another mistake is to imagine that wealth is money. This is a mistake governments make. They measure the economy by counting how much money we all spend and receive.
When we become self-centered, we become envious. We demand equality. Everything has to be counted. Then we become mean. We can see from what is happening in our own society that when everything gets counted, when everything has to be earned, some people end up with too much and others end up with not enough.
In real life, the exchange of money is only a small part of our wealth. If you think about what you do in your normal daily life you probably spend a lot of time doing things which do not involve spending or receiving any money at all. You probably do quite a lot of giving, whether to your pets, or your family, or your friends. And you probably receive things in return. Most of the wealth creation does not involve buying and selling. Nobody measures it, but it is an important part of all our lives. Giving and receiving.
God gives to us, and demands nothing in return. We too can give to each other, without counting the cost – as we normally do with our nearest and dearest.