September 21 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-18
Theme: If I knew how to spell it I might be tempted to suggest "Schadenfreude" as a theme for this week, but I don't want to sound like one of those terrible foreign people trying to manipulate the outcome of Saturday's Big Night In. So I'm going with the phrase that struck me and has continued to buzz around in my head from our gospel reading this week. That phrase is "Whatever is Right".
Introduction. Let's have no complaints about the readings this week! We begin with one of the most entertaining, psychologically astute, and spiritually profound stories in the Scriptures. Who among us can claim that we have absolutely no Jonah in our own character? This part of Jonah's story is the perfect entree to the main meal of perhaps the most important of all Jesus' parables, certainly of the so-called kingdom parables. Who among us can claim that we would never ever think of complaining if someone else was paid the same as us for far fewer hours of labour? And in-between we have this week's passage from St Paul reminding us that "all this is God's doing". Grace, not contract law, is the operative principle in the Kingdom of God.
Background. I suppose most if not all election campaigns have elements of the bizarre in them; but surely this one has gone far beyond all the others? It seems to have been dominated by politicians of all stripes and media of all kinds constantly complaining that trivial matters such as character assassination, privacy and mass surveillance are the only things that politicians of all stripes and media of all kinds are talking and writing about to the exclusion of the real issues, variously said to be the economy, industrial relations, minimum wage, living wage, poverty, jobs, benefits, inequality, and so on. In short, what the politicians of all stripes and the media of all kinds would really like to talk and write about, if only they would let themselves, is what is known to us as The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. So let's do that now.
The first thing to do in any rational discussion is to define our terms, and the essential term to define here is "Usual Daily Wage". In monetary terms that was 1 denarius, and it was set at that level because it was the basic amount needed by the worker and his/her dependents to live for one day. In our terms it was a "living wage", and because it was unthinkable to pay a worker less than a living wage it was also the minimum wage. And notice that this was the "usual" daily wage. It wasn't decreed by law; and it didn't depend on the availability or otherwise of labour; and it didn't vary from employer to employer. It was the custom to pay workers the daily (living) wage because that's what they needed to live. Okay, that's the issue of definition dealt with; we're now ready to follow the story.
"Early in the morning" – let's say 6.00am – the landowner went out to hire workers for his vineyard. We're not given much detail here, but it may well be that those who wanted work that day collected – perhaps in the "marketplace" (verse 3) - and hoped for the best. They were all hoping for work but not all made the first cut. Those who did agreed to work for the day for the usual daily wage. There was a collective agreement under which they were all to receive the same wage regardless of any personal differences in previous experience, skill levels, training or education. We call such a payment a stipend.
Three hours later the landowner is back, although we are not told why. It may well be that he needs more workers, but that is only an assumption. He finds "others standing idle in the marketplace". Pause. Any "dog-whistling" going on here, do you think? How do we react to the phrase "standing idle"? Is it simply a statement of fact, or is it meant pejoratively? Are they reluctantly idle, still hoping against hope that somebody will hire them, or are they work-shy layabouts preferring to hang out with their deadbeat mates? Perhaps a mixture of the two, but the landowner sees no need to inquire or discriminate. He hires the lot, promising to pay them "whatever is right". "So they went." No negotiation, no demand for more transparency, no reluctance – they just went. These unemployed wanted work.
But wait, there's more. The whole drama is repeated at noon, and again at 3.00pm. And then, with just one hour left in the working day, the landowner turns up again, and this time words are spoken. He asks them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?" They give a straight answer: "Because no one has hired us." So he hires them, and they go even though there seems to be no mention of the pay they might expect.
The action shifts to the end of the day – probably the first and only time in the last few weeks when that phrase actually means what it says. At the end of the day all the workers receive the usual daily wage, regardless of the number of hours they have worked. And the predictable hell breaks loose. That's not fair! Now let's pause here – not to think about this for a moment – but to feel it. Which side has our sympathy? And only when we are in touch with our genuine gut-feeling are we ready to start thinking about it. What should the landowner have done? Paid the all-day guys more (than they had agreed to), or paid the one-hour guys less (than they needed to survive for another day)?
That these are the two options is underlined by the landowner's response (which, incidentally, is a marvellous amalgam of left- and right –wing thinking!). First he pleads contractual arrangement – the workers have no right to demand more than their collective agreement calls for. Secondly, he pleads property rights – it's his money and he can do whatever he likes with it. Thirdly, what he likes is social justice, fairness, reducing poverty, and closing the income gap. What he likes is meeting need. What he abhors is the resentment of those who have earned a living wage towards those whom no one hired (we call them the unemployed) being given enough to live on.
What a pity a proper debate about this parable has been crowded out of our election campaign by those other minor issues. Or perhaps it's just as well. We wouldn't want it said of Jesus that he is just another foreigner trying to interfere in our democratic processes, would we? Perish the thought.
Jonah. And now for a few more thoughts that might need perishing! Recall the story so far. God has called Jonah to a very particular prophetic ministry: Jonah is to go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to turn from their great wickedness. But Jonah has no wish to obey because, as we learn a little later in the story, he is afraid that they will heed his message, repent and be saved. So he takes a fast boat to Tarshish (modern-day Spain), understood in those days to be the edge of the world and the farthest point away from God. It turns out to be a bad career move; disaster strikes, the boat is sinking, Jonah owns up and volunteers to be thrown overboard. There things really turn weird for a while, but the upshot (pun alert!) is that Jonah is rescued by God and given a second chance. Through gritted teeth, Jonah delivers God's message to the Ninevites, and – wouldn't you know it - they repent. Meanwhile Jonah is still hoping against hope for the spectacular destruction of the city and has taken up a ringside seat to watch the action. When God accepts their repentance and spares the city from destruction Joshua is distraught, to put it mildly. In fact he is so hacked off he wants to die.
Taking It Personally.
· This Saturday night are you hoping for the political destruction of any particular candidate or party? How will you feel if that person or party is defeated? How will you feel if that person or party is not defeated? On a score of 1-10, how much of a Jonah do you discover yourself to be?
· Can you recall an occasion on which you were glad when someone received their come-uppance? With the benefit of hindsight, what do you think of that situation now?
· Pray for the great city of Dunedin – or the nearest city to your place of residence. How many people live in the city? How many of them "do not know their right hand from their left"? What do you think that expression means in verse 11?
· Has there been a time when you got yourself into a mess through your own pig-headedness? Were you conscious of God's help in resolving the situation? Did that make you more understanding of the problems facing others?
Philippians. In the midst of great personal danger, and widespread persecution of his fellow believers St Paul shows us the true spiritual virtue of indifference. It is far removed from fatalism or a couldn't-care-less attitude: a better guide might be the traditional wedding vow – "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health". Such is his commitment to Christ, and it must be the same for us. [Compare the "faith-swings" of Jonah.] Whatever our personal circumstances, we are to strive to lead a life worthy of the gospel. And the key to meeting that challenge is to remember: "this is all God's doing."
Taking It Personally.
· This really is the week for a thorough self-examination! How much of a Jonah are you? How much sympathy do you have for the all-day guys? And, more generally, are you living your life "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ"?
· In times of illness or other adversity, are you more inclined to pray for healing or relief, or for the strength to endure?
· Are you progressing in your faith? Does it give you joy? Are you encouraging others to grow in the faith?
Matthew. One other thought about this passage. The unspoken assumption is that no one WANTS to work – that we do the least we have to in order to "pay the bills". Is that true of you or of the people you know? Would you really rather "stand idle in the marketplace" all day if you could be assured of receiving sufficient money to live on? Of course, the answer to that might depend on the work involved, but as general principle aren't there other rewards to be had from working besides the purely material ones? Be that as it may, perhaps we need to finish by focusing on that all-important opening phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like". One of the most telling incidents in my ministry involved a real "salt of the earth" lifetime member of the church who was in a home-group studying repentance and forgiveness, etc. We were talking about a particularly horrific murder that had occurred in the area recently, and what the "offender" deserved. The general consensus seemed to be that he deserved to rot in hell. However, our faith told us that if he truly repented and turned to Christ in faith, he would not rot in hell, but be saved. Suddenly it dawned on this good woman that this vile offender would, in her words, get "the same deal as the rest of us" and she protested most vigorously – "that's not fair!" Think about it for a moment. She had been a member of the church all her life – what was the point if someone signs up at the last moment and gets the same deal? What does that say about the joy of church membership?
Taking It Personally.
· A great passage for the prayer of imagination. Put yourself in the story and follow the drama through. Monitor your feelings.
· Which group did you put yourself in? The first, the last, or one of the intermediate ones? Why?
· Or did you put yourself in the position of the landowner doing the hiring? Why not?