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A social conscience

September 22, 2014

Matthew 20: 1-16                  25th Sunday (20 September 2014)

Today St. Matthew recounts one of Jesus’ parables that in its day would have been shocking for being so political.

The true focus of this parable should not be the complaining workers but on the landowner. We need to understand that at the time of Jesus there was tremendous social change going on in the rural society. For centuries the farming system had been dominated by absentee landlords. Land passed down the generations from father to son. Indeed, there are stories in the Bible where people will not give up their inheritance at any price (eg King Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard[1]). It was a subsistence economy – with local labourers working on the land, living from hand to mouth. ‘Scraping along the bottom’ we’d call it (very similar to many rural economies in today’s developing world). However, the arrival of the Roman Empire was to severely disrupt this struggling economy in Palestine, and it led to enormous suffering, not just for workers but also landowners.

The reason for the social turmoil was that wherever the Romans took control, in return for the benefits of being part of the Empire, such as improved roads, water supply and security, the Romans demanded a return on their investment, in the shape of tax. The rather basic Palestinian economy, often based on bartering – swop deals between individuals with no cash changing hands – was suddenly replaced by money. And the Romans ruthlessly enforced tax payments: people who fell behind had a choice – face punishment at the hands of the Romans (not to be recommended), or sell off land to settle the debts. The centuries of passing on land to children was being completely disrupted, and many traditional landowners were finding themselves reduced to having to hang around looking for laboring work with the very same people they had used to employ.

The new, replacement absentee landowners took their cue from the ruthless Roman government: they need to cut costs, increase working hours, and in the cry we still hear today, “become more efficient”.

It still goes on today.

  • If you have ever worked for a company that has been taken over, you will know all about what ‘efficiency’ means. It means job insecurity, reduced conditions of employment, redundancies, and those who are left employed doing more work for less money.
  • Five and a half thousand phone-sales staff working for a company making £100m profit a year suddenly found they didn’t have a job anymore last week: the mobile networks simply put them out of business by cancelling their contracts;
  • also this week we’ve heard that dairy farmers are worried that one in ten of them will go out of business before Christmas if the big supermarkets act on their plans to cut milk prices again.
  • A final example. If you pass along the Stratford Road into the City Centre in the early hours of the morning, you will often see people being picked-up in unmarked Transit vans. Many of these are casual labourers, often being employed without any National Insurance, unknown to the tax authorities. They are paid in cash on less than the minimum wage, but desperate for money.

For all these modern examples, and in the parable, we can imagine the humiliation felt by ordinary people.

Now, in today’s parable, something unheard of happens – the landowner himself comes at the crack of dawn to hire some workmen for his vineyard. Why would he do that? Surely he could send his foreman to hire his day workers?

I have an inkling of what is going on here. Because in a funny sort of way I have been in a similar situation to that landowner. Some of you may also recognise what’s going on. Let me tell you what it is.

When you are the person in charge of any large enterprise or organisation, away from the ‘front line’, it is almost inevitable that your managers will try and put a gloss on how things are going: they want to keep you happy; they want to look good in the eyes of their boss; and they don’t want you to know of any problems on their watch.

There’s only one way for any top boss to find out what is being done in their name. And that is, without warning, to turn up, at any hour of the day or night, and take a close-up look yourself. You can get an idea of this if you’ve seen those TV programmes about ‘undercover bosses’. Sometimes the bosses on TV are really shocked at the conditions their workers are having work in, or the problems they are having to face. Sometimes they find out that their managers are charming to the senior management but bullies to their own subordinates. (Again there are examples of this in the Bible too.)

Another thought to ponder about today’s parable. Why does the landowner keep coming back, throughout the day for more workers – surely he knows how big the task is and how many labourers he will needs at the beginning of the day? Why the re-visits?

And why do you think the unemployed men would hang around all day? Why didn’t they give up and go home when they weren’t hired at 6am?


They lived in hope of finding something. They couldn’t face the humiliation of going home empty handed. Perhaps at the end of the day they hoped they’d meet up with a pal who had been lucky enough to be hired that morning, and perhaps borrow some money to tide them over; perhaps they’d agreed to do the same if the roles were reversed the next day.

This is the key to the parable. The landowner wants to give those poor men some human dignity. He doesn’t just give them a handout. That man knows that work is a noble thing to do. Just being paid money is not enough to satisfy our self-respect. We all need to have dignity and self-esteem. It’s part of being human. We are not just cogs in a machine.

So what we have in today’s parable is a landowner with a social conscience. He has compassion for those unemployed workers. The owner of the vineyard is making a practical protest against the system imposed by the Romans. He is not like all the other landowners who are profiting from the Roman system. He is showing them up as collaborators in a rotten system. They turn a blind eye. He does not.

And he makes sure everyone finds out about his protest by paying the workers in reverse order. He pays first the ones who only worked from 5pm in the evening – but giving them a full day’s pay. Think about it. If instead he had started by paying the one denarius to the workers who had been there since 6am in the morning, they would have gone on their way happy, not knowing even the latecomers had been paid the same. No demonstrations and protests. But seeing the latecomers paid one denarius, they thought they would get more, and then started complaining when they didn’t. In no time, everyone will have heard about what the landowner did. Brave man.

Todays gospel is an excellent example of how relevant the teaching of our Lord is to the modern world. It’s a tough challenge that our Lord makes to us all. And each of us needs to ponder on the way that we can respond to such circumstances of social injustice.

[1] e.g. 1 Kings 21:1

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