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Solidarity with the poor

August 19, 2015

Matthew 20: 1-16                  18th August 2015

At the time of Jesus there was tremendous social change going on in the rural society.

The Palestinian economy before the Romans had been based much more on bartering between individuals, it was basically a cashless society. But wherever the Roman Empire took over they would introduce the Empire’s common currency, and this was the mechanism through which taxes could be collected much more efficiently. And people who fell behind with tax payments had a hard choice – cruel punishment at the hands of the Romans, or selling off their land. People sold off their land. The centuries of passing on land passing from father to son was destroyed overnight, and many traditional landowners ended up hanging round looking for work as labourers.

And the new, modern employers exploited the workers. To maximize their own wealth they would ruthlessly try to cut costs, by reducing wages, increasing working hours, and making the workers ‘more productive’. Does this sound familiar?

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. Instead of sending his foreman, the boss goes himself to find out the real situation. 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.) All too often, the plight of the poor is hidden from us unless we go and look ourselves. I have been myself in the queue at 7 o’clock in the morning at Ladywood Neighbourhood Office to try and help someone who was homeless. It is shocking the way people are treated. I’ve been at the doctor’s surgery in Winson Green trying to get an asylum seeker treatment for recurrent injuries inflicted on him when he was tortured by soldiers in their own country before he managed to escape by pretending to be dead. Only after I made a protest did we get to see a doctor.

Do you notice how the unemployed workers hang around all day? They don’t give up when they’re not hired at 6am. They live in hope of someone coming to help them. To save them. And they hang around with their mates all day – they need the social contact and friendship. Poor people help each other out. Perhaps at the end of the day they would meet up with a pal who had been lucky enough to be hired that morning, and perhaps borrow some money to tide them over.

That’s why the landowner keep coming back, throughout the day for more workers – he could have easily hired the number of workers he needed in one go at 6am, but he is showing solidarity with the workers.

This is the key to Jesus’ parable. What we see in this parable told by our Lord is an astonishing protest against ‘zero hours contracts’ in favour of the workers receiving a proper living wage. B being there himself the owner of the vineyard is making a political protest against the injustice of the Romans tax system.

And he makes sure everyone finds out about his protest by paying the workers in reverse order. First he pays the men who only started worked last. [Do you remember Jesus saying yesterday at the end of the gospel, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’? He repeats it today.]

Think about it. If instead he had started by paying the one denarius to the workers who had been there since first thing in the morning, they would have gone on their way happy, not knowing even the latecomers had been paid the same. No-one would have realised the latecomers had got the same, unless they were paid first. By paying them in reverse order, the employer gets maximum publicity for his protest.

Today’s 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. Perhaps we can think about going on holiday to Greece to help their desperate economy; perhaps we could only buy milk that is a bit more expensive but allows the dairy farmers to make a living; perhaps we can donate something to our monthly Parish collection for St Chad’s Sanctuary, to help the asylum seekers who are deliberately impoverished by government policy.

Jesus parable today is at the core of the Church’s social teaching – solidarity with the poor, and action to alleviate their misery. And as I say, a tough challenge to us all.

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