Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins


Most national leaders proclaim that they are trying to build a fair society. Those who think that a national leadership is failing in this respect may (if they're lucky) protest against such a shortcoming.

Jesus in Matthew 20.1-16 warns us to think again what a fair society might look like, because everybody has their own idea about this, and those ideas are often not compatible with each other.

The men in this parable who were hired early in the morning had a very clear idea about a fair and just society. It was a full day�s work for a full day�s pay. A penny, as the old versions of the Bible translated it, or "the usual daily wage" was the standard day�s pay. It was presumably considered sufficient to live on. It was what the all-day workers agreed to receive.

And if everyone had worked all day, there would have been no problem. But then other men were taken on at various points during the day - some as late as the eleventh hour, which meant that they worked only one hour. The owner did not negotiate a pay deal with them. He simply said that he would give them "whatever was right", whatever was fair.

What did he mean by that? Judging by his actions at pay time, it meant paying them the full day�s wage. We are not told why he did it. He may have felt that men who were available for work all day, and through no fault of their own were only hired to work for a proportion of that time, deserved sufficient money to live on. To have paid any less would have meant their families going hungry, and where is the fairness in that?

But the workers who had been hired early had other ideas. Fairness to them meant that pay awarded was proportional to work done. A penny for a full day meant only a halfpenny for a half day, and so on. If the landowner wanted to run a one-man welfare state, and over-pay the latecomers, that was his business. But he should not over-ride their idea of fairness, which said that if they worked longer, then they should receive more.

So if he chose to pay a full penny to the johnny-come-latelys, he should pay the original work force - those who had borne the burden and heat of the day - a bonus in compensation.

But at this point the owner invoked yet a third version of a fair society. It is one where people stick to their bargains. "Did you not agree with me for the usual day�s wage?" he tells them. "Take what belongs to you and go."

So here in one short story are at least three versions of what a fair society might look like. And each of them - taken alone - seems utterly reasonable. A fair society is one in which earnings are proportional to work put in. It is one in which everyone receives sufficient for their needs. It is one in which agreements once made are kept to.

I wonder which of these definitions - if any of them - either a dilatory national leader or those protesting against government actions would adopt. What judgement is the parable itself making about the three possible versions of a fair or just society that it offers us?

A look back at the Old Testament provides an answer. Jewish teachers had always used the landowner and the vineyard, like the shepherd and his sheep, as a picture of God and his people. So all of the hearers of Jesus�s parable will have understood the landowner as God, and his actions as the ones that Jesus approved.

That is to say, fairness, or justice, is to be measured by what people need, not by what they deserve, or have earned. This is a constant theme in the New Testament, especially in Paul's writings. God�s love is given to us unconditionally. It is given even though we haven�t earned it. It is God�s free gift.

Paul faced stiff opposition to this brand of Christianity from those who wanted to stick closer to the old idea that God made bargains, and that we had to keep our side if we wanted him to keep his. And its worth noting that there are more than a few hints in Matthew�s Gospel that its author was one of those who thought Paul�s ideas were a bit too easy going.

However, in this morning�s parable - a story that does not appear in any of the other gospels - Matthew somewhat surprisingly backs Paul�s line to the hilt.

The early workers typify the old legalistic attitude, which says you should get what you deserve. So in dealing with them the landowner plays them at their own game. He gives them what was agreed, not cent more and not a cent less. But the workers hired later have made no bargain. There is nothing they can claim as of right. They have simply trusted the landowner to deal fairly with them. And they are rewarded over and above anything they could have expected or deserved. They get a full day�s pay.

Of course, in relaying this parable neither Jesus nor Matthew is directly interested in what we today think of as industrial relations. For them the vineyard is the house of Israel, the landowner is God, the early labourers are the scribes and Pharisees who insist on doing everything by the book.

The latecomers are Christians - especially perhaps non-Jewish Christian converts - who simply trust to God�s grace. And the full day�s pay is the gift of eternal life.

Note that all the workers get it. This perhaps is where Matthew�s conservative touch may be seen. Faithful Jews who have served God all their lives according to the Old Testament law will not be excluded from God's kingdom. But neither will they have the right to exclude the others, the johnny-come-latelys who have responded to the invitation of Jesus.

I have said that the parable is not concerned with politics or industrial relations as we know them. But it does have an indirect bearing on them. If God�s kingdom is a society built on love and trust, and on meeting needs rather than demanding rights, then ought not these to be the qualities that we strive for in any fair and just society here on earth?

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