The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Jonah 3.10 – 4.11; Philippians 1.21–30; Matthew 20.1–16
Its not fair! Not fair at all! I really want a pet unicorn! I would name them PrettyStorm It would be my bestest best friend for sure!
The opening lines of a poem by Matty Angel, an autistic poet, writer and painter from Christchurch New Zealand. It’s the cry of childhood though that, I suspect, we’ve all made at one time or another, especially if we have siblings. ‘It’s not fair, she’s got more than me.’ ‘It’s not fair, I want one.’ ‘It’s not fair, he did it as well, why I have I got to go to my room? It’s not fair.’ ‘It’s not fair, I really want a unicorn!’
I was the eldest of three and so was allowed to stay up longer than the other two. As they left the sitting room, often in tears, that was their cry. It’s not fair.
In that rather dreadful film, ‘Mommie Dearest’ staring Faye Dunaway, about Joan Crawford raising and abusing her adopted daughter, there’s the immortal line as Mommy dearest has dealt out more punishment
‘nobody ever said life was fair.’
It was the cry at the gate of the vineyard as the workers left. Night had fallen, they could work no longer and so they queue to collect their wages. Some had been working all day, through the heat of the day, back breaking, hand chaffing work of collecting the grapes from the vines; others had joined them when the sun was at its highest, just glad to get some work, and some had come as the sun was declining in the western sky, unable to believe their luck in getting just a few hours paid employment. And they wait for their wages.
Those who’d arrived last are called first and receive a full day’s wages. There must be some mistake – or had the daily rate gone up? Those further back in the queue were getting excited – bonanza time! So you can imagine their reaction when they’re handed the same amount, back broken, work worn, heat drained, exhausted workers – just the same – it’s not fair.
What we’re given in this parable is a wonderful piece of social history. If you needed workers in the days of Jesus you knew where to find them. The employer, or his manager, would go down to the agora, the market place, and there would be the people who were looking for work. For many people work was what we’d think of as being casual labour. You took what was on offer and that included the pay. There were plenty of other people available so you hadn’t much in your hand as far as negotiating your rights was concerned.
You have to feel some sympathy for these men. Natural justice would suggest that those who worked longest, through the worst conditions, should get paid more. It’s only fair after all – what the owner of the vineyard is doing is not fair.
Yet in his eyes his actions are entirely fair. He was clear about the conditions on which he was hiring each person when he called them from the market place and they all readily agreed to it. He isn’t diddling anyone, but simply being true to his word to each one of them. He’s giving no one less so that someone else can get more. He’s treating everyone equally, with equality.
Now the thing to remember is that this parable was not told by Jesus as a kind of exposition of good employer practice, nor as a political statement of how to run a nation. It’s very easy in one sense to see it in these terms. But that’s forgetting the very first words that Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’.
This is one of the kingdom parables and so it’s teaching us something fundamental about the nature of the kingdom, not making superficial points about the practicalities of politics or employment practices.
Nevertheless the kingdom is not about ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – relying on justice in a heaven that’s a long way away. The kingdom is about here and now; about the way in which we live with one another; it is about a radical readdressing of justice, of life - and drawing all of that into the everyday.
We’re still in the ever increasing mess of this pandemic and things are getting worse. What has become very obvious to many of us however, as a result of all that has happened, is the depth and the undeniable reality of social inequality in this country. Why is it that northern communities are suffering so terribly at the moment? Is it just that they go to the pub more, go to the mosque more, do any of the stereotypical things that we might think about people in the north? Or is it something to do about community and opportunity, about housing, about the nature of employment, about the starving of community services during years of austerity?
Why is it that so many of our sisters and brothers from BAME communities have died compared to their white neighbours? Is it about the jobs that people can get, the opportunities that people have, the conditions in which people live and work? How is it that some of us have been able to save money during this period – because we haven’t been to the theatre and restaurants and the Maldives – and some are literally on the bread line?
It just isn’t fair.
St Paul says to the Philippians in our Second Reading
‘Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.’
Live the kingdom now, live according to kingdom values now, says Jesus to the people. And what is that kingdom like? It’s like a landowner who is unstintingly generous, who gives more than we deserve. It’s like the God that Jesus reveals to us as he gives himself equally, to you and me, and the person alongside you today and the person watching this online from home, and the person who isn’t even here. God is more than generous, God is love.
Covid has presented us with many challenges, but part of the challenge is what kind of society do we aspire to be in the future. Do we want more of the same, or one in which all people come to the same table and are fed with the same bread and each goes away satisfied?
After all, that is what we, here are modelling today. The kingdom of heaven is like …. this.