Trinity 15 2017
Have you spotted the connection between today’s readings? It’s something none of us ever do, of course. It’s - complaining - that is the common factor in our readings today. Something none of us ever do.
In our Old Testament reading the Israelites, not so long escaped from the oppression of Egyptian taskmasters, complain about the wilderness diet, or lack of it. In words that every Vicar dreads:
“The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron”.
The whole congregation - that’s like, everybody. Although I’ve been here nearly fifteen years now, I don’t recall ever knowing that the whole congregation complained against Gordon, Jackie and Mo. It would be quite something wouldn’t it?! Although, to be fair, if we caused you to starve, then there might be justifiable cause for complaint. However, their complaint is heard, and manna from heaven is provided: free food.
In the gospel reading: the well-known and challenging parable of the labourers in the vineyard, we have similar dynamic: those who feel hard done by complain about the Johnny-come-latelies getting the same wage. They feel that they have somehow earned more, of what is then explained to them is as gift, also agreed under contact. It may seem unfair, but it is the hand they were dealt and which they accepted at the outset. This still happens today, and there are all sorts of inequalities in the workplace, not leastly between men and women, for whom the pay gap is by no means evened out. Indeed, this parable begs the very question that is so often not asked, but perhaps should be: what is a wage for? Time spent? Skill? Or effort expended? Or enough to live on? Why are people paid for their work? The answer may lie in how, in enlightened society, we pay people for not working, people who cannot or do not work. People need to feed themselves and their families, to keep their homes warm - to have something to call home in the first place. These basic needs are met generally, even for those who have no income to sustain them. A wage is to live - and that is why there is talk now of being a ‘Living wage’ employer.
I happened to sit at dinner the other night next to the HR manager of a major football club, and it was fascinating to hear about how and who they employ. Footballers pay a lot of tax, of course, because, as we know, some of them earn a lot of money. Wayne Rooney, you might recall got a £200 fine for drink driving, but his club fined him 2 weeks wages which will cost him £300,000. Meanwhile you may remember that some workers from Macdonald’s went on strike recently because they said that the wage they are paid simply isn’t enough to live on in London.
In our parable today, we hear how people get paid the same wage for different working hours. The fact is, the wage that is paid to them was deemed to be a day’s wage, enough so that the family could eat. So if the labourers are not hired, they go hungry. Their basic maintenance costs the same whether they work a day, no day, or half a day. On that basis they are given what they need, and none of them went home hungry that night, and it might even be said that the ones who worked hardest, did so on behalf of those who were not hired until later in the day. So the landowner hands out unemployment benefit as well as a wage. We can understand their disgruntlement: their playground cry of ‘it’s not fair’. But God’s justice is not the same as ours. The others waited patiently, and ultimately received their reward, and the reward, the gift, is not the work, but the payment – enough to live. So they were treated equally, even if being treated equally might seem, at least to us and the others, unfair. You might remember when the Poll Tax - the Community Charge was introduced in the last century, people said that because it treated everyone equally, it was unfair. Because folk have different incomes, a standard price is, arguably unfair. So in recent years we have seen crimes punishable by fines proportionate to income (although not for Wayne Rooney, it seems, to whom £200 is presumably nothing).
Wages are not fines, of course, but, in a society where cash is the currency of existence, wages are a necessity, and where they are not available for whatever reason, must be substituted by benefits, pensions or subsidies. Ethics, morality, politics, aside, like it or not, this is how it works nowadays.
Having no money is not an option, just as it was not in Jesus’ time. As the Chairman of the Credit Union, I know too well what happens when folk find that things simply do not add up. They go into debt, and then the poorest find themselves paying more for credit than those who borrow for mortgages and car loans and luxuries. Loan sharks and internet loan companies charge interest in the thousands of per cent, and if you really want to pay interest rates that approach 800,000% - yes I said 800,000%, then just be someone on a lowish income, with a bank account who goes overdrawn without permission. Short term charges on unwarranted overdrafts go over 800,000%. It is the most expensive debt there is. And with significant proportions of Londoners having no savings at all, and about a third of the population not having £400 available for an emergency bill, such as a new washing machine if the old one breaks, we have, as a society a very serious knife-edge debt crisis ticking away. Companies like Brighthouse who will sell you a washing machine at £10 a week for three years, mean that you end up paying over a £1500 for a £400 machine because you are poor. Meanwhile, one in six people in the UK live with problem debt, which is to say that 8.3 million people - almost 16% of the population - find meeting monthly bills a heavy burden and/or miss more than three bill payments in a typical six month period. The average debt that the charity StepChange encounters is £14,367. The people who have debts like that are not unemployed.
We cannot simply take the view that people shouldn’t borrow money in the first place. Some people, because their wages are so low, must, and become encircled by vicious debt repayments. It is unrealistic, inaccurate and profoundly judgmental to write off folk who are in debt as victims of their own stupidity or greed.
The wage system is bankrupt whichever way you look at it: If a wage is for effort expended, then it is not clear that people on menial wages work less hard than those on high pay. If wages are for learning, skill or education gained, again it is not the case that highly educated or skilled people earn more than those who might have risen through the ranks or who do dangerous, if unskilled jobs. If wages are based on responsibility then it is not the case that those who hold our lives in their hands are the most highly paid. If wages are based on supply and demand, it is also not clear that those who do the jobs society really needs, are the highest paid. It seems more likely that the highest paid jobs are those in the sectors that actually make the most money, and the high wages are put in place to ensure that that remains the case, that is to say that the highest wages are paid to those who ensure the continuance of the ability of the company to make profits. This is the principle of bonuses, and of course there are so many sectors of employment where bonuses are not appropriate or possible. There may be some correlation between the rarity of a job and the height of the wage - jobs which not many people do, in a classical pyramidal system, are the ones that pay more. So the higher up the pyramid you are, the more you earn, another are fewer people at the top than the bottom.
Of course, being a Vicar, I am not paid according to any of these systems. I receive the same emolument as every other vicar, and the amount of work I do, the size of parish, congregation, or even the number of jobs clergy do, makes no difference. We are paid an amount which is deemed sufficient to live off, although that’s the same for single and married clergy, some of whom, with several children, do in fact struggle and rely on benefits. There is no reward or increase for experience, responsibility or skill, nor for effectiveness, results or performance, and certainly no bonuses, although they do say the perks are out of this world and the rewards great in heaven! And of course, some clergy, like Mo and Jackie, do it for absolutely nothing.
Yet you don’t hear too many complaints from the clergy - indeed some recent research from a seven-year long study suggests that clergy have a combination of low pay, high job satisfaction, great responsibility and long working hours. Most clergy have one day off a week, which means we work 50 days a year more than everyone else, and yet most of us love our jobs, which of course, we don’t see as a mere job, but as a vocation. Well-being among clergy, is overall, very high. To some extent, the parable of the workers in the vineyard tallies quite well with the way the Church of England structures its payroll. Men, women, young and old, senior and junior, married, single, are all paid the same stipend. Whenever we entered the vineyard, and wherever we are at in ministry, the wages are the same. But this is not the way of the world, where wage regimes are not underpinned not by need or fairness or equality.
There is much injustice in our society, and the great sadness is that some of it is built into the fabric of society, and is an inevitable consequence of the way things are done. Serious rocking of the boat, and creative development would be needed to change things. This might involve radical politics, as it did to some extent in various times and places in the twentieth century, and, or it can be left for grass roots small-scale cultural changes to filter both upwards and downwards. Our wage culture is exactly that - a culture - and it is a culture in which inequality, unfairness and even injustice are tacitly accepted, partly because most people feel that basically it works, and because change is difficult. That doesn’t make it right of course, and our gospel parable today suggests that it might well not be.
There is another way, but it may be impossible to change the monetarist underpinnings of the fabric of society. And that itself could be quite dangerous for the future. For when a culture increasingly diminishes increasing numbers of people, there is invariably a reaction, and a mere glance at the histories of Europe, Central America and South-East Asia makes this plain.
The answer - or rather the hope - is the Christian one. Jesus, who in parables - think of the Good Samaritan and the Unjust steward - Jesus who is in the business of righting wrongs, rebalancing culture, advocating equality and generally standing up for the poor and oppressed, Jesus offers a different approach. It is radically different and is thus challenging, and the more challenging it becomes as injustices become embedded in modern culture and financial practice. Recent high profile comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury have made little indentations into the fact that the poorer you are the more interest you pay on loans - and of course the financiers can justify this financially - but that’s like asking a chef to justify cooking with an ingredient he or she happens to like the taste of:
“I’m the chef and I like chilli, so I put it in the rice pudding, but I’m the chef so not only do I know about these things, I’m the one making the rice pudding, and if you don’t like rice pudding with chilli in it, then you just have to lump it. Because I’m the chef and I do the cooking. And I do the cooking because I’m the chef, right? No? Oh well, tough.”
So we go along with it - and always have done. Which may explain why Jesus said, ‘the poor are always with you’. And so the poor are a living, constant reminder that there is another way, if only we dared embrace it. Yet, good complainers as we are, very few of us complain about the financial injustices which underpin society as it currently functions.
St Paul has the answer in the New Testament reading, in which he does quite the opposite of complaining. Rather than moan and whinge, Paul, who always worked in return for the hospitality he received, tells us that whatever happens, whatever context we find ourselves in, we should live our lives - and do our work - or not - in a manner worthy of Christ. This can involve suffering or sacrifice of course, which is not the same as submission or acquiescence to the ways of the world. We submit not to the philosophies of oppression and injustice, but rather to Christ and his gospel of love, hope and faith, and this has its outworking in vigilance, speaking out and action for the poor and needy. Paul calls this a privilege and indeed it is.
And it is a privilege that is open to all. All can serve, all can pray, all can speak and all can act. It’s just that most of the time most of us never do. We don’t complain about the right things and we keep silent about the wrong things. As the philosopher Edmund Burke is sometimes quoted as saying - erroneously in fact: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
So actually, like the workers in the vineyard and the Israelites in the wilderness, what we ought to be doing, is complaining. We should be having a good old moan, not so much about cycle lanes and Brexit, but about the injustices of our society and the fact that being poor is a curse condoned by convention and a slur, nor just on a sixth of the population, but on society itself.
Something needs to be done, or there will be big trouble. It’s a big ask - but as such, it begins with a lot of complaining. For you don’t solve the problem of the poor by paying their bills, you begin by complaining about the structures that make, and keep them poor. Which is why the parable of the workers in the vineyard is both a very creative offering and a parable for our time.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 24/9/17