Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – pay and conditions.

“I choose to give to this last the same I give to you…… So the last will be first and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16.

“All I’ve ever wanted was a honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Steve 

Martin, in the film Sgt Bioko.

Jesus continues his series of parables about the kingdom of heaven with this story of a landowner who hired labourers to work for the day in his vineyard after agreeing the usual daily wage with them. At various times during the day, he sees other workers standing idle and agrees to pay them ‘whatever is right’ for working until finally evening comes and the labourers are paid. Those who were hired last were paid first and received the usual daily wage although they had only worked for an hour but those who had worked from the start received the same amount. Although they had agreed this with the landowner at the start of the day when they were willing to work for that wage, they grumbled because they had worked for much longer. Some might have sympathy for their complaint, but the landowner tells them that no wrong has been done because they were willing to work for that pay at the start of the day.

That may be true, but it’s understandable that those who have laboured all day are jealous of the good fortune of those who arrived late. Perhaps they think that, having worked for so short a time, they don’t deserve the full amount and haven’t earned it. In coveting what those last workers have received, the jealousy and grumbling of those who have worked all day affects their perception of the wage they accepted when they were hired – although they had been initially satisfied with it.

This parable about labour and wages has resonances in the context of the ongoing disputes about pay and conditions in the NHS, the railways, the London Underground and elsewhere. With the government pouring £500 million to prop up the Port Talbot Steel Works, pay, the cost of living, the difficult in getting a mortgage and the changes in the economy as well as the housing market means this is a topical issue currently. What would Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the other Union secretaries and leaders involved in the current disputes make of this parable?! 

However, the parable isn’t about pay and labour at all. Rather, Jesus likens it to the kingdom of heaven where all are welcome and those who seek it sometimes enter much later than others. All are welcome unconditionally – God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness are his to dispense, not ours to judge even though we may feel envious of blessings given to others that we might envy ourselves. 

Perhaps jealousy of others is an issue for us today? Do we covet the blessings others have been given, whilst not recognising that we’ve been blessed in different ways? If the last are first and the first last, rather than resentment being key, isn’t that a sign that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand? If so: alleluia!

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.