I don’t suppose many landowners would behave like the man in today’s story. But that’s the point. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place or a realm where people behave normally – according to the usual rules and expectations of the prevailing culture. It isn’t the locus for the ordinary but the extraordinary.
In the Kingdom of Heaven – in a world that works by God’s rules – we find people doing extraordinary things, acting with extraordinary generosity. They don’t calculate gain or loss, they’re not concerned about what the neighbours think, they don’t pay heed to doomsayers or the threats of those whose interests are vested in the status quo. By the standards of both his day and ours, the landowner had more money than sense. Who pays someone for work they haven’t done? And surely, if this were to be the usual pattern wouldn’t it simply encourage everyone to turn up at five o’clock and do one hour’s work rather than springing out of bed at first light to toil through the day?
The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard speaks to us of eternal truths but it’s also very much a story for today. St Augustine would have pointed out that it’s we, Christian believers, who’ve arrived at the last minute to spend our hour in the vineyard before being given exactly the same reward as holy women and men who entered God’s service many centuries ago. He would say that the one denarius each of us receives is sufficient for all we need. If we have enough why would we grumble that others also have enough? In God’s economy, indeed, we do not earn but we are promised eternal life – infinite life – so it’s surely foolish to begrudge infinity to others when there is no limit to the benefits we shall enjoy.
Such is the greater theological truth of this story, if you like, but it’s also a story that has interesting resonances for today. Its inversion of the natural order of things and its challenge to our work ethic is perhaps heard differently in a pandemic world where it has not just been necessary but desirable to pay people to stay at home, to subsidise business owners, to compensate employers, to house the homeless. All this stands in stark contrast to the political ideology, shared by many of us let’s be honest, that idleness should not be rewarded, that people should receive an incentive to work, that one’s ‘worth’ is defined by the size of one’s income.
Haven’t we learned during this time, for example, that the most useful people, the most essential people, aren’t those high up the pay scale? Haven’t we also leaned, of ourselves as well as seeing it in others, that work actually fulfils us – that for most of us inactivity causes all sorts of stresses and strains on our mental health – that we like to be doing things, learning things, joining in things? And, if we don’t get paid for it we’re often willing to do it for nothing. Haven’t we caught a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, of an economic reality that doesn’t demand growth on growth and in which the sharing of wealth promotes health, well-being and creativity? A glimpse, perhaps, of the Kingdom of Heaven where God’s rules apply – and as we’ve looked we’ve wondered whether perhaps it’s not as daft and eccentric as we once thought.
The difficulty is that shortly after we’re born we learn to put on blinkers. Centuries of worldly wisdom crowd in on us, seep into us, and in some part of ourselves we imbibe the idea that those who are poor must suffer for it and those who are rich must be rewarded. Yet, interestingly, the church – in part of its life at any rate – has always subverted these conventions. Its clergy, whose role as shepherds of God’s flock, as those who tend to the deepest spiritual needs of humanity, who share a vision of God’s glory and God’s justice, and as such, I would argue, are doing essential work, vital work of lasting value, aren’t paid a salary but a stipend. And this stipend is calculated on the basis of providing enough to live on rather than rewarding the hours worked (which are many) or the importance of the job done (which, as I say, is huge).
Now whilst the purity of this position has been eroded and qualified over the years, and whilst it’s increasingly difficult to maintain the idea of stipend as against salary – and whilst at times clergy morale is undermined in a culture that equates the level of pay with one’s social status – nevertheless we see here in the life of Christian community evidence of the eccentric economy of the Kingdom of God.
Increasingly others too, quite apart from communities of faith, are wondering whether we haven’t got it wrong. With the emergence of artificial intelligence, the probability that the future can’t promise a 9-5 job for everyone and since there is already plenty of wealth to go around, many are asking whether the time may have come to welcome all this, to reduce working hours, encourage job sharing and pay everyone what’s called a universal basic income.
As I say, recent experience has shown how adaptable we are in terms of working practice. It’s also indicated that people (most people) enjoy being active and that, freed from working long hours, most people can be incredibly resourceful and productive with their time, even in lock-down.
Whether those workers in the vineyard who arrived late did so because they’d slept in or spent the day in the equivalent of the pub, or whether they’d been looking after an elderly relative or child-minding or starting their own small business or learning to play the harp (or any number of other reasons) we’re not told and neither is this the point of the story. Human beings are fallible, they mess up, and because they mess up every economic system they devise is likely to be flawed, universal basic income as well as free-market capitalism. St Augustine is right to remind us that the disproportionate rewards of God’s kingdom are for the next life rather than a utopian possibility for this.
And yet, the story Jesus tells of the employment practices of a rather strange landowner invites us to think about work, about its rewards, about money and status and indeed, about the purpose of life itself. At a time when the unthinkable is a daily occurrence it enables us to see how the values of God’s kingdom might inform and shape our future. This is surely why we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, O God, on earth as in heaven.’