Master or Labourer?

Sunday 18th September 2011
Year A, The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 20:1-16

One of the things that puzzles me is why people with assigned seats on airlines abandon their comfortable chairs in the departure lounge and stand uncomfortably in a queue so they can get on the plane early; you know it's odd behaviour because it is these same people who stand up first in order to get off first, rather than sitting and waiting their turn. It's a tiny symptom of the 'entitlement culture' which is partly responsible, it is said, for the recent wave of looting in some of our major cities. We live in a world of wide eyes and sharp elbows which cuts across all creeds and classes: the banker's bonus; the school place; the flat screen television.

Now all this is easy stuff, grist to the mill for a sermon, so let's take it as read, shall we? And move on.

Behind the story in today's gospel there are two ideas which frequently get confused, so let's separate them. The hired hands who start work at the crack of dawn agree to the customary daily rate; it would be revolutionary if they did anything else; that is how stable, agricultural societies work. Our age of inflation is relatively recent; prices stayed more or less stable between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Then, unusually, late comers were taken on and the master agreed to pay them the daily rate. So the workers obtained their just reward - agreed, predictable payment for agreed, predictable effort - but they rightly considered that they had been treated unfairly. Whereas justice is about non-negotiable predictability, fairness is about discretion.

So, in our own society, we have rather lost sight of justice and are pretty well obsessed with fairness which involves making comparisons between wages for different jobs, the way children are admitted to school, the kind of health services we enjoy and whether, on the whole, we are receiving our due. On this issue I think there are three important starting points to be made: first, we should learn the difference between the process of justice and the much less fixed idea of fairness; and, on that basis, secondly, we should put much more effort as citizens into participating in making the rules rather than simply using huge amounts of energy, mostly in a lost cause, to complain that we have been badly treated - unjustly or unfairly - by the rules; and, thirdly, the great danger which we must avoid is to allow our sense of injustice or unfairness to spill over into envy.

On the first two points, society is riven by disputes about the way in which individuals and groups are treated but few of us really trouble ourselves to distinguish between what is set down in rules and what is allowed as discretion. The way this is worked out is the result of a long, tradition of law making and power delegation which depends on active citizenship but how many of us volunteer to involve ourselves in or stand for election to involve ourselves in the rule-making process. On Thursday a research finding showed that only 25% of us think that MPs are doing a good job; and aside from the fact that I think this particular finding is a load of tosh which matches a biased question with a silly answer, how many of us know how and why we end up with the rules we have about, for example, schools admission, rubbish collection or the appointment of a Bishop.

But the third point is vital. Having done the best we can as citizens, rule makers or protesters, having done the best we can for ourselves and  our children, we must guard ourselves from envy. If a colleague is promoted and we are not, we might feel badly treated but we must not take it out on the colleague who was, after all, within his rights, as we were, to seek promotion.

Which brings me back to the understanding of the process. The daily hired hands  in the vineyard had no say over their wages and so those who came last were naturally surprised and delighted with their full day's pay; and the hands who had worked all day were properly frustrated with a system which gave them nothing extra. As they walked home they might have said to themselves: "we would have been better off waiting until the late afternoon before working". Which is true, they might; but, then again, the master might have only taken on workers at the beginning of the day and left them hanging about for nothing. It's a risk you take. But, underlying this there is another point much more relevant to our contemporary condition.

There is more than a hint in our gospel that the men who were hired late would have been content enough to be hired early. They did not like hanging around doing nothing  any more than the all day workers liked working in the heat of the day. The idea that we are a society that wants something for nothing needs thinking about carefully. Will the so-called entrepreneurs really jump ship if part of their income is taxed at 50% or will they just work a little harder or be content with a little less? In my experience, good entrepreneurs are absolutely obsessed with what they do for its own sake; in a sense, they can't help it. Those who do what they do simply for money fall away when the going gets tough because they are not passionate about what they are doing. In other words, if people are only in it for the money, if they really are global mercenaries, we are better off without them.

And so, although it is easy to slag off bankers, sharp elbowed middle class parents and flat screen TV thieves, it's more important to settle on three areas of work: first, we must understand our own society better and contribute more to it; secondly, we should recognise the centrality of work for a fulfilled life and do all we can to promote employment, even if all we can do is to give an idle teenager work experience; and, finally, we must curb our individual and systemic envy. The riots simply could not have happened without a sustaining 'culture of entitlement', the sense that our rights to possess exist outside any consideration of our neighbour.

There is no point being nostalgic about the vineyard or, in our case, the old industrial solidarity of the mill and the mine. We live in a complex society which suffers from scandalous inequality; and we have to ask ourselves, how far are we  the helpless daily hands; and how far are we the masters who determine how much we pay.