The labourers in the vineyard and their zero-hour contracts

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published next week. To give you a taste of it, I’ve written some short blog posts that my publisher, DLT, will be running over the next few days. I’m cross-posting them on here. Here’s the first.

 
Upside-Down BibleJesus spent a lot of time talking about money. It was a central theme in many of his parables.

When I showed these parables to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them, they responded by talking about money. This is less obvious than it sounds. Christians rarely mention money when discussing these stories. We are used to being told that they are making symbolic points about salvation.

First-time readers are unlikely to do this. Like Jesus’ first listeners, they hear stories about their everyday concerns. I have found that they make varied, interesting and insightful observations – all of which Christians risk overlooking in our rush towards doctrinal conclusions.

This experience has convinced me that Christians have a lot to learn from non-Christians – about the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable often referred to as “the workers in the vineyard”. You can find it at Matthew 20, 1-15. The story concerns a landowner who hires casual labourers for different lengths of time but pays them all the same wage.

For many readers, the issues feel close to home. In various parts of the world, farm labourers and construction workers still gather in the morning to see if anyone will hire them. In the UK, zero-hour contracts are now very common. People await a text at six in the morning to tell them if they will have work. They are the equivalent of day labourers gathering in the market place.

One recent academic commentary on Matthew’s Gospel lists eight possible interpretations of this parable, none of which have anything to do with money and work. It is true that Jesus appears to have been drawing on a Jewish tradition of ‘parables of recompense’, in which unusual payments were used to illustrate wider points. Jesus’ story, however, goes into far more detail than most of these. Furthermore, Jesus’ listeners heard a story about their own worries: work, money, power, having enough to eat. Christian interpretation, however, has been influenced over centuries by church leaders and scholars who have rarely had to worry about finding enough work, money or food.

So how does the story sound to people who have experienced poverty and unemployment in today’s world?

‘I would have to identify with the late arrivals,’ said Samantha. ‘As a person with a disability, I have often had to claim benefits because of being unable to keep up with normal “hardworking” people.’

She added, ‘I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others’.

Although Samantha is approaching the story from a left-wing perspective, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who shares her politics will read it in the same way. Carl, another first-time reader, believes that the employer behaved unfairly.

‘This story illustrates the exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The parallels to today are many; the inequalities of pay are vast: between genders, between different countries of the world or even areas of the same country, between workers within the same company.’

He concludes, ‘Surely Jesus was saying this isn’t good and that we should not behave in this way’.

Whether we agree with Samantha, with Carl or with neither, their perspectives are a reminder of something that Christians all too easily overlook: Jesus’ teachings concern our everyday lives and how our world functions, not merely a distant future or an abstract doctrine.

 

The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 26th November in paperback and e-book, priced £9.99.

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