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Reform Magazine | October 23, 2017

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Chapter and Verse: Matthew 20:1-16

Chapter and Verse: Matthew 20:1-16

moore_finalLawrence Moore explores a parable of pay and generosity

Generosity is good in very small, occasional doses, or when we’re its recipient. Otherwise, it’s against the rules: It’s unfair, indecent and undermines the good ordering of society. And if it became the rule rather than the exception, the whole social order as we know it would collapse.

That, at least, is the message of society according to Jesus’ parable of the labourers in the vineyard, told to religious people. Interestingly, it’s a parable specifically about our deep resistance to financial generosity. We’re far more comfortable with generosity of time, hospitality and possessions, than money. Jesus couches God’s generosity in financial terms, and we don’t like it – not one little bit.

That’s because God (in the person of the landowner) is breaking the rules governing transactions between employers and employees. The labourers depend on that contractual relationship for survival; economic rules provide the mechanism by which they can gain access to scarce resources. Money is a scarce commodity – they do not have enough of it, so that they have to find daily work for the whole day if they are to receive enough to feed themselves and their families for the next 24 hours.

Note the inbuilt brutality of the system: If the labourers do not work (all day, every day), they and their families will die. That is an acceptable cost, taken for granted – by everyone. They live in the hurricane space of the free market, in which the decisions about whether they will work, and for how long, is dependent upon the landowner’s profit margins. The landlord’s only priority is to get his vineyard tended to and his grapes harvested. He might be under pressure to pay what is agreed to be a fair wage, but is under no obligation to ensure the survival of the families on the margins…

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This is an extract from the November 2014 edition of Reform.

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