The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville

In modern times a business owner seeking to hire workers is obliged to consider and solve many prior issues. Among these are the legislation regarding - minimum wage, equality of treatment (equal pay for equal work) and anti-discrimination. Further problems include health and safety, whereby the employer must provide a safe system of work (duty of care) and supply essential wearing apparel and tools for the job required.

This minefield of regulation had no parallel in biblical times. One of the Parables of Jesus illustrates the ancient approach. It will be recalled in Matthew I Ch 20 vv 1-16 that the owner of a vineyard hired some labourers. At intervals throughout the day he hired some more until just one hour before the finish he hired the last group. When it came to payment he stipulated that the last taken on would be paid first and so on until the first taken on were paid last. Each worker was paid the same amount - one Roman Denarius - however the long or short a time he worked. When the whole day workers grumbled, the owner is said to have retorted that he could do as he wished with his own money.

At first and superficial reading, this parable is problematic. In the first place the accusation of being unfair seems to be made out. It has been asserted by scholars that a denarius (a low value coin) was a generous wage for a day’s work. This of course depends on when the allegorical story might have taken place, since throughout the Roman Republic the value of coinage fluctuated. Furthermore, the owner’s actions ran counter to the statement in Deuteronomy, that the labourer is worthy of his hire. If the payment in this case was indeed generous then there is the problem that the later workers were wildly overpaid. It is a commercial principle that the worker provides more value to the employer than he receives in wages - this enables the owner to carry on his business responsibilities.

This perplexing parable has, however, a deeper meaning. For service to the Lord each servant will obtain the same reward, whatever the length of time of service. In this event there is no preferment - considered as the prospect of Heaven - since there is no higher reward. It is to be hoped that the followers of Jesus took the point. Perhaps the allegory was more accurately expressed in the original language of Matthew. Some scholars even now have misgivings in the inclusion of the story in this Gospel.

Rod Dawson

Summer 2015

The Vineyard Labourers