The Hon Peter Costello AC, former federal Treasurer and current Chairman of Australia’s Future Fund spoke at a Centre for Independent Studies event in April on the topic of the Parable of the Vineyard. He says that the Bible suggests we should be expected to make our own decisions and live with the consequences. This article contains excerpts from his speech. Read the full version here.
Most of us hearing this story would feel some sympathy for those who murmured against the householder. How unfair that labourers who worked only one hour were paid the same as those who worked all day? The first lot of workers complain they were treated no better than the latecomers, when in the magisterial language of the King James Bible, they had “…borne the burden and heat of the day”. So much for effort. It would have been hot in the middle of the day in that Middle Eastern Vineyard.
So those who worked twelve hours feel they have been underpaid. Quite likely they also think that the latecomers have been overpaid since they were only hired at “…the eleventh hour”. This expression is now an English idiom which means doing something just before it is too late. Leaving things to the eleventh hour- study for an exam, campaigning for an election-means leaving something so late as to nearly miss doing it at all. The last lot of workers just scraped in for pay day.
Whilst we are thinking that something unfair is going on here, the tables are turned to illustrate a deeper point. A Parable always has a higher meaning.
Before I come to that let me ask you to notice what is NOT the moral of the story. This is not a story designed to advocate comparative wage justice. It is not trying to suggest the labourers form a Union to agitate for better terms and conditions. It is not trying to say that Palestine should set up a Fair Work Commission. Jesus’ point is not to suggest the householder has done something wrong. He seems to think is perfectly sensible for the householder to say: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”
The response to a comment like that these days would be a Picket and the demand for an apology.
But the whole point of this story is that nobody has been wronged.
Each Labourer has received his entitlement. The early ones were entitled to no more and the later ones were entitled to no less. The terms on which they were hired have been honoured. One labourer’s entitlement is not re-written in the light of what others have accepted. An offer is made to each individual who decides for himself whether he wishes to take it up. The reward is set by the individual’s agreement. People are free to enter contracts of their choosing. The honouring of the contract is all any party can expect. This is the classic doctrine of “freedom of contract”.
Now the moral of the story is that when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, the person who has laboured all his life is on the same footing as the person who makes a deathbed confession “… at the eleventh hour”. You are either in the Kingdom of Heaven or not. And those that have been there longest cannot turn around and complain that the latecomers get the same reward. The Jews who obeyed the law for generations were not to complain when the Kingdom of Heaven was thrown open to Gentiles, even though, living under the Mosaic law, they had “borne the burden and heat of the day.”
I will leave aside further theological reflection. The point I want to draw is that Jesus, in this Bible story, puts a very high value on the idea of contract. A contract- a labour contract no less- is here used to illustrate the way that the Kingdom of Heaven works. Shock horror, God is likened to an employer. A contract is used to illustrate the way in which God deals with his people. Once people make a contract they are expected to abide by it. Sometimes the common law has been said to respect the “sanctity of contract”
All through the Bible we see the theme of Covenant between God and man. There is the Old Covenant with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Israel. Eventually there is the New Covenant through Christ.
Under the Old Covenant there are mutual obligations. And to disregard the Covenant, to break a contract, is a serious thing. Human beings, being fallen and sinful as they are, are always falling short, breaking their covenants and contracts. When they do it ends badly for them. But it is in the nature of God to keep a covenant.
I suggest the English common law doctrine of contract grew out of the Judeo-Christian notions of Covenant and obligation. Those lawyers and Judges who developed it were culturally and religiously steeped in the Bible. At the time, they thought they were developing law according to Biblical principles. Sir Matthew Hale, author of History of the Common Law (published 1713) claimed “Christianity is parcel of the common law of England”. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1768) Sir William Blackstone claimed that Natural Law is “dictated by God himself”.
In the parable it is the householder who asks: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” In the modern world it is not up to the householder (the employer) to decide these things. It is not up to the labourer either. It is up to the State to decide these things, just as it decides so many other things how a person lives and works. The State also decides what part of the wages will be left to the labourer to spend or save after it has taken out his taxes and prescribed payments for superannuation.
The modern mind might doubt the existence of God, but it sure believes in the presence of the State. In a post-Christian society the State stands in loco Dei.
Now a modern might look back on Sir Matthew Hale or Sir William Blackstone and say they were merely products of the times. They echoed the laissez fare attitude of the day and assumed it to be Christian.
Is it not entirely possible that the same could be said of today’s opinion makers? Is it possible that today’s theologians with their belief in State power and Government intervention are just reflecting the spirit of the Age?
I once heard a Christian leader say that one of the reasons for reading the Bible is it speaks to us from a different time and a different culture. Stripping out time and place, including the vanity of moderns about themselves and their assumed superiority over previous generations, can lead
us to truths that are universal. That’s why I am fascinated by this Parable in the Gospel of Matthew.
Could this parable be illustrating a truth that is in short supply today? Could it be suggesting that people should be expected to make decisions about their lives, including economic decisions, and be expected to live with the consequences? Could it be telling us that a big part of being human is to make choices and to live with the consequences? Could it even be that we need no Nanny-State to watch over our behaviour and to protect us, in our own best interests, from the consequences of our own actions?
I have heard plenty of sermons extolling the “prophetic” view of the world and how much the Welfare State should be doing to make lives better. I can’t remember ever hearing a Sermon on Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 20. Forgive me therefore for giving one!
Image: thinkpanama on Flickr, used under CC License.