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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice


Sundays after Trinity (14)

Matthew 20. 1-16
: "Living Justly - Radical Equality"

Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

Is slavery a feature of modern, western society or has employment legislation over the past century made it a thing of the past? If it still exists, what forms does it take in your neighbourhood, town or region?

[Note: This may require some careful research]
Reflection on the text

This passage needs to be placed in its wider setting to be properly understood (see More Background Information). Matthew draws on Jesus’ teaching about the ways in which his followers are to live as communities and households of justice. It provides a radically different lifestyle to the norm of society of his day and ours.

The account of the employment of day-workers in the vineyard is very clear and explicit. Remuneration for work done is to be based on the need of the worker to earn enough to live on, not on the hours worked. Clearly, that is to be interpreted as a mark of the Kingdom of heaven, but it is so radical in employment terms that it has become customary to see it as a feature of heaven, the hereafter, rather than as something for the here-and-now which could bring heaven to earth.

That customary interpretation of the story understands the householder to be God and the day-workers to be believers in Jesus. At the day of judgement, it will not matter at what stage in life a believer came to faith. The reward will be the same. However, two factors question that interpretation. Firstly, Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like …” not “will be like …”. It’s here and now (cf Luke 4.21). Secondly, the householder may be radical in his payment of wages but he has clearly not addressed the matter of his considerable wealth, so how can he be interpreted to be God?

To get the full impact of Jesus’ message requires an understanding of the social environment of the times. The landowner is wealthy and has expanded beyond mere subsistence farming, grass for grazing or grain for flour. He farms a high value crop, and as vines take years to come to maturity, we can assume that must have financial reserves. But, it is his wealth which is being challenged here. Jesus deals with that aspect in Matt 19.16-30

There is evidence to suggest that the rate of pay, one denarius a day, was low, probably subsistence level. Note that in The Testament translation Eugene Peterson translates denarius with dollar; a dollar a day, the rate at which almost half the population of the world exists in the early 21st century. [See http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/documentaries/2007/12/071227_dollar_a_day_1.shtml ]

The householder, when asked about pay, says that he will pay what is right [v. 4]. A dollar a day, a subsistence level of pay, is certainly not generous and may not appear to be ‘right’ from an employer who seems to have surplus income. However, the grumbling of those who worked long hours points to ‘rightness’ being in the radical, equal treatment of each employee rather than in the value.

In God's economy there is always enough. In God’s world there is enough—but only if we take our fair share.
Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. Do you think that the Kingdom of heaven is something to be worked for “now in this place’ or only in the afterlife?

  2. What evidence and signs of justice and radical equality might an outsider notice in the life and relationships of your Christian community?

  3. What are the issues of …
    1. equality or inequality
    2. inclusion or exclusion
    3. wealth or poverty
    4. power or powerlessness

      … that challenge your community today? How are they being faced?

  4. Sometimes Christians, who have been participating in church life for many years, become resentful towards newer believers because they seem to be receiving attention or given responsibility out of proportion to the length of time they have been members. Is this an issue for your community and how might the resentment be overcome?
Praying Together

It would be helpful to have a large-scale (street) map of your neighbourhood available for this time of prayer and also some tea-lights.

Place the map in the middle of the group. Begin to say the Lord’s Prayer but pause after saying “… your kingdom come on earth …”. Place a candle on the map where the largest houses/cars reside in the neighbourhood and light it (the candle not the map). Do the same for the nearest poor (social) housing area; then place and light a candle for a resident with a disability, and for someone who is ignored by or excluded from the community.

Sing or say the words of one or more of the following hymns by John Bell of the Iona Community

  • Christ’s is the world in which we move
  • Heaven shall not wait
  • Inspired by love and anger
More background information
  1. The Lectionary only allows one short reading from Chapters 19 and 20 of Matthew’s Gospel, the account of the labourers in the vineyard. However, these two chapters can be interpreted as a unit. Jesus’ teaching is given whilst on the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem and to Crucifixion. Six sub sections are evident:
    1. Marriage and divorce 19.3-12
    2. Children 19.13-15
    3. Wealth 19.16-30
    4. Wages 20.1-16
    5. Slaves 20.17-28
    6. Exclusion 20.29-34
    This reflection examines the fourth. Some thoughts on the other five are outlined below in Going Deeper.

  2. For more information about life on ‘a dollar a day’ go to the bbc podcast http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/documentaries/2007/12/071227_dollar_a_day_1.shtml. For a more detailed study on the subject see: http://www.baylor.edu/christianethics/GlobalWealthStudyGuide2.pdf.

  3. On the ‘theology of enough’ as it relates to climate change and carbon emissions go to this excellent article from the Omega Climate Change course: http://www.operationnoah.org/highlighted/new-website/theology-enough-extract-omega-climate-change-course

  4. In their newly published book, “Unjust Rewards”, (Granta books, 2008), Polly Toynbee and David Walker note that “twenty years ago the average CEO of one of the FTSE100 top companies earned 17 times the average employees pay. By 2008 that proportion had risen to 75.5 times the average”.

  5. For a more detailed explanation of why Chapters 19 & 20 may be seen as a collection of parables focused on how Christian household communities are to live, see “Matthew and the Margins” by Warren Carter.
Going Deeper
  1. Marriage and divorce 19v3-12
    Jewish, Greek and Roman households were structured hierarchically and power resided with the father/husband. In this discussion about divorce, Jesus is stating that in God’s kingdom men and women are created equal and that it is to be so in the households of his followers as evidence of the Kingdom (or Empire) of God.

  2. Children 19v 13-15
    Children also had a low status in Jewish, Greek and Roman households. The disciples reflect this understanding when they try to turn away those who would bring children to Jesus. However in contrast to his disciples, Jesus welcomes the children and treats them as equals – almost more than equals. In the households of his followers, children will have a place as equals.

  3. Wealth 19v16-30
    Then, as now, the acquisition of wealth was seen as an important aspect of household life. Aristotle writes of the “art of getting wealth”, Seneca the Elder claims that wealth reflects a person’s virtue. The rich young man who comes to Jesus represents someone with economic and social status. However, he reveals a fear for his future in the afterlife. He sees himself as being ‘good’ by virtue of keeping the commandments, but Jesus reminds him that only God can be good. To be good he must truly love his neighbour and he cannot do that by retaining wealth that was doubtless accumulated at the expense of others.

  4. Slaves 20v17-28
    The mother of James and John comes to Jesus seeking preference and privilege for her sons. This act upsets the other disciples and creates division in the disciple community. Jesus responds by reminding them of the way in which rulers behave in society (v25) and then gives and order, “It shall not be so among you” (v26). Servanthood of one to another is to be the mark of the Christian household.

  5. Inclusion/Exclusion 20v29-34
    As Jesus leaves Jericho at the start of the long climb out of the Jordan valley on the last leg of his journey to Jerusalem, two blind men seek healing. Their treatment by the crowd reveals their social exclusion so often a feature of people seen to be ‘handicapped’. Their physical location outside the town and beside the road, emphasises that exclusion. However, though lacking sight, their greeting of Jesus as Lord and Son of David reveals insight and Jesus asks them what they want. They ask for their eyes to be opened - a feature of the Kingdom – and that is granted. But note the contrast with the rich young man wanting Jesus enable him to retain the security of his wealth and with Zebedee’s wife wanting privilege for her sons.

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