We are now into the second week of Fairtrade Fortnight, and so on Sunday we took Fairtrade as the focus for our service. We have been a Fairtrade church for many years now, so this was a great opportunity to remember why our commitment to Fairtrade is so important, and to pray and take action for a fairer world. If you want to know more about Fairtrade and their current campaign to ensure a living income for all those in the cocoas industry, you can visit their website here.
Our reading on Sunday was the parable of the workers in the vineyard, from Matthew 20:1-16. Like many parables, there is something slightly uncomfortable about it. Perhaps most obviously because it challenges our ideas of fairness, but also because it captures so many of our experiences, which can bring up a whole range of memories and emotions. Perhaps you recall a time when you received unexpected generosity, or when you felt shortchanged. Perhaps you sympathise with those who had worked a long hard day, or those who had been left in the marketplace wondering if a job would come. You may like to take a moment to acknowledge and reflect on our own responses to the passage, before reading further.
I said this passage challenges our ideas of fairness, and that is why I chose it for our Fairtrade service, because I think Fairtrade does the same thing in much the same way. In calling for a fair deal for all, the Fairtrade movement calls us to really think about what fairness looks like, and I think it comes to much the same conclusion as this passage. Generally speaking, we are paid a wage by the hour or the year, and that wage is set according to factors like the qualifications we needed for the job, and how much danger or responsibility it entails. And that seems fair, right? It’s just the way things are done. Well it may be how things are done in the economy of the world, but the parable we have heard this morning tells us that it is not how things are done in the economy of God’s kingdom.
It didn’t matter that some had worked fewer hours, or that those who arrived last were those who had been looked over by others, or that those who started early had experienced the extra pressure of working in the midday sun. They all got paid a fair amount for a day's work. Because it was not the work that the owner of the vineyard valued but the workers, and he valued them all equally. I say workers but we really ought to say people, recognising as the owner of the vineyard did that they are not defined entirely by their labour, and avoiding the trap of thinking that it is only those who work that are worthy of respect.
As a society we make so many judgements about a person’s worth, and so many of them are based on what they do for a living. That’s why I suspect that job title is normally among the first three pieces of information shared when people are introduced. That’s why many people feel such a profound sense of disorientation when they find themselves no longer working. And that’s why those who experience long term unemployment can feel so disconnected from other parts of society. But we are so much more than what we do for a living. We are the relationships we build. We are the causes we root for. We are the passions we invest in. God sees all of that, and we need to learn to see it too, in each other and in ourselves.
A slight digression there, perhaps, but an important one. Let's get back though to where we were. It was not the work that the owner of the vineyard valued but the people, and he valued them all equally. That is what fairness looks like in the economy of God’s kingdom. And so in God’s fair trade, everyone gets enough to live on, no ifs or buts or maybes. That is what is at the heart of the Fairtrade campaign too. They may be focusing on cocoa farmers, but their basic argument is that everyone deserves a living income, because everyone deserves enough to live on, no ifs or buts or maybes. That's why buying Fairtrade products is not an act of charity but of justice. A step towards remoulding the world into the shape it was always meant to take.
But just what is a living income? In short, it is a salary that covers a basic standard of living. Fairtreade defines it as enough for a household to eat nutritious food throughout the year, drink safe water, access healthcare, send children to school, live in a decent home, save for unexpected setbacks, and allow older people to retire with dignity. There are some really important words there. Nutritious. Safe. Decent. Dignity. This is not about having just enough to scrape by, but enough to live a good life. And I think there is something deeply scriptural about that. Jesus declared that he came that we might have life in abundance - not just fullness, as some translations have it, but abundance - and I don’t believe that was meant in purely spiritual terms. God wants all of us to live good lives, the sort of lives the living income seeks to protect.
I'm always conscious of needing to steer clear of prosperity gospel territory whenever we start talking about good lives. Earthly success is not the same as heavenly blessing, and earthly troubles are not the result of heavenly discipline. And contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does not teach that God helps those who help themselves, an ethic which says it is all about self-reliance, and excuses us of our social responsibilities. Instead the Bible is full of stories of God helping those who can’t help themselves, and calling on us to do the same. The problem is that so often we fail to do that, instead building structures of injustice and oppression which frustrate God’s plans. That’s why campaigns like Fairtrade need to exist, to put right the wrongs we have inflicted on one another, which have denied so many the good lives God desires for us.
And it is not just Fairtrade campaigning for a living income. The Living Wage Foundation focuses their efforts on this country, every year announcing what they calculate to be a living wage for workers, including a London weighting, and encouraging employers to sign up to a promise to pay that living wage. Matters have been slightly confused of late, as the government have introduced what they call a living wage, which is the minimum wage for workers aged twenty five and over, but this figure is still significantly below that set by the Living Wage Foundation. Outside of London, the statutory living wage is £1.17 an hour below the real living wage, which amounts to a difference of neary £2,500 a year for a full time worker. Or to put it another way, the government living wage pays 12% less than the real living wage. That is a huge amount of money, especially for the lowest earners who can least afford to lose it.
It is no wonder then that the number of people needing to claiming in work benefits is on the rise, or that working families are increasingly faced with having to use food banks in order to put food on the table, or that people are spiralling into debt just to make ends meet before the next pay cheque comes. Huge numbers of families are finding themselves in financial difficulty, not because of poor money management or foolish spending habits, but because they are not being paid a fair wage, and we need to challenge that on our own doorsteps too.
It seems that in our world, it is the work that is valued and not the people, and because so much work is undervalued, so many people are undervalued, and it is leaving many across the globe in desperate conditions. So let us hear the lesson of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, that it is not the work that is valued but the people, and all people are valued equally. Let us show our commitment to honouring the value of each person by continuing to support the work of Fairtrade and taking every opportunity to add our support to the work of other organisations such as the Living Wage Foundation. And let us keep doing all that we can to enable others to live the abundant lives Christ came for.
We didn't touch on this on Sunday, but here is something for you to ponder... The interpretation I have given above says that all people are valued equally and therefore all people have the right to a living wage, but should we take it further than that? Does the fact that the workers were all paid the same mean that we should be campaigning for an equal wage for all, or at least a universal basic income and wage caps to bring us nearer to equality? How radical does this parable call us to be?