Our society has often held a variety of views on people who are unemployed. Leaders across the political spectrum have encouraged us to value people on the basis of merit and what they contribute to society. This can sound like common sense but has led to those who are unemployed to be seen as lazy or deserving of their situation.

The coronavirus crisis has forced many into unemployment, or long-term furlough, and as a result many more of us have greater awareness and sympathy with people who are unemployed – but sympathy often doesn’t lead to any practical action. 

As followers of Jesus Christ – people who have been saved not by merit but by grace alone – we must not only view the unemployed in a radically different way, we are also called to respond practically. 

The Bible has a lot to say about the topic of work, much of which is spelled out in the prayer fuel pack produced by the Evangelical Alliance. I want to explore the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20 and what Jesus’ teaching has to say to Christian employers in 2021


Parable: workers in the vineyard

In Matthew 20, Jesus compares Himself to a compassionate job creator. We read that God’s kingdom is like a vineyard that is in need of workers. So early in the morning, the owner (representing Jesus) goes out to hire a bunch of day labourers, offering each of them a fair working wage. 

Later that morning, the owner goes out again on separate business. Whilst in town, he notices that a number of people are waiting around also looking for work. Day labourers like this were in a desperate situation – without a master, there was no security; and there was no welfare programme to fall back on. If they didn’t work, neither they nor their families would eat. The vineyard owner has already hired enough workers earlier that morning, so what does he do? 

He chooses to take on more workers. He does this not primarily because he needs them, but because he has compassion on them and wants to alleviate their suffering. He promises to pay them what is right” and off they go to work for him. In fact, as we read on, the owner does this three more times – at noon, 3pm and 5pm. 

At the end of the day, all the workers go to receive their pay. Strikingly, each one receives the exact same amount, regardless of when they began work. If it wasn’t obvious before, it really is now: this vineyard owner’s priority is not maximising profits by cutting costs; his priority is to have mercy on these men and their families. This causes grumbling amongst those who were hired first, and perhaps we sympathise: How is it fair that we get paid the same as those who were hired at 5pm?!

The owner challenges them warmly as friends”. He has been absolutely just in paying them the agreed fair wage. He asks them not to confuse his mercy towards others as stinginess to them. 

There are divergent views among biblical scholars on who this parable was for. Is Jesus urging Jewish believers not to resent Gentiles who were later grafted into the kingdom? Or is He urging His first disciples not to compare their worth to those who’d be called later?

It doesn’t really matter for our purposes here. For us, we need to remember that as Christians we have received abundant mercy and grace. We have not only been grafted into the Lord’s people; we have also been included in the Lord’s kingdom work. What a privilege and honour!

There is also a challenge for us. There is no way any of us can think of ourselves as meriting or deserving of our salvation. There is no way any of us can think we are more deserving than others because we’ve been serving the kingdom longer, because we’ve made the right choices in life, or because we’re in positions of leadership or influence. Ultimately, we’re all beggars in need of grace. We’re only saved because of Christ’s death for us, which is exactly what He goes on to speak about later in this chapter.

Whilst this parable isn’t mainly about job creation, it does give us an ethical mandate. Having received such mercy, how can we not seek to extend mercy to others? We should seek to help those unemployed in our church families but also our unbelieving neighbours in the wider community. We can only provide within our means, but as followers of a God who is so lavishly generous, we should seriously consider what we are able to offer to others. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as a result of the Evangelical Alliance’s Job Creation Project, many unbelievers don’t just find employment but ultimately find Christ as a result of the kindness they have been shown? Let’s pray towards that end.