Inspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this. Their reflections will appear here, and in a new publication to be released soon. Today: Revd Raj Bharath Patta, a liberation theologian studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester.
Unemployment continues to be a huge concern globally, and in the UK it was reported in April 2016 that about 1.7 million people are unemployed due to various factors, resulting in growing poverty.
Why people are not employed is a question that comes to the fore time and again.
The parable of the labourers in the vineyard as found in Matthew 20: 1–16 tells of the land-owner who hires workers at six in the morning, at nine in the morning, at noon, at three in the afternoon, and at five in the evening. Those that were strongly built, who were well experienced and had a very promising CV, were employed in the very first round of interviews. Those that were less qualified, but who had some other strengths, were later employed at the next hour; those that had even lesser qualifications, but probably had some other skills like communication and so on, were later employed by the employer to work in his vineyard. In verse 6 we see the studious land-owner goes into the marketplace even at five in the evening to see some people standing around to seek some work for the day. He then asks them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” and in verse 7, they reply, “Because no one has hired us.”
Why is no one hiring these people? What could have been the reasons for their not being employed? Probably these people standing at 5 pm were not able to compete with the competitive world around, for those with higher class and society define merit and thereby determine the norms for merit, describing these ‘idle people’ as incapable of work. Probably these people who are still standing eagerly to be employed even at 5pm were people with disabilities and people who are mentally challenged, for no one wants to employ them because of their disabilities, for all those abled-bodies were preferred and given work in the earlier hours of the day. Probably these people still standing eagerly to be employed even at 5pm were women, branded by patriarchal society with gendered stereotypes and prejudices as incapable of working in hard jobs. Probably these people still standing eagerly to be employed even at 5pm were undocumented persons with no sufficient papers to work, for no one wants to employ them because of their asylum or refugee status or because they cannot communicate well in English. Probably these people still standing eagerly to be employed even at 5pm were people from ethnic minority communities, for they do not have the same nurture as the others have in their upbringing, and are denied chances of employment in many cases. The writer of the parable in verse 7 even brands these people standing at 5pm as “idle”, implying the rest of them who were employed earlier seem to be smart and meritorious. In such a context, the land-owner challenges tradition, and exercises equity and justice, by not only employing these people who are still standing at 5pm but also by giving equal wages to all of those that have started to work from the first hour till the last hour, even th0ugh it upsets those that came early.
Economic justice is ensured, based on equity and equality.
In our times today, where the mantra of globalisation is sheer profit without any importance for human worth, where forces like patriarchy, caste, class, war, race, violence, and fundamentalism rule as principalities and powers preferring those with so called capabilities and employing them at early hours, the parable calls us to stand alongside those that are still standing at 5pm, waiting to be employed and recognised. In the changing landscapes of the church and society, the calling for all of us is to shift our focus to those that are standing at 5pm eager to be employed, for no one hires them because of the stigma and discrimination they face. The call for us is to look and locate God among those that are waiting still at 5pm, and recognise the worth of life that has been equally granted by God to all.
Unless we shift our focus to those friends and communities on the margins and make them the epicentre of our mission, our faith may not have its savour and relevance.
We must therefore rise up to the occasion of affirming life in all its fullness among those that are being pushed to the margins by the forces of class, caste, gender, etc and strive to break down these cruel forces, for God stands among those that are still waiting at 5pm to be employed and to receive equal wages like others.
By locating the divine among the margins, we are challenged to address the needs of these people who are pushed into unemployment and poverty, for a Church with the poor is possible only by our becoming a church of the poor.