Project Canterbury

Churchmanship and Labour
Sermons on Social Subjects Preached at S. Stephen's Church, Walbrook.

Compiled by the Rev. W. Henry Hunt.

London: Skeffington and Son, 1906.

Sermon XI. The Social Redemption of the Unemployed

By the Rev. F. Lewis Donaldson, M.A., Vicar of S. Mark's, Leicester.

"For the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard."

JESUS Christ, in this parable of the labourers and the vineyard, gives a picture of His Church, and of the inner laws of industry and labour by which it shall be ruled. He Himself is the householder of the parable, and He comes forth into the world to call all men into His Church, that divine society or household which He sets up in the world. Into that household all men are called, at different times and under different circumstances. But, once called, they become subject to the laws of labour, of industry, and of reward, which therein prevails. This principle must be applied to our Churchmanship as it affects every department of life.

For we must remember that the Church of Christ is but the pattern and symbol of all those laws of God which she is to advance in the world, and that the Kingdom of God prevails in the earth only so far as those laws which are inherent in His Church obtain also in practical affairs. It is not that the Church is to be guided and governed by one set of laws and the world by another; but that the ideals and laws of God, denned within His Church, are slowly but surely to be advanced into practical affairs, and to overcome the world in all its spheres.


Thus, in the parable before us, Jesus Christ teaches His disciples that the problem of "the unemployed" is a problem not merely of the world, but of the Kingdom of God; not merely economic, but spiritual; that it concerns not only laws of supply and demand, but laws of righteousness and good; not only of trade and commerce, but of justice and love.

This is the great lesson we have been slowly learning in England the last half-century--that it is morally wrong to leave the great spheres of commerce and industry to the free, unfettered sway of the forces "natural," and to the spasmodic claims of mere mercantile demand; so that in a good time labourers are abundantly employed, while in a bad time they are left workless and starving. We have discovered this to be not only bad policy, but bad morality.


For what is the first condition of good living but this--that men shall work to live? What but this is meant by the primeval law, "In the sweat of thy face thou shall eat thy bread?" In the Christian age the law is no less clear. Christ declares the law of work to be eternal, "My Father worketh hitherto and I work," and urges His command, "Work while it is day." S. Paul declares that "If a man will not work, neither shall he eat," by which it is implied that men may work if they will to do so. While in the early Church, as Harnack recently declares, the rules regarding work were laid down with due precision. For those who could work, work; for those who could not work, provision; for those who would not work, nothing. It is, indeed, certain that both Hebrew and Christian ethics assume work as the law of all good living, and that society must recognise this truth as a first principle of its being.


That community, therefore, which tolerates conditions under which it is impossible for its members to fulfil this primary law of good living, is not only in disobedience to the law of God, but is courting both moral and political disaster. If, in any nation, numbers of its sons are habitually workless, a condition of wrong living is set up, which is not only unjust and harmful to them, but full of peril to the state.

Nor can such a community throw all responsibility upon the individual. The laws of corporate life, as illustrated by the witness of the early Church, forbid this. In the parable itself, no blame is attached to the labourers. They are neither reproved nor commended. For the question of employment is not of mere individual responsibility. Men cannot "find work" if there be none to be found. In the parable the labourers are not idle because unwilling to labour. Nay, they had gone to the market place to be hired. It was with them, as it is with thousands now in England; they wished for work but could not find it. When the householder asks them, "Why stand ye here all the day, idle?" they can only answer, "Because no man hath hired us."

Large responsibility for unemployment must, therefore, be assumed by the state. It is significant that in the parable the householder goes out into the market place over and over again, until even the eleventh hour. It is evident that all are to find employment in His vineyard. Down to the last man they are engaged, and employment is supplied. It is thus plain that the Church is to affirm that lack of work is not merely of individual concern. The Kingdom of God in earth is like unto that householder. It is to find for its sons useful and honourable work.


A society, organized righteously, is likewise to find employment for its labourers. If the agencies of ordinary commerce fail, for lack of discipline and arrangement, the whole body corporate (the household) is to assume responsibility. Her officers are to go out into the market place, at every crisis, and to supply work to all those not otherwise provided with it.

Why do we have to plead so hard for acceptance of this saving truth? Why is so evident a duty not complied with by the nation? Why do even earnest men nervously shrink from the responsibility it implies? The answer is that employment has been regarded as a matter merely mercantile in its nature, whereas, in reality, it belongs to the moral sphere and to the noblest politics. It concerns not only commerce, but honour, justice, love. The labourers have been considered merely as instruments of riches, not as sons and brothers whom to leave to idleness, and therefore to both personal and domestic ruin, involves social injustice and therefore national disgrace. Thirty years ago a modern prophet, John Ruskin, proclaimed this truth in the plainest terms, "Any man or woman, out of employment, should be at once received at the nearest Government school, and set to such work as it appeared, on trial, they were fit for, at a fixed rate of wages determinable every year." This, the first great principle of this parable, is now before our nation. It has been timidly advanced in Parliament as "The Unemployed Workmen's Bill'' of 1905, and citizens are nervously asking one another what it will involve. So long has commerce been in the devil's thrall, that we shrink from subjecting it to the laws of God Himself.


Yet we are fain to admit that the present distress unremedied cannot fail to develop into something worse. For who can regard without anxiety and alarm the fact of thousands of workless, foodless, joyless men existing in the very midst of plenty? Who can, without misgiving, contemplate this large army of paupers in the midst of the richest civilisation the world has ever known? This contrast is the great fact which it is verily impossible to reconcile with the "Christian consciousness "of to-day. Moreover, evil begets evil a thousandfold. Our factories are robbing us of our wives and our children.

Women, in thousands, are employed in minding machines instead of tending their little children; the home-life of England is being sacrificed to the factory and the warehouse; boys and girls are taking the place of men; children are ousting their own fathers. Meanwhile, the men are "standing in the market place all the day idle."


Again, when at eventide the labourers received their reward, those that were last were paid as generously as the others. The last, the overlooked, the unfortunate, are given "whatsoever is right," a living wage. What a contrast is here between the householder's treatment of the unemployed and ours! We penalise the poor; we put them upon a hard and cruel "labour test "; we impose tasks of oakum-picking, and of stone-breaking, harsh, useless, and demoralising. We do not treat the poor man as a son, a brother, a friend, or as a fellow-citizen. We treat him as if an alien or a criminal. We disfranchise him and make him suffer more. All who fall out of the trade they were in, through lack of demand for labour, all who are displaced by new machinery go out into chaos; and we make little or no effort, as a Christian nation, to save them. What marvel if, disorganized and discouraged, they fall into final sloth and dissipation? A man's character can scarcely bear, without disaster, such a strain of body, mind, and spirit, continued through many years. Much evil in society is due to the idle rich. Can we wonder, then, that much also is due to the idle poor?

"For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do."


But there is a wider and more general application of the parable, implicit in the last words thereof, "So the last shall be first, and the first last." The Lord of Life, at the eleventh hour, sees that His purpose is not done. The earlier workers in His vineyard have not sufficed; they have not fulfilled ideals, realised their opportunities. Once more He goes forth to call in those whom no divine call has yet reclaimed. He goes into the market place and brings in all those hitherto unfranchised, hitherto neglected. He calls them also into His vineyard.

What is this but an image of the marvellous call which God has recently extended to the neglected classes of society to take for the first time an active part in the body-politic. He calls them to-day in England as He has never called them in history before. He brings them into His vineyard, the lowest labourers, the common people. They shall be part of the body-politic; they shall affect the politics of the nation, not as before by pressure from without, but by influence from within; they shall enter into His vineyard, into Parliament and into Cabinet, they shall have their place at last within the sphere of government. Further, they shall also receive, though called at the eleventh hour, whatsoever is right, and that "right" is shown to be equality of treatment with those favoured by an earlier call. It is impossible to avoid this application of the parable.

"Early in the day." That Day is the Day of the Lord. Some have been called early to place and position like the early aristocracy; some at the sixth hour like the great plutocracies; some at the ninth hour like the middle classes. They have held in England place and power in the vineyard. But they, even at their best, cannot complete the will of God; at the eleventh hour, therefore, the Lord of the Vineyard once more extends His call, This time to that great mass of the common people, who for the first time in the day of the Lord in England are now being organized for a brighter prospect and for a better, happier life. We can see how slowly but how surely God is working. At the eleventh hour He calls them, "Go ye also into My vineyard." He admits them at last to place and power and privilege. Nay more, He depends upon them for the completion of His Kingdom in the body-politic of England. The last shall be first, and shall fulfil the ideals of God. That which the first and second and third have failed to do, the last shall accomplish--the care of the aged, the uplifting of the poor, the protection of the oppressed, the redemption of the socially wronged, the real organization of industry and commerce. All this shall be done in England, in the Day of that Lord Who at the eleventh hour calls the great labouring classes to their place in the nation, which is , His vineyard in this corner of His world. At the eleventh hour the last shall be first!

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