Capping Benefits – What Would Jesus Do?
(With reference to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.)
Recently, at the Conservative Party Conference, the Chancellor announced that there would be a two year cap on most types of benefits if his party win the next election. This will take place in May 2015 – next year. Certain benefits will be exempt from the cap – Pensions, disability benefits and the like. But if you work on the basis that the vast majority of people on benefits are not leading the life of Riley, but are more likely having trouble making ends meet, this will hit hard people who are already struggling.
In an excerpt from the speech I heard, the Chancellor said that the surest way to make sure that the overall benefits bill doesn’t rise is by making sure that the level of benefits does not rise faster than the rise in the rate of pay of those in work who pay for benefits. Fair enough, but it does seem to ignore the fact that the majority of people claiming many types of benefit are actually in work. But even leaving that aside, is this fair?
The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is a bible story which many people consider “difficult”. If you want to read it, it’s Matthew 20:1–16. But basically the vineyard owner hires some labourers at the beginning of the day, then goes back twice more in the day to take on more people, the last of these only taken on very late in the day and so only working a couple of hours.
When they come to be paid, the late arrivals are paid a full day’s pay – lucky them. Eventually, those who worked the whole day think they are in for a bonus…. But they, too, just get the normal. They are angry. It’s not fair. But the vineyard owner, in his turn angry, takes them to task – and it is “angrily”. In one translation, his closing tirade begins with the words “Listen, Friend”, and you can imagine the finger being jabbed in the chest as well. He finishes by saying: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
No, it doesn’t look fair. But I found myself preaching on this recently, as a set reading for the day, and asking “fair to whom”? The going rate for a day’s work at the time would have been just about enough for a family to survive on, certainly not a “living wage”, in today’s parlance. So if those coming later had been paid proportionately, would they have been going home to a desperate family without enough money even to put food on the table?
“Fair to Whom?” I found myself asking if it is fair that some people do not have enough to live on. Some reckon those on benefits waste it all on fags, booze and gambling, but most of us know the truth is very different. Is it fair that people have to go without themselves so that they can feed their children, that some people have to choose between heating and eating?
“Or are you envious because I am generous”, asked the vineyard owner. He was generous, and could afford to be generous, but could we afford to be more generous as a society? What does this say about levels of taxation? Are we getting back to notions of “the deserving poor”? Should any Christian true to their faith find any attempt to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor totally abhorrent?
WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? I will leave you to think about that.
Contact David Wrighton, Team Leader, E-mail: email@example.com