As with so many of the parables of Jesus contained in Matthew I couldn’t begin to cover the whole spectrum of questions this gospel raises. So I picked just one. Eager to hear how this is heard.
With thanks to the Disrupt Worship project, specifically the Rev. Collette Broady-Grund.
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day from the God who loves us all, through Christ who opens our eyes to that love. Amen.
It’s. Not. Fair.
Maybe that’s your thought on hearing this parable of Jesus. Or maybe you have a different take, more like the landowner’s “hey buddy, that’s what we agreed to. Those are the terms of the contract.”
Or, maybe you see this story as one of the landholder undermining the goal of fair wages and labor practices.
Whatever our reaction, I suspect that (like me) your initial reaction was one related more to fairness than anything else.
But it’s not really about fairness at all. Because God doesn’t care about fairness so much as God cares about justice. And in order to think deeply about this, we need to abandon our 21st-century understanding of those two words.
Justice, at its core, is the idea is that everyone receives what everyone needs. Not all the things they want, but the things they need. This is not a merit-based system of determination of what someone deserves (that is closer to fairness)but an assumption that there are basic things we all have in common that we need. That is justice.
In this parable, “need” might be defined as a denarius, or what at the time was enough for a person to subsist for another day. That is the “usual daily wage” we hear about in the parable.
In our world, defining “need” could be as simple as food, shelter, and water – or it could be surprisingly complex. For example, in this time of pandemic, for kids to be able to continue in online school, they need an internet-capable device of some kind. In another time, however, we might define that device instead as “want.”
This lesson is unsettling for us because it appears to stand over against the merit-based variety of capitalism in which we’ve all been raised. At the same time in the same action, however, it shows us what happens when power is leveraged in ways that do harm to others. Because ultimately this is a story not about the relationship between the landowner and the laborers, but about the relationships between the laborers.
The way we’ve usually heard this lesson broken open is with the landowner as God, the long-toiling workers as Israel, and the newly-arrived workers as the Gentiles. God gives lavishly to everyone no matter how long they’ve been a part of the workforce, the family of God. The end.
But I want to look at this a different way. Is God lavish with God’s generosity? Absolutely. But I think Jesus is teaching a different lesson here.
I grew up in Southern California, in the beach and agriculture town of Encinitas. It used to be called “the flower capital of the world.” Day laborers were as integral a part of the local workforce as the carhop down at the A&W.
And the scene that is described in our parable was as common as the ones I observed daily. Day laborers would convene in a particular spot, and landowners or contractors would come by to hire as many people as they needed for that day’s work. A price would be agreed upon, and off they would go.
Later hires would happen too. And sometimes the morning job would end earlier than expected, with less pay than expected, and a laborer would join the ranks again in hopes of a second job for the day.
My home congregation had a German exchange pastor who had worked for some time in Oaxaca, and she spent a couple of evenings a week teaching English to migrant workers (albeit with a German accent). She discovered many things about the life of a day laborer or migrant worker, and one of those things was that it was a very small community. If a worker was mistreated by the person hiring, or if their pay was shorted or even withheld, word got around, and when that hiring person’s truck would pull up, no one would dash over to seek work.
By the same token, the person who paid well, provided lunch and other perks, and treated folks well usually had their truck mobbed by eager workers.
Spreading the word about who to work for was part of the ethos of the worker community.
In our parable, the way the landowner works might seem on the surface like he is upending the status quo. To a degree, he is.
But what he is doing far more is upending the sense of community among the workers. He is setting them against one another by having every worker see what each of them is being paid. The workers complain to the landowner, but not ABOUT the landowner – they are complaining about their fellow workers.
So while we might see the landowner’s actions as generous, I’m not so sure.
Remember, he is paying the minimum amount a person needs to survive. Is this a fair wage? That’s a legitimate discussion that I think arises from this parable.
Jesus’ statement “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” is meant to remind us that the way things have always been – what we call the status quo – is upended in the peaceable realm of God. The status quo is always, and can only, be maintained on the backs of the marginalized. By this statement, Jesus makes the claim that in God’s kingdom, one group is not sacrificed so another can thrive.
In God’s kingdom, the opposite of “scarcity” is not “abundance” but rather “enough.”
We are a society that has a staggering amount of visible abundance, and a staggering amount of INvisible scarcity.
Where is the middle ground of enough?
You may have seen the meme that reminds us that when one person is granted equal rights, it does not thereby diminish the rights of another person. Rights are not pie. There is enough.
My salvation is not dependent upon yours. The Kingdom is not a zero-sum proposition. My relationship with God is not affected by yours. There is enough.
Reward from God is not about wages. It is not a scarcity-based economic exchange. Reward from God is peace, grace, love. These things are not affected by outside forces, or laws of supply and demand. There is enough.
Abundance can only begin when everyone has enough. Christ was about making sure there is enough for all, not to maximize however much you can amass for yourself at the expense of others.
You may have heard the saying: “when you have more than enough, don’t build a bigger barn, build a longer table.”
Is God like this landowner? In some ways, yes: equal love, equal grace, equal reward for all who labor in God’s kin-dom. And let me be clear: the part of me that was raised in the merit-based economic system in this country is irritated by this equality. I’m Jonah sitting under my dying vine, lamenting that God is merciful to THOSE NINEVITES too. That’s the part of me that needs to be reminded that the economy of God works differently than the economy of our western world.
That same part of me also needs to be reminded that God should NOT be easily equated with the landowner, who while he seems concerned with this one day and its wages, does nothing whatsoever to dismantle a system that makes the rich richer and keeps the poor powerless. As we see image after image of laborers in the vineyards of California and the orchards of the Pacific Northwest, working despite smoke-filled skies and a global pandemic, we must proclaim that God wants more than a generous day’s wage for these beloved people. It is not God’s justice that endangers the lives of those deemed essential workers so that the rest of us can stay safely home and order the produce they’ve picked for curbside pickup at reasonable prices.
Jesus came not only to be sure that those who had been left out had equal access to God’s power and healing, but also to put an end to the whole system of transactional religion and rigid social hierarchy. Like this parable, Jesus’ story is about coming out into our midst, calling not just the hardest workers, but those who are left out and left behind to join in the work of the kin-dom. Jesus’ story is about coming to the world again and again and again, not until everyone is laboring under a wealthy landowner, but until all are laboring together as equals in the peaceable and abundant realm of God, where there is always enough.