‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.” 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me? Amen.
As I was getting to know Nashville in my first year of graduate school, I would try different routes to get from my apartment in Donelson to downtown Nashville. Basically, I was trying to spend as little time on I-40 Westbound as possible during the morning rush hour commute. If I could carve off a few minutes of the commute, I could increase the probability of finding a parking spot near campus, settle down in the lecture hall, and get my laptop up and running before an 8am lecture on History of the Christian Tradition started. So instead of sitting in bumper to bumper traffic with everyone from Wilson County who was trying to get downtown, I started taking Lebanon Pike that turns into 1st Avenue from my apartment to downtown where I could then make my over to campus.
If you’ve ever driven down Lebanon Pike over where Calvary Catholic Cemetery is then you know that it’s not exactly a residential area. It’s more industrial with impound lots, recycling centers, mechanic and body shops, and corner stores dotting the landscape. As this became my preferred route to get to school just because it was quicker, I took notice each day of the folks standing on the curb or seated inside the bay of a day laborer office. Men would arrive early, register, and stand around drinking their coffee waiting for a job foreman or other manager type to show up looking for help. The foreman would then direct a chosen number of guys out to his truck or van so they could depart back for the job site.
The scene enacted day in and day out at the labor office reminded me of Friday night at the Rescue Mission or the Campus for Human Development as folks make their way to these shelters to register, wait to hear their name called, and find out whether they have a safe place to rest their head that evening. If your name is called, it means safety and provision for at least a night. If not, then it’s back to carving out an existence on the street.
In the afternoons, I would make the same trip just in reverse. Unlike Jesus’ parable where the landowner finds help one hour before it’s time to clock out, there was no one at the labor office waiting to be chosen for work at 4 or 5pm. If you weren’t chosen for work in the early morning when the site managers came looking for help, there wasn’t much point waiting around burning daylight hoping for work that wasn’t coming. It’s a precarious existence-getting paid one day at a time with no promise of future work. That’s a hand to mouth way of living that doesn’t leave much room for emergencies. There’s a strong likelihood that a day without work means a utility bill gets paid late or dinner rations are pretty meager for the family.
Day laborers and minimum wage earners are the underside of our service based economic life. Unemployment is down, the bull stock market continues to push record heights, and American credit card debt is collectively at $1.02 trillion. That level of revolving debt exceeds the record set in 2008 before the market crash-folks are spending with no restraint in sight. For some, the last few years have been great seeing retirement nest eggs grow and wages increase modestly. For many more, the folks whose hands are the first to move our food from farm to table, the ones who clean hotel rooms, and man gas station counters all hours of the day, the subsistence story is the same.
Even though Jesus tells a parable using a wealthy landowner and day laborers as characters to teach us about the kingdom of God, today isn’t an overt lesson in economics, justice, and the suffering of hard working men and women who need 2-3 jobs to meet the basic necessities. Certainly the reign of God has implications for the way we value work and workers and imagine just ways of relating to one another. To try and tease anymore out of this parable regarding the way we approach fair labor would be a stretch-but a necessary topic for another group study.
This parable is about the nature of God, the nature of humanity and God’s universal reign that we have come to know through Jesus Christ. Let’s read the parable on its own terms as Jesus told it-without looking too hard for it to mean something that might not be there.
A landowner, presumably a very wealthy landowner with the need to have hired help, goes into the marketplace instead of his farm manager to hire laborers. The vineyard needs tending. As day breaks, the landowner makes an agreement with a number of workers for what he will pay them at the completion of their work. He offers the going rate and the first batch of workers agree to it. About three hours into the workday he goes back to the marketplace and he sees folks standing around presumably ready to work. He tells them to go work in his vineyard and he’ll pay them an appropriate or fair amount. Off goes the second batch of workers. At noon and at three in the afternoon, he repeats his trip to the marketplace and finds additional folks waiting for work. He instructs them to work in his vineyard and promises a fair wage. The day is nearly over when at 5pm the landowner goes into the market and sees additional folks waiting for work.
This time, for the first time in his trips to the marketplace, he asks folks about their idleness. They tell him that they were waiting for work. Straight forward enough of an answer. You also go into the vineyard and work until the day is over. Then around 6pm, the landowner and his manager go to meet the day laborers to pay them for the work rendered. The manager is instructed to pay those who were hired near the end of the day first and to work backwards to those who were hired at the start of the day.
The individuals who worked one hour, from 5pm to the end of the working day were paid for a full day. That’s a pretty sweet and generous deal. And here’s where the trouble begins to stir. When the manager gets to the end of the line to those who were hired first in the day, there is an implicit expectation from the workers that they’re going to make bank. We worked ALL day compared to those guys who showed up at the last hour and they were paid for an entire day of work. Surely we’re going to get our day’s wage plus overtime or hazard pay. And there hopes were dashed when the manager paid them the daily wage for which they had agreed to work.
Like the Israelites out in the desert on their way out of Egypt, there is great complaining and murmuring. The morning workers feel cheated and the evening workers probably feel blessed by the landowner’s generosity. There’s a resentment that emerges in the heart of the morning workers. We did our back breaking work under the heat of the sun-we deserve more than those who skirt the weight of the day’s work. And the landowner’s response is this: when you agreed to work for me this morning, didn’t you agree to a day’s wage? I haven’t cheated you. Take your daily wage that you agreed to and be on your way. I can do with my belongings as I choose. If I choose to be generous to another what concern is that to you?
His last question seals it up. Are you envious because I am generous? I like the King James Version and the literal Greek translation a bit better. Do you have an evil eye?
How do you see the world? How do you see the relationships around you? Is a quid pro quo exchange the way in which your world normally works? I do a favor for you and then you do one for me in exchange. You pay me for services rendered. You go to the store and the more you buy, the more you pay. The more you work, the bigger your paycheck. The logic we operate with day in and day out is based on the assumption of the fair exchange of goods and services.
I’m going to safe it’s a safe bet that every one of us to a degree understands and feels the rub of the morning workers. If you put in more work than someone else, you expect to be rewarded, compensated, or blessed at some level more than them. If the reward doesn’t come in at the expected level, that’s a breeding ground for resentment. Today’s parable undermines the logic of exchanging goods and services because it’s a cruddy way of approaching life with God. The framework we use to oversee and compensate staff, run small businesses, and manage our lives in the marketplace is insufficient in understanding the ways of God.
Here’s the hook or reversal of the parable. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t operate according to the logic of an economic system where everything has a price and can be bought. The grace of God can’t be bought, earned, bartered for, or traded for. If you could do any of those things to get it, then it wouldn’t be grace anymore. It wouldn’t be a gift freely given without strings attached. There’s no hook with God’s grace. God doesn’t bargain with the world saying I’ll give you salvific grace in exchange for XYZ. Like the generous landowner, God can give grace and salvation to whoever God wants, in whatever fashion God wants, and to whatever degree God wants.
And because God can act in this way, gifting grace freely and without restraint, there’s nothing you can do to earn a greater portion of grace. You don’t need to frenetically try to earn God’s favor or love, or try to make up for your own shortcomings on your own. God’s generosity knows no bounds so grace and favor are going to show up in the most unlikely of places and with unlikely people. When you see God’s favor poured out in someone else’s life, do you think to yourself, it should’ve been me? What did he do to deserve that blessing? And then the landowner asks, are you envious because God is generous? Is your eye evil?
The good news today is that you can’t earn God’s favor and grace. Stop trying. You are enough. And don’t harbor envy toward your neighbor when you see the grace of God at work in his or her life.