Text: Matthew 20:1-16
There are few things as touchy as how much we are paid. In many workplaces, it is strictly verboten to talk about your salary, lest people start making comparisons and there is conflict.
Have you ever filled out some kind of survey and they will ask for income level? Maybe it is for the warranty on the new coffeemaker you bought. Our response is, “Why do you want to know? It’s none of your business.”
Our work and our income can be very sensitive. So of course, Jesus tells a story that is all about work and income and inequity and fairness. It is about hiring practices and compensation. Week after week, as we read the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been telling these rather difficult stories, and here again, he does not disappoint.
There is a landowner who goes to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. He goes down to the corner where the day laborers hang out and he hires some men to work that day. They agree on the rate of pay - one denarius for a day’s work. And off they go to the vineyard.
Now, a little background here. In the Old Testament there were no day laborers. This was something brought about by the Roman occupation of Israel. This class of landless laborers had been created by the Roman economy. Some were freed slaves, some were peasants whose lands had been seized by Rome, others were immigrants and refugees who were victims of war and displacement. They often worked doing piece work.
The way the landowner relates to them is really interesting. He bargains with them for the rate of pay – did you notice that? There is collective bargaining! And it is a fair wage – a denarius is what a soldier was paid for a day’s wage. And it’s not piece work! He wasn’t paying by the amount of grapes picked. The workers had to love this gig.
A few hours later, the landowner stops by the marketplace and sees some more workers who have no work that day. So he hires more laborers and tells them he will pay them what is right. That is good enough for them, and off they go.
Three hours later, he again stops by the marketplace and sees more laborers with no work and he hires them as well. And then finally, about 5:00, he goes and finds still more workers just standing around. “Why have you been idle all day?” he asks. They respond that nobody has hired them. So this owner goes ahead and hired them for the day – even though the work day is nearly over.
Finally it’s quitting time, and the owner has his steward pay the workers. For some reason, he pays those hired last first. And these folks who were hired at 5:00 received a denarius – the regular daily wage, for just an hour of work. Word soon spread. If those who only worked an hour got a denarius, then we are going to clean up, they thought. This was too good to be true. Well, it was. Everyone received the same amount.
Predictably, this did not go over well. And it doesn’t go over well with us, either. Equal pay for equal work is fair. Equal pay for grossly unequal work – that is not fair.
The landowner in the story, however, has a different take on it. He had done exactly what he said he would do. He had not shortchanged anyone. He had paid the early morning workers exactly what they had agreed on. And if he wants to be generous with his money, what is that to them? Did they begrudge him because of his generosity?
Well of course they did. We all do. Give your money to United Way if you want to be generous, but don’t go and ruin the smooth operation of the vineyard. I mean, can you imagine what it is going to be like at the vineyard the next morning? Can you imagine what it will be like at the day labor pool?
It is interesting that in the story Jesus tells, it is not simply that those who arrive last get paid the same. They also get paid first. If those hired first had been paid first, they may have taken their money and been on their way and have never known about the generous pay to those hired late in the day. Instead, the owner seems to go out of his way to be sure that everyone knew that those hired at 5 o’clock were getting a full day’s wage.
Marilyn McDonald owned a graphic design and printing business. She and her partner in the business decided to pay everyone the same, regardless of experience or the particular job they did. (The only ones not paid as much were the two owners, who frequently got less than the others because of revenue shortfalls.) Most employees were paid more than they would make at the same job elsewhere. This small company was operating under the revolutionary idea of viewing all work as meaningful, and equally meaningful, and looking at need more than relative merit.
All went well until a new employee was hired. The new employee said to a co-worker, “It’s not fair – I’ve only been here a short time and we are getting the same pay. You should be getting a raise!” Even though this new employee was making 1 ½ times the wage she would have gotten anywhere else, even though she was the one who would have been at the bottom of the pay scale under a more conventional approach, she was the one who complained that it wasn’t fair.
Of course, discontent started to be felt among the employees, and morale went downhill from there. But it all began when this person could not accept that all were being treated equally. There is something about human beings that wants to compare ourselves with others. Even if that would put us on the bottom, we still want this, knowing that some day, at least, we will be able to look down on somebody else.
I am on the board of a non-profit group. At a board meeting, we were updating the Personnel Policies and Procedures. It wasn’t exactly a scintillating meeting, but it was necessary. The policy says that salary changes will take effect on January 1, but if an employee has been employed for less than 6 months on January 1, any salary change will be effective after 6 months of employment.
We weren’t changing the policy, just adjusting some of the wording for clarity, but someone commented on it. This was a good rule, they said. “Otherwise somebody could start in December and get a raise in January, and that wouldn’t be right.”
Well, thinking about our scripture for today, I thought I would have a little fun. “What about the Bible?” I asked. “Isn’t this a Christian organization? What about the part where the people who get hired at the end of the day get paid just as much as those who worked all day long?”
Well, of course I was just kidding around. We wouldn’t give somebody a raise as soon as they started while others had to wait a year for a pay increase. That wouldn’t be fair. And believe me, this organization is very fair. If anybody was going to follow Jesus’ teaching, it would be this organization. But no, they are not going to follow this approach. We have all bought into the economics of the empire.
At the end of the work day, there is this long line of workers – the last hired on one end, the first hired on the other. Here is the big question for all of us: where do you locate yourself in that line? Are you at the front of the line, or the back? It is interesting that most of us see ourselves as being the early morning workers. We don’t read the story and think, “What a generous owner! What a great deal!” We read it and say, “How unfair is that!?” It offends our sense of what is right.
But why is it that everybody thinks of themselves as being at the front of the line? Why does everyone think that they are the hardest workers, the ones who arrive early and stay late and clean up the messes and take on responsibility?
Well, we all have our own story and it is the story we are most familiar with. And we all know the difficulties and hassles we have to endure, even if no one else does. And we know how hard we work and even if we don’t always quite follow through, we know how good our intentions are. We don’t necessarily know these things about others. We all have reason to think of ourselves as the early morning workers who have toiled all day in the heat, battling the humidity and the mosquitoes and the grapevines.
We might think of those 5 o’clock employees as slackers. And maybe they are. But try to imagine what the day labor reality might be. Someone comes early in the morning to hire, say, 5 workers. I’ll take you - and you - and you - and you - and you. Who was chosen? The youngest and strongest workers and those whom the owner had hired before, whom he knew to be good workers. When he comes back, he hires the best workers still available. And on it goes.
So who is left at the end of the day? The weakest and least skilled. The ones who are least desirable. The same ones who probably didn’t get hired the day before. And yet, they too have families to provide for. They too need shelter and food and clothing. They too have to buy school supplies and pay the heating bill.
The owner apparently pays based not on worth but on need. I had never noticed this before, but the landowner does not hire more workers because he needs more help in the vineyard. Did you catch that? He sees people who are not working, people who haven’t yet been hired, and he tells them, “You also go work in my vineyard.” It is not about being efficient or matching workload with labor supply. It is wanting to give a job to people who need one.
Last year, Forbes magazine reported that CEOs of large companies make about 361 times what the average American worker makes. In other words, these CEOs make in one day what an average worker earns in a year. This is the prevailing economic model of our society. We have seen that same model at work this past week as the fabulously wealthy can purchase “merit based” college admissions for their children. We mostly just accept this sort of thing as being the way life is, while we see it as unfair if somebody gets a raise before they have worked six months.
Jesus’ story speaks to inequities in life and the value of every person, not just the biggest and strongest and wealthiest and most well-connected. The economics of empire is about scarcity and control and power. It is about entitlement and transactions. The economics of God, on the other hand, is about abundance and gratitude and generosity and freedom.
But we do need to keep in mind what this story is about. It’s not about salary and compensation per se; it is about the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it. At the bottom line, it is about the amazing grace of God who loves us and accepts us and values us, wherever we may be in that line.
Zoe and I went to the ISU women’s NCAA tournament game yesterday. It was a lot of fun. The Cyclones looked great and the whole game, I had been saying that they were on track to score 100 points. But Zoe was more observant than me. At the end of the game, the bench was cleared, and with 2 minutes to go, Lauren Mills got in the game. She had played in only a handful of games all year. As it turned out, everybody on the team had already scored, and sure enough, with about a minute to go, they got the ball to Lauren and she made a nice play and scored. And the bench erupted. Everybody celebrated. It was better than scoring 100 points. It was kind of like Jesus’ story: whether you were a starter or just got in at the last minute, everybody scored. But in this case, everybody celebrated.
It is worth noting that this parable of Jesus comes right after Peter says, “Lord, I have given up everything for you – what will be my reward?’ And it is right before the mother of James and John asks that they be given seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. He tells this story while his disciples are trying to push their way to the front of the line – as they argue about their relative worth and greatness.
Is the front of the line where we stand? Maybe not. Maybe, as far as God is concerned, we are not at the front of the line at all. I mean, we’re not Mother Teresa. We probably haven’t suffered because of our faith. We haven’t taken a lot of unpopular stands to follow the gospel. There are folks who pray more and give more and sacrifice more than us. There are those who have a deeper and stronger and surer faith.
And as much as we intend to put our faith to work and really make a difference, we don’t always follow through. So maybe we’re not at the front of the line, but then again we are the ones who come to church on Sunday mornings, and we try to do the right thing. So maybe we are the 9 a.m. people - or at least the noon time hires.
But then again, once we give up the idea that we are the best and brightest and God’s very favorites, it is a slippery slope. Maybe we are the ones in back of the line. We might be there for all kinds of reasons – maybe we didn’t even know there was a line. But there we are – we show up late and get in line and crane our necks to look toward the front, to see the people who have been in line for hours, when the manager suddenly shows up and says, “We’re starting at this end of the line today,” and starts handing out big checks while everybody starts cheering and high-fiving.
It’s not fair. It really isn’t. God is not fair. Instead, God is generous. When we begrudge others that generosity, it is only because we have forgotten how generous God has been toward us. We do not get what we deserve. Thank God, we all get far better than that. Amen.