Text: Matthew 20:1-16
A woman in Illinois had just started a new job. On her very first day of work, one of her co-workers asked what she was making, and she told them her salary. Word got around. This new hire was making more than some employees who had been there awhile. This caused a bit of an uproar and in fact one woman got mad enough that she quit. And the next day, the new employee was called into the boss’s office and fired for disclosing what she was making.
It is illegal to fire an employee for sharing salary details, but it happens nevertheless. But most of us are pretty private about such matters. We generally don’t like to discuss money and certainly not our salary.
Jesus tells a story about workers who learned what others were making. It causes an uproar, and what’s more the employer seems to want everyone to know.
There is a vineyard owner 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. The presence of day laborers is actually 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 victims of war and displacement. They often were immigrants and refugees doing piece work.
This vineyard owner hires the workers for 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 day laborers 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. He doesn’t specify what that is, but if you are already into the workday, you are really not in a position to bargain. His word was good enough for them. 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, just an hour before quitting time, 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. Well, I guess that was obvious. But this vineyard owner goes ahead and hires them – even though the work day is nearly over.
By now, the early-morning workers are beat. It is hard work. Their shirts are drenched with sweat. Just from the looks of them, you can tell who had been there all day and who was hired in the mid or late afternoon.
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.
They were right: it was too good to be true. Everyone received the same amount. Those who had worked 8 hours were paid the same as those who had worked for an hour.
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.
Jesus’ economic plan would be a disaster because there is no incentive to work. Why go to work early in the morning when you can just show up shortly before quitting time and get paid the same?
The landowner in the story 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. So do we. 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. The vineyard owner could have been more subtle about it. 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.
These day workers were all victims of the imperial economics of Rome. I mean, that is why they had to hustle for work each day – they no longer owned land and had no other livelihood. They had suffered from this system, and yet they had all bought into the economic model of the empire that had used and abused them. The economics of empire is about scarcity and control and power.
The economics of God, on the other hand, are about abundance and gratitude and generosity. God operates by a completely different model of economics and fairness.
We have all bought into the economics of empire, I think. Some are upset that there are folks who may potentially get 10 to 20 thousand dollars in student loans forgive. It’s not fair because others paid off their loans or didn’t even take out a loan in the first place. Why should they get this break?
I understand that. It’s not fair. But why isn’t there an uproar over the fact that educational opportunity is very much dependent on economic status? Over the fact that some people can’t afford college? There aren’t so many complaints that those with student loans may have to work a year to earn what the CEO makes in one day. There is more than one way of thinking about fairness, and this vineyard owner is viewing it in a different way.
At the end of the work day, imagine 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? I think most of us see ourselves as being the early morning workers. We don’t necessarily 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.
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 employees. 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. He is not as concerned with being equal as he is with being equitable. It is a different way of seeing.
There was an NPR story this week about a woman in Perry, Iowa who required care for dementia. She had Lewy Body Syndrome, a terrible disease. A state case worker told the family about a program that would pay the costs of in-home care that Medicare and Tri-Care did not cover. The family was not told that this was an offshoot of Medicaid, and they were not told that Medicaid had a rule regarding repayment after the person was deceased if the individual had assets – the so-called Medicaid clawback rule. Or that Iowa claws back more than almost any other state.
A few weeks after she died, her husband received a letter saying that her estate owed the state of Iowa $226,000 for her care. The family thought it was a scam at first but it was real. The husband can continue to live in the family home, but after he dies the state of Iowa will take half of the value of their home – the wife’s portion. The couple had wanted to leave the home to their daughter, but it will have to be sold. It is assessed at $88,000.
You could call this fair in that Medicaid is for those with very little means, and this rule insures that people are not scamming Medicaid. But there are other ways of thinking about what is fair, and I’m not sure that the vineyard owner would be a fan.
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. But we do need to keep in mind what this story is about. It’s not actually about salary and compensation per se, although it certainly has something to say about economics. And it’s challenging for sure.
But Jesus tells this parable to show what the kingdom of heaven is like. What is he saying? At the bottom line, this is about the amazing grace of God who loves us and accepts us and values us, wherever we may be in that line. Those who have just come to the faith are as precious to God as life-long saints. Children are valued as much as seasoned church members. Ordinary folks matter just as much to God as those superstar Christians. None of us have a claim or entitlement or get an extra portion when it comes to God’s love and grace. And it is not about all the work we do.
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. Jesus tells this story while his disciples are trying to push their way to the front of the line – as they argue about their worth and greatness.
Is the front of the line where we stand? Maybe not. We 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.
Maybe we’re not those early morning workers. 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 working all day, 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.
This is often called the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. But I’m not sure that is really what it is about. I’m thinking that maybe it is the story of the Generous Vineyard Owner. And the kingdom is not all about one-upping each other and figuring out who is of greater worth. It is more about caring for and valuing each and every person, even those – maybe especially those – who are struggling.
The vineyard owner is not fair. Not really. God is not fair, not by our standards. Instead, God is generous. When we begrudge others that generosity, it is only because we have forgotten how generous God has been toward us.
No, we do not get what we deserve. Thank God, we all get far better than that. Amen.
Saturday, March 4, 2023
“The Kingdom Pay Scale” - March 5, 2023
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
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