“Labor On” Colchester Federated Church, September 24, 2017, Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 20:1-16)
Today we’re continuing on in Matthew’s Gospel. We’ve moved from conflict resolution to mercy and forgiveness to grace. The parable of The Laborers in the Vineyard is about employment and economic justice or injustice depending on whose perspective we take in this story. This parable is about the kingdom of God exceeding our expectations. That God’s grace is mysterious and unearned by anything we have done or left undone in our lives. The parable is really centered on that wonderful line we hear from Jesus himself, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
Here’s the thing, in Jesus’ lifetime day laborers had a tough existence and he was probably one of them so he knew what he was talking about here. They would stand in the marketplace hoping to be hired to do odd-jobs for richer people. Some days they would get hired early and be able to work all day and be paid a decent sum to be able to feed, clothe, and house their families. Other days, there might not have been enough work to go around. And they might have stood there all day hoping to have a one-day manual labor job to support their loved ones, only to return home empty-handed, disappointed, and probably incredibly frustrated.
It’s important to note that this day to day existence is still a reality for many people, especially agricultural workers who work during the harvest season but may not always have steady work even when the crops come in. It’s a precarious existence. When studying and staying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute during a previous Sabbatical our group from around the world was in Jerusalem and yet could look out some of our windows and see into Bethlehem. These days Bethlehem is a Palestinian city surrounded by a “security wall” or “barrier” depending on who’s telling the story. You have to pass through an Israeli security checkpoint to leave the city. Though truth be told you can walk right into Bethlehem with no one screening you. The Israeli government doesn’t care so much about who goes in as they are more concerned about who comes out. Palestinians who don’t have certain work permits have to apply for day passes to go into Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. Most requests are denied.
Though when we would be out and about, catching buses to go into the Old City, leaving Tantur to go explore for the day—we would see a group of Palestinian men on the side of the road near the Israeli security checkpoint just waiting. Waiting to be hired for the day having finally received a day pass from the Israeli government. Many Palestinian men would go back home to Bethlehem disappointed. The day labor and waiting and hoping for someone to hire you presented in Jesus’ parable is still a reality for people today in the land where Jesus once lived himself, let alone in our own country.
Jesus begins the story by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” If we try to think about how this would play out, the presumably wealthy landowner goes to the marketplace to hire relatively poor laborers. We all know the phrase, the early bird get the worm? So probably the men who may have really needed the money or were the most reliable were there early. They needed and wanted the work and so they went with the landowner to toil in his fields all day and receive their just compensation.
The landowner goes back at 9 AM, Noon, 3 PM, and then 5 PM and picks up other guys to work the fields. Evening comes, which means everybody gets to be paid for the work he did, and everybody receives the exact same wage. From the guy who was there at dawn and worked in the field for 10 plus hours to the guy who got hired at 5 PM and may have only worked an hour and two. They all got paid the exact same amount.
Now I don’t know about you, but this parable is hard for me. Because when I was in high school and college, I worked for good family friends who are farmers. I mostly worked at their corn stand and farmer’s market—selling produce, bagging up dozens of ears of corn for big orders, sitting outside by the side of a highway. It wasn’t always a blast, but I loved my summer job and enjoyed most of the people who came by every day to pick up their produce and chat. Occasionally if Dale needed help on the farm, I would help him out with odd jobs, including stacking hay in the barn.
For the first hay stacking episode, I came downstairs at my parents’ house in shorts and a t-shirt and my dad (who grew up on a farm) looked at me, laughed, and told me to go change because long sleeves and pants should be worn for stacking hay. I immediately complained that it was 90 degrees out and I didn’t want to be wearing clothing that would make me even hotter. My father patiently explained that even though we’re not allergic to hay, my skin would get irritated and I would get some scratches and needed to at least bring longer clothes along.
Came home from that day of labor covered in sweat and arms aching (each hay barrel weighs about 40 pounds.) I had hay dust all over me, some scratches here and there (I had refused to wear the long sleeved shirt though I did end up putting on the pants after accidentally tripping and falling in the hay loft and getting all scratched up). To top it all off, I had bright red, sore hands from the ropes that hold the hay barrels together cutting into my palms all day long because it was too annoying to wear gloves the whole time. I had dust in my eyes, up my nose, my face had dirt all over it, and I had hay in my hair. My dad asked how it was, and I said something to the effect of being happy that I didn’t have to grow up on a farm like him because it was really hard work.
So that’s my minor manual day labor story—having to stack hay on the farm occasionally on summer days. And so it’s easy to imagine how it must have felt to be the early day laborers in today’s parable, to go out in the fields and toil in the hot sun all day long and then to see that you get paid the exact same amount as some guy who just worked an hour. When you work that hard for that long in such a physically taxing job, you want to be fairly compensated. Maybe the person next to you getting compensated the same wage even if they worked less hours, well maybe that is the landowner’s business, but it just doesn’t seem that fair.
What makes this parable even more troubling on some level is that many of the historical Jesus of Nazareth research points to Nazareth (where Jesus was from) as being a small hill town in the middle of nowhere. Nazareth may have had anywhere from 400-2,000 people in the total population. And the main people in town? Agricultural laborers, tenant farmers, and manual laborers of modest economic resources. Jesus, it is assumed, was probably part of the laboring class with his family.
Here’s the point—this is Jesus’ world, he is most likely speaking from personal experience. He may have even been out and worked in some of these fields, or done odd jobs with Joseph. Jesus knows that this work is tough. He knows how the lives of day laborers go because he himself is from a community with presumably quite a few small farmers, manual laborers, and day laborers! And he’s saying that when the men who had worked all day complained, that they really shouldn’t because who are they to question the generosity of the land owner? Who are they to say that he can’t be as generous as he wants to be? It’s his land, it’s his money, and he hired the men and paid them according to how he wanted to pay them. That’s why the landowner says, “Friend I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
And that’s what we have to wrestle with this morning—should generosity like this be judged and condemned? Was the man right to pay everybody the same across the board? Maybe it’s just me, but it remains a hard parable to reconcile because maybe I’m just not that generous. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in just compensation for the type of job and the hours worked. Maybe I have a mild case of post-traumatic stress from those summer days stacking hay on the farm in Ohio. I don’t know.
But this passage points to the upside-down notions of the Kingdom of God. And it’s supposed to be challenging. God’s grace doesn’t work like we sometimes want it to work. Thank goodness. Grace is extended even though we’re all broken on some level. It’s like Bob Dylan sings in a classic song, “For the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin’.” The first will be last and the last will be first. It ends up (Jesus tells us) that the people who may be the supposed dregs of society are the best guests to invite to your dinner party. Or it’s like when Jesus says that the shepherds go out and find that lost sheep and leave the 99 in the wilderness to fend for themselves for a while. And the shepherd comes back victoriously with the one little lost sheep he found slung across his shoulders. The little sheep happy and safe. Maybe we would be mad if we’re one of the 99. But how would we feel if we were the one who was lost and now is found? Because we’re all going to be lost at some point. We’re all going to need God’s grace. And God will keep seeking us out because there is nowhere we can go where God is not.
So in the end, let’s take to heart the question of the landowner: “are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” God’s grace is extended to everyone, no exceptions. And God bless the generous people who exist in our world like the landowner. God bless the grumbling laborers and the ones who received mercy that day. God bless all of you for hiring me as your Pastor so I don’t have to stack hay anymore. And may we all attempt to be half as generous as that landowner in the way we treat one another. May it be so with us. Amen.