Fair Labor Practices – Sept. 20, 2020

Fair Labor Practices

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Matthew 20:1-16

September 20, 2020

Main Idea:  God gives us what we need.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

At 6am on weekdays, Vermont PBS has an exercise show called Classical Stretch, which I love.  Miranda Esmond-White, a former ballerina, leads this class designed to improve flexibility and strength.  Slowly, without even realizing it, the simple exercises enable us to move more easily, have more strength, and feel better. The stretching of our bodies strengthens us and makes us feel better.  Jesus’ parables function in a similar way, stretching our understanding and our faith.   The parables start out using familiar situations and characters but then they include a twist or surprising details that challenge our assumptions and require us to think and feel more deeply.  The stretching of our understanding and our faith strengthens us and makes us feel more whole and more connected with God and with each other.

Today’s parable is difficult.  It is not a favorite of many because it challenges our understanding of fairness and grace.  It seems pretty straight forward but it is very unsatisfactory, especially when we identify with the earliest workers who are furious that the latecomers receive the same pay as they. 

So as a way to begin our stretching, let’s look at the story from the vineyard owner’s perspective and see what it reveals to us.

Once there was a town where many people were out of work.  One of the fortunate few owned a vineyard and he needed folks to come harvest the grapes.   He saw this harvest as an opportunity to help his community.  He got up early in the morning and went to the town square where he found people who were eager to work.  He negotiated with them about what would be a fair wage for the work and they all went to the vineyard.  At nine am, he took another walk to the town square where he saw more people had gathered; perhaps they were not early risers, perhaps they had further to walk to get to the square.  The vineyard owner offered them a job too, saying “I will pay you what is right.”.   At noon and at 3pm, he walked to the square and he found more people.  Perhaps, word had spread far and wide that good jobs were available at this place, perhaps folks had looked for jobs elsewhere unsuccessfully and so had belatedly made their way to the square.  Everyone who wanted a job was directed to go to the vineyard.   Finally, at 5pm, just one hour before quitting time, the vineyard owner returned to the square and there he found more people looking for work. “Have you been here all day? Why aren’t you working?” he asked.  “Because no one has hired us.” they replied.  Perhaps they were young, or disabled, or had just arrived at the square after searching all over for some way to earn enough to feed themselves and their families.  The vineyard owner said to them “Come on, there is plenty of work for everybody.”  At that moment, in that town, everyone who needed a job had one.

The work day ended and the vineyard owner instructed his manager to pay everyone their wages.  The last ones in were closest to the gate so they were paid first.  They were astonished, and grateful, and overwhelmed to be paid a full day’s wage.  Their families would eat!  Their day, which had been spent mostly in futility and worry, was redeemed.  They smiled and thanked the vineyard owner who smiled back.  Those who started work at 3pm received the full day’s wage and they were grateful too.   Those who started work at noon received the full day’s wage and they were grateful although they were just slightly annoyed that their extra hours weren’t compensated.  Those who started work at 9am received the full day’s wage and they were less than grateful because they somehow forgot that they had not been there all day and their indignation about the unworthy others kept them from smiling at anybody.  The earliest workers, the first ones, were the last to get paid, and by the time they got to the manager, they were apoplectic, full to the brim with indignation, which caught the vineyard owner off guard.  Instead of being grateful for the work and the pay, these workers grumbled “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.”  The wage we agreed on was fine and fair until you gave it to those people who are unworthy.”

The vineyard owner had wanted to support as many families as possible.  The earliest workers wanted to be recognized as more worthy than any others.  In the face of their anger, the vineyard owner did not respond in kind but mildly asked three questions.   He said to one of them “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?”  Which of course, they did.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Which of course, he was.  The last question got to the heart of the matter.  “Are you envious because I am generous?  Or literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Wow, that is a question that no one wants to answer.

This parable is hard because we usually identify with the first workers.  We want to be recognized for our hard work.  We want to be treated fairly.  Most commentators think that Matthew used this parable to respond to conflicts in his community between the early followers of Jesus and the later converts.  Those who had been part of the group longest thought that they deserved more honor and respect. 

So let’s stretch a bit more and wrestle with the fairness question.  We can agree that it is not fair that those who only worked one hour were paid the same as those who worked all day in the sun.  But is it fair that the vineyard owner inherited the vineyard?  Is it fair that he has power over others?  Is it fair that those who lived close to the Town Square got the first job opportunities, rather than those with the best grape picking skills?  Is it fair that some have much more than they need while others have nothing?  Is it fair that those with limited resources are expected to pay the same for food and shelter as those fully employed?  Is it fair to have a community where some are valued and some are not? 

These questions of fairness are tricky and they press us to reconsider many assumptions such as who has advantage and who does not, and how our economic and political systems either encourage or discourage engagement and growth.  These questions are part of the conversations being had today about racism and sexism and about whether the political and economic structures with which we live are intrinsically unfair.  All of these questions, and their answers, are of vital importance.

But here’s the thing, this parable is not about fairness.  It is about grace. “Jesus is not teaching a principle of economics, but rather a spiritual principle. The owner claims the right to pay the workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his own compassion. Those who worship a God of compassion should imitate [God’s] generosity, not begrudge it.” (Alyce McKenzie, patheos.com) This parable is not about each of us getting what we deserve.  It is about all of us receiving the abundant love and grace of God.  This parable invites us to stretch our understanding beyond what is good for us individually to imagine the world as God intends it. We like to think that we are the earliest workers, entitled to prosperity because of our hard work.  But really, we are the 5 o’clock workers, who can never earn God’s love and grace and peace.  We can only, humbly and graciously, accept it as the extraordinary gift that it is.  

So let’s stretch some more, how does looking at the world through God’s intentions change how we see the world?  First, it challenges our assumptions about who is worthy and who is not.  What the world values and what God values are not the same. In fact, they are often the opposite.   To make this clear, Jesus brackets this parable with; “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”(19:30) and “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”(20:16)

Second, looking at the world through God’s intentions challenges us to stop worrying about getting our fair share and to start working to help everyone get what they need.  This is so important because as long as we are concerned about just ourselves, we see everybody else in competition with us.  We see them as “those people” who are taking what is rightfully ours. But if all receive God’s abundant grace, then we are all on one team, we are all working together to build God’s beloved community.  This can be seen in reframing how we think of taxes; instead of just money taken out of our individual pockets, they are investments that strengthen our community.  When we build a system where everyone is cared for, then we can trust that we will be cared for as well.

Finally, this difficult parable challenges us to let go of our grumpy grumbling and to celebrate the gracious generosity of our God who loves us and sustains us abundantly.  God gives us all that we need and much more than we could ever earn.   We can rest in this assurance.  May we be energized by our stretching today. 

Let us pray,

Generous God, we thank you for your many gifts to us.  Help us to let go of insecurity, envy, and resentment.  Empower us to see the world as you see it and may we work with you to bring it to be.  Amen.