The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost — with food for thought on privilege, equity and God’s Economy … Gnaw away!
Jesus said, “The kin-dom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard. After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage, the owner sent them out to the vineyard.
About mid-morning, the owner came out and saw others standing around the marketplace without work, and said to them, ‘You go along to my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is fair.’ At that they left.
Around noon and again in the mid-afternoon, the owner came out and did the same. Finally, going out late in the afternoon, the owner found still others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?”
‘No one has hired us,’ they replied.
The owner said, ‘You go to my vineyard, too.’
When evening came, the owner said to the overseer, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, but begin with the last group and end with the first.’ When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay, and when the first group appeared they assumed they would get more. Yet they all received the same daily wage.
Thereupon they complained to the owner, ‘This last group did only an hour’s work, but you’ve put them on the same basis as those who worked a full day in the scorching heat.’
‘My friends,’ said the owner to those who voiced this complaint, ‘I do you no injustice. You agreed on the usual wage, didn’t you? Take your pay and go home. I intend to give this worker who was hired last the same pay as you. I’m free to do as I please with my money, aren’t I? Or are you envious because I am generous?
“Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.”
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
From the last two Sundays’ readings about how we as disciples are to live with one another — with no limit to the depth of our truth-telling and forgiveness — Jesus expands the conversation in breadth and depth.
In Matthew 19, Jesus deals with marriage, people who for various reasons are celibate, children and wealth. In each case, Jesus emphasizes mutual commitment and fidelity. Nothing should stand in the way of the community embracing one another — not legalism or human weakness, not power differences, not economic differences. Everything that has the power to divide us from each other must be set aside for the sake of us gathering around the presence of the living God together. The need for the community to be supremely faithful to one another as together they are faithful to Christ overshadows every other criteria for judgment.
It is of this principle that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is an illustration. What has greater power to divide the community against each other than envy and covetousness? But Jesus doesn’t just say we shouldn’t be envious and covet what others have … but that the superabundant grace of God makes it unnecessary. We can be free of our envy. The last can be first and the first can be last not because the rankings have been shuffled but because with the superabundant grace of God, there is no need for rationing and ranking. All are loved deeply and equally so all can love one another the same.
A few things to chew on:
The heart of this parable is a turf war. The full-day laborers feel a sense of entitlement. The full days’ wage is their due and theirs alone. At no time in the story are they worried about not getting paid … their only concern is that someone else is infringing on turf that should be only theirs. Jesus’ message is clear — we own nothing. We are all recipients of God’s grace and God alone decides how that is meted out. And we don’t have to be imprisoned by envy and arm ourselves to defend our turf. We can be joyful and welcome everyone into the labor … at full wage!
Read a few verses before this parable and you’ll hear Jesus telling the disciples that they will “sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel” … and the parable illustrates the kind of justice they will mete out. But also read a few verses after the parable. In Matthew 20:1-19, Jesus once again reminds them they are “going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” When we follow Jesus, crosses and thrones are bound together. And the liberating justice we are called to live is not bound to be overly popular!
There is perhaps no thinner line than between righteousness and self-righteousness. We are all tempted to stiffen our necks and look down on others when we are convinced that we are morally in the right, that we somehow have a corner on the market of God’s wisdom and what is right. The full-day laborers in the vineyard crossed that line … we all do.
This week, take a few minutes each morning and think of a situation in your life where you are certain you are right — and do three things.
1) Try to see it from a different even opposite perspective. What seemed like injustice to the full-day laborer felt like incredible grace to the short-timer.
2) Ask yourself “what does humbly following Jesus look like?” Remember, this story is part of a whole section about the Christian community where humbly following Jesus is the core ethic.
3) Pray for the ability to let go of whatever you’re holding onto and for God’s righteousness to be worked through you.
There is a strong message about privilege in this Gospel story. The workers who have worked a full day believe they have worked hard – and they have – and they resent a full day’s wage being given to those whom they believe have not worked as hard.
What Jesus says they are forgetting is that their ability to work is privilege. That the others would have loved to work all day but were not given the opportunity. Giving justice to them does not take away from the wage they are getting. As a popular t-shirt says, “More rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie!”
This week, examine the privilege in your own life. Where do you have more rights than others. Where do you have more opportunities than others. Then journal about how you might use your privilege to help balance the scales, center and come up around those who have less.
It’s Really That Simple
This week’s Gospel should be familiar to us as Californians. It is a story about day laborers who work in agriculture.
If we are inclined to take scripture seriously as a guide for shaping not just personal behavior but the way we live as a community, I can think of few stories that are a better place to start.
The story Jesus tells of “the kin-dom of heaven” (a.k.a. The Way Things Ought To Be), and for starters, it’s clear that Jesus really gets the life of day laborers. Some get to work all day, some don’t get to work at all. And it’s not a matter of virtue or vice – it’s the luck of the draw of whether there was anybody to hire them.
If that is not your life, think about what that means. That means every day, you hope to work and your ability to provide for yourself and your family is 100% dependent on whether or not someone else chooses to let you work. It is impossible to plan for the future, to save, to take vacation, to call in sick – anything that would provide stability or that might risk you not being available to work.
And the when you work, you are one of the lowest paid workers around. An article in The New Republic rated farm laborers as the third worst paying job in America (behind only fast food cooks and hair shampooers). Here’s what the article says about farm laborers:
Farm laborers are some of the lowest paid workers in our country, despite working in what is arguably one of the most essential, and wealthy, industries in our country. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study on Crop Production, published in 2013, estimated that American farmers annually produce close to $143 billion worth of crops and close to $153 billion worth of livestock. But the money goes primarily to the owners, frequently large agriculture companies—who, all too often, take the workers pretty much for granted.
One sign of that treatment is safety, or lack thereof, on the farm: A 2013 study from the Center For Progressive Reform found that, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, more than one farm worker dies in a work-related accident every day. This was found to be seven times higher than the average for all private sector jobs. Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California-Davis, estimated that in order to raise farm wages by 40 percent, the average American household would have to pay only $15 more a year for produce — though that still wouldn’t address the safety problems. By the way, work-related accidents aren’t the only hazard farm workers face. Seven chilling incidents of tomato farm slavery involving workers who had been abducted, confined at gunpoint, and suffered starvation wages and pistol whippings have been discovered and prosecuted in Florida since 1997. Mean hourly wage for agriculture workers: $9.65-10.20
So when we hear this week’s Gospel story, that’s who Jesus is talking about. And what does Jesus say we should do?
- TREAT EVERONE WELL AND PAY EVERYONE A JUST AND LIVING WAGE.
That’s it. That’s what the Kin-dom of Heaven is. People who provide an invaluable service being paid a just wage for their labor – recognizing that they have no control over how much labor they are able to offer.
That’s it. What Jesus asks of us is to reject the economy of Pharaoh – maximizing profits by paying workers as little as possible – and instead prioritizing the health, safety and well-being of those who labor.
If we as the church are doing this (including in our own pay structures) and advocating for this, then we are following Jesus and the Gospel. If we are not, we are not.
It’s really that simple.
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Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings
The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – just click here.
Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Want to read more?
“The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.
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Gnaw On This is a weekly publication by Mike Kinman, the Rector of All Saints Church.