Equal to Us

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

Sept 21, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

Before we look at what this parable might possibly mean for us today, I’d like to take a few minutes first and consider what it tells us about the economic reality of Jesus’ day. There are people standing idle, desperate for work. These people, who in Jesus’ day would have all been men, are hanging out at Jerusalem’s Home Depot, hoping that someone needs to hire them, so that they can get by.

If they get a job, it wouldn’t have paid enough for them to really get ahead. A “day’s wage” meant enough to subsist, to get by. We shouldn’t picture a unionized construction crew who are allowed regularly scheduled breaks, health benefits, and OSHA safety standards. These are people who are at the mercy of the people who show up and say, “hey you, go into my vineyard and work. I’ll pay you.

There are no labor contracts. No guarantees you’ll actually get paid, even. These men do not have the resources or ability to go back to school, to get small business loans so they can open their own pita shops, or to apply for unemployment. There is no social safety net for them.

I wish we could look at this story and NOT see parallels to our world today.

I wish that 2,000 years would have gone by and let us read this story as ancient history.

For many of us, it is. Many of us have security, stability, agency in our own lives. But many people in our community and around the world, could likely relate well to this situation.

Think of the day laborers, waiting at the hardware store, hoping that today they’ll get lucky and get hired by someone who will pay them a fair wage to do an honest job.

This story is today’s story for many people.

The good news is Jesus uses this situation to tell a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus doesn’t say “the Kingdom of Heaven is…” He says “the Kingdom of Heaven is LIKE….”.

In this case, it is like a landowner who went to hire day laborers.

Even if you can’t take a parable, paint it in black and white and walk away with clear answers, we see the Kingdom of Heaven is something to which we can relate. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t far away from our experience and life.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went to Home Depot to hire a bunch of unemployed, day laborers.

The story doesn’t play out exactly as it would in Boise in 2014. The owner starts with his first crew at the break of dawn. The text doesn’t tell us how this first bunch were selected. Were they at the front of the line? Did they look stronger? Who knows.

He tells them, “I’ll pay you the usual daily wage for a day’s work.” And they agree. And as they are off pruning grapevines or stomping on grapes, the owner goes back to the hardware store and hires some more workers.

I’ll pay you what is right”, he tells them.

This happens a few more times in the day, with new workers joining the people who have been there all day. The final trip for laborers was at the very end of the day, which makes you wonder how desperate or hopeful those last laborers must have been—standing there all day, long after everyone else had been hired or had gone home, deciding to try again tomorrow. Is that what faith is—sitting there from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm, just hoping and praying that something is going to work out for you?

I’m sure the laborers hired first were thinking, “I’m glad he hired Johnny at the end of the day. Even if he only gets an hour’s wage, it is better than nothing and I know how much he needs to work.Because people who feel secure in their situation tend to be generous towards others.

I expect the laborers hired at the end of the day were thinking, “I’m thankful for this chance. If I work really hard for this one hour, maybe he’ll hire me first tomorrow morning.” Because people who have recently received grace tend to value it.

Even at this point of the story, we have hints that the Kingdom of Heaven is not exactly like it is in our world. Because landowners don’t keep hiring laborers all day long. It is bad business. You end up paying people who haven’t even had time to learn to do their job. Why would you hire someone at 2 pm, or at 5 pm? If you really needed the laborers, you would have hired them in the beginning. Maybe you would have run back at your lunch hour if the job changed. Maybe.

Then the story changes. It leaves the path of plausible employment story and becomes something else altogether. The employees who arrive at the end of the day, get paid.

And they get paid first, which doesn’t quite seem right.

And then they get paid what the boss said he’d pay the first laborers.

Had I been one of the early employees, I would have been doing some quick math….”Okay, he said he’d pay me $20 to work today. And he just paid that guy $20 for less than an hour, which means that he’ll pay me…..”

It doesn’t work that way. Each of the laborers, no matter how long they’d been working in the vineyard, got the same amount of money that he’d promised the first workers—a day’s wage.

And then there was grumbling.

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.

You’ve made them equal to us.

I hadn’t noticed that phrase in this story before, in all the times I’d read it.

You’ve made them equal to us.

I think we often claim to be people who value equality, but after a day of bearing the burden of the day in the scorching heat, we really want privilege. At least for ourselves.
If we really wanted equality, we’d make sure everyone had it, right?

The inequalities in our world are myriad.

We have gender inequality—men routinely get paid more money than women for doing the exact same job.

We have marriage inequality—in some states but not in others, so even the inequality in marriage equality is unequal.

We still have racial inequality—and it colors our world in ways we aren’t even conscious of—as a mother of white sons, I have no fear they will be shot because of the color of their skin, as some other mothers fear when their boys leave the house.

Food inequality—my family has not been hungry, at least not since the depression. My children have never known food insecurity, wondering when the next meal would come. Yet 22% of children in Idaho go to bed hungry each night.

Economic inequality—from access to safe neighborhoods, or good schools, or opportunity to attend college, or job security—the economic inequalities in our society get worse every year. The richest 1% of Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 90% of Americans. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were the top 12% owned more than the bottom 33%.

We say we want equality,
we think we want equality, but when it comes down to it,
we live as if we don’t.

We grumble about equality just as the laborers do—why should they be equal to us when we worked for it, we earned it, we deserve it.

There is much debate in American Christianity about how God views economic policy, and I’m quite sure there is not a political party with whom God would fully agree, but this parable suggests that equality in God’s kingdom is going to be different than we experience here.

And how different would our world look if we started aiming for God’s economy of equality, rather than our own system that thrives on inequality?

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When we complain others are being made equal to us, we usually are referring to situations when we feel someone else has gotten an advantage. I’ve rarely heard it yelled out when we are the beneficiaries of the equalizing action.

When have you heard this:

“It’s not fair!….that we were born in a country with clean water, stable society, and public education while other people were born in war zones!”

Or

“It’s not fair….that I don’t have cancer and we’re praying today for a 3 year old who has leukemia!”

And that’s the problem with the earliest laborers’ notion of equality. They didn’t complain in the morning when they were hired instead of the other day laborers.

They received what they’d been promised. Any other day, they would have taken their $20 and been thankful that they could buy food for their kids.

But once someone got a different deal than they did, their cries for justice, and their complaints about equality, were quick to come.

As often as we focus on the injustices we suffer, we tend to overlook the moments when we benefit from the inequality of life.
The times we’re forgiven our mistakes,
the times we receive second chances,
the times we are picked ahead of the other laborers for no reason other than we were ahead of them in line.

Whatever the Kingdom of Heaven is like, it is clear that we need to let go of being the people who decide what justice looks like for God.

If God is the owner of the vineyard in this parable, it seems clear that God keeps going back to hire laborers because they need to be included in the work of the vineyard.

God doesn’t keep going back to hire people because they are such great workers and will work for cheap. God offers them, offers us,  inclusion in the work of the Kingdom because God is generous like that. If God chooses to dispense God’s own grace to people who have been here for 10 minutes and to people who have been here for 10 years, what business is that of ours?

Remember what the owner of the vineyard says to the complainers:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

We don’t have grace to dispense. We only have grace to receive.

And there is enough of it to go around. Just because God shares it with someone who has newly arrived doesn’t mean God will run out by the time God gets to the person who worked all day.

We have no reason to be envious of God’s generosity to others.

We only have reason to be grateful for God’s generosity to us.

Whatever the Kingdom of Heaven is like, it seems that if we want to be recipients of God’s grace, we have to let go of our complaints when others are made equal to us. If God’s grace is for us, it is for all.

Let’s go live in the world, knowing it is Good News that God has made others “equal to us”. And let’s make that equality real, meaningful, and visible to all.
Amen

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4 thoughts on “Equal to Us

  1. Thank you for your wisdom. Something screamed at me this morning. You said “as mothers of the white sons, I have no fear they will be shot…as the white grandmother of black grandsons I never thought about that before. I don’t even know how to articulate the emotion that your statement evoked in me. It awakened me.

  2. Pingback: Garment Business | Glass Overflowing

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