Matthew 20:1-16 (NIV)
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Our reading today is a parable, or story, told by Jesus and I believe that this story contains within it the seeds for a better and more just world, but like many of Jesus’ stories it is not easy to hear. In this story, a landowner, a rich and powerful man, makes what is by modern economic standards, a really stupid business decision and overpays his labor, managing to alienate and infuriate his hardest workers in the process. He pays those who work an hour and those who work all day the same. It is almost as if he is more concerned with paying a day’s wage to as many laborers as he can than he is in making a nice profit from his harvest. The socioeconomic implications in this story are so shocking and counter cultural that almost without exception exegetes (that is, people who interpret sacred Christian texts) have chosen a spiritual interpretation and described the wages as salvation or future rewards when interpreting this story rather than addressing the more obvious issue of economic justice.
I’m not going to do that. I do not believe that the stories of Jesus want to be spiritualized and I don’t believe that they were heard as theology by the crowds of poor first century Jews who were attracted to Jesus’ messages. I know that the message of Jesus was about something more dangerous than establishing a theology of future salvation because speculations about a future world is not what gets people killed. Jesus’ stories were intentional and they were intended to turn the world upside down, this world, not a future one. They want to shake up our assumptions about what Justice looks like. Our greatest barriers to understanding the stories of Jesus is assuming that they were written for middle class white Americans like us. They were not. Jesus was a poor, itinerant, homeless, person of color from the Middle East and he was speaking to the poor, landless, working class who were far more concerned about economic justice than future spiritual rewards. They understood that a day’s wages was the thing that stood between each day laborer and the downward spiral of poverty and hunger. Go more than one day without food and a laborer may not have the strength to work, without work, there will be no wages and no food, not for oneself and not for ones family. Jesus lived in a world not so unlike ours with a large population of working class poor who lived hand to mouth and were too often the victims not the benefactors of popular definitions of justice. In contrast to that common definition of justice in which only those who can work eat, Jesus offers a different definition of Justice that is good news for the poor.
In a capitalist society, an individual’s value and right to resources is earned through one’ ability to be important to those with power over the resources. An individual is responsible for oneself and justice means getting what you have earned through hard work. Those who are capable of making themselves more important to the powerful either by natural giftedness or by fortuitous circumstances have access to more resources.
Through the character of the generous landowner, Jesus invites his audience to imagine a radical new world where an individual’s value is intrinsic and one’s right to resources is determined by one’s need rather than one’s economic contributions. The landowner sees his job as redistributing the resources he has and so he is tireless to bring in as many workers as he can and ensure that they each have a days’ wages, the amount necessary to ensure that they will be able to eat the next day. While his generosity is not understood by those whose greater strength or luck seem to have put them in a position to earn more, there is some wisdom in it. By ensuring that his workers have what they need, he is guaranteeing that they will have strength to work the next day. By giving everyone what they need the landowner values each of his workers equally and while he has taken nothing from anyone, those who had a false sense of superiority are angry that there is longer anyone to feel superior over. They wanted to be special.
I am not going to explore the economic or political implications of this story because you are all as qualified as me to find the parallels in our modern world. The implications of this story are many and challenging and I encourage you to struggle with them in your own spirit. What I want us to consider together today is the vision of Justice that Jesus presents in this story and the way it contrasts with popular definitions of Justice that we each encounter and implicitly accept every day. At the bottom of the question “What is Just?” is the question “Is human life of intrinsic or earned value?” We live in a world where our value is determined by what we can do or give but that is not the only possible world. The challenge of the follower of Jesus is to believe in the world Jesus described and then to imagine and through the power of imagination, to create that world. A world built on a new and countercultural definition of Justice where people do not deserve what they earn but what they need. It was this vision of Justice (not a particular theology) that made Jesus and his followers dangerous to the powers of his day, it was this vision that inspired the early believers to sell all that they had and hold everything in common, and it was this vision that caused them to be known by the political powers of their day as the people who turned the world upside down.
If we accept that the laborer who worked for an hour deserves to eat as much as the one who worked all day then we are laying the foundation for a non-violent world because at the heart of every violent act is the assumption that some lives are of less value than others and therefore some people must prosper at the expense of others. Violence is simply the act of sorting out who deserves care and who does not.
Jesus’ story is supposed to make us uncomfortable. It is supposed to challenge us to imagine and believe in a new world that we have not yet seen. It is supposed cause us to ask hard questions of ourselves. Questions like… are some people more deserving of food, shelter, or respect than others? How should I respond to people who behave in hurtful or harmful ways? Is the idea of private ownership compatible with the kingdom of God? What is my responsibility to my unhoused neighbor? Why do I lock my doors? And how would my words and thoughts change if I affirmed in every moment the intrinsic value and worth of everyone I meet as well as those I have not yet met? Take it from me, These are questions that will keep you up at night and they are not questions with easy answers. A temporary peace can be established by power and weapons but a Just Peace is not an easy work. It is difficult and costly both individually and collectively. Before the external work begins there is an internal work that must happen.
Today I invite you to consider the internal work. The kingdom of God does not begin with a rally although those certainly have their place and are important. Before any public action there is a quiet internal revolution. Or perhaps the right word is healing. In the counseling world we often talk about adaptive and maladaptive coping skills. At some point all coping mechanisms are used because they are adaptive. In the moment of trauma, hypervigilance, avoidance, and the ability to dissociate when avoidance is impossible, may be the difference between those who survive and those who do not. But after the trauma has past, the coping skills that were necessary for survival often begin to work against the survivor. PTSD is the accumulative effect of overactive coping skills that are continuing to function but are no longer adaptive.
Living in a world where one’s basic worth is not intrinsic but must be proved and defended through competition with others, is a kind of trauma, and it requires certain coping skills to survive. Those who learn those coping skills thrive, those who do not, are marginalized. In our current social-political world, competition is an adaptive coping skill, but in the kingdom of God that we are called to create, it is not. In a world that is built on principles of just peace and inherent worth competition is maladaptive. Unless we can unlearn certain lessons learned in this world, we will not be able to create a better one. We can too easily become our own greatest barriers to peace when we feel like our “special” status is threatened. Like the laborers who grumbled against the generous landowner because “You made them equal to us.” We will be too busy defending our small castles of false superiority to recognize justice when it comes.
In the kingdom of God, competition is not adaptive that is why I want to tell you today that the journey to a non-violent word and a peace established on justice begins inside. It begins with our willingness to give up our competitive edge and learn to live together cooperatively. This is what I want you to know today. I want you to know deep down in your deepest self that your worth is not determined by working harder or being smarter or establishing a favorable comparison over others. Your worth is intrinsic. Your needs are valid. And the intrinsic worth of your neighbor does not, can not, diminish your own intrinsic worth.
Sermon by Grant Helbley
Delivered to Waverly Heights UCC on 9/18/16