The bible story for this sermon can be found here.
By Ingrid Taylar from San Francisco Bay Area – California, USA – Western Scrub Jay, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8453139
In December of 2009 Walmart settled for $40 million in a class-action lawsuit regarding their labor practices. Walmart workers in Massachusetts claimed that Walmart’s upper management forced them to work off the clock, cut their breaks short, or did not grant them breaks at all. Walmart had already had to shell out money for similar claims in Pennsylvania, California, Nevada and here in Minnesota.
More recently, in March of 2014, workers at the Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue in New York were awarded a $2.65 million dollar settlement in a lawsuit against the owners. In a federal lawsuit the owners were accused of not paying their workers overtime, paying hourly wages of $2.50 to $3.00 – well below the $7.25 minimum wage requirement – and regularly docking employees for hour lunch breaks that the staffers were ordered not to take.
Have you ever felt you have been treated unfairly at work? Most of us have a visceral reaction to stories of unfair treatment in employment because it goes right to the heart of our livelihood. What we earn has a direct impact on our ability to feed and clothe our family, enjoy recreation, and feel productive. We want a level playing field. We want to be treated fairly. This is true not only for those who work in delicatessens, or at Walmart, but also for those who work in vineyards.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like the owner of vineyard who goes out early in the morning and finds workers to work in his vineyard. The owner of the vineyard and those he hires first thing in the morning reach an agreement that he will pay them the usual daily wage. He then goes back at 10 o’clock, noon, 3, and at 5 each time sending more workers to work in his vineyard. When it comes time to pay them at the end of the day. He pays them all the same. Those who worked all day object. It isn’t fair! The owner, asks them are they envious because is generous? Can he not do what he wants with what is his?
Well, actually, not in Minnesota or in much of the United States, or he is likely to be paying a hefty unfair labor practice settlement. The Charles Krug Winery in the Napa Valley found out that even letting employees go can be problematic. In 2006, they did not renew their contract with the United Farm Workers. They then fired 27 vineyard workers. The United Farm Workers contract had provided protection from being fired, but when the contract was not renewed the Charles Krug Winery felt free to fire the workers. But, the California State Labor Relations Board ruled against Krug Winery (Owned by the Peter Mondavi family) and filed formal charges alleging violations of labor laws.
So, what are we to make of this parable? Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this parable. Does that mean that God is unfair? How are we to understand this? How we answer that question depends in part on what we understand the purpose of parables to be. If we understand parables to be a “how to” instructions designed to give us rule for living, we are going to come away with a very different understanding of the parable, then if we understand the parable’s intent to reveal something to us about God. If the kingdom of God is something that can be achieved here on earth, we are going to react to this parable very differently than if it reveals to us the way that God works in the world in spite of us – but will only be finally achieved in world to come. For better or worse, I see this parable’s intent as revealing something about how God works in the world, that unfortunately will only be fully realized in the world to come.
One key to understanding this parable is the amount of money being paid. Like we heard, last Sunday in the parable of the unforgiving servant, the usual daily wage at Jesus time was a denarius. A denarius was enough money to feed a family for a day. That is important. It is a key to understanding this parable.
It is helpful to remember another time when the people were given enough to feed a family for a day. In Exodus, after the people are wandering in the desert. There isn’t anything to eat. They remember the food they had to eat in Egypt even though they were slaves and they complain to Moses. Moses takes their complains to God. God provides manna for the people to eat. But, here’s the surprising thing about manna. They could only gather even for the day. If they tried to gather more – it became wormy and spoiled. Each day they could gather just enough for that day.
In Jesus’ parable, each worker received just enough to be able to feed their family for a day. I wonder, is Jesus trying to help us understand what it means when we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread?”
The parable strikes hard at our notions of fairness. It just isn’t fair that that those who worked all day are paid the same as those who work for an hour. But, isn’t it ironic that we don’t seem as interested in the fairness of some workers being left standing almost all day wondering and worrying if they will be able to feed their families. Could Jesus be using our sense of fairness to help us look at the fairness of some not having enough to live on? Should those who worked only an hour not be given enough for themselves and their families to survive?
The generosity of the owner seems to be about the owner’s care and sense of fairness for the least of these, rather than a sense of fairness from the perspective of those who worked all day. If we are all about storing up treasures on earth – we probably find this parable objectionable. But if we see this parable from the perspective of those that are struggling to survive – this is good news indeed. Jesus that last will be first, and the first last. Understood in this way, the saying underscores God’s concern for those who find it difficult to just get enough to survive. It speaks to God’s concern for those who live in poverty, or those affected by the recent hurricanes, wild fires, earthquakes and floods. It speaks to the homeless here in Dakota County.
There is another detail it is important in the parable. Did you notice that the owner and the first workers agree on the payment – the usual daily wage. But, there is no agreement with the workers that go into the vineyard to work each time after that. They are simply told, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” Rather, than having an agreement on what they will be paid, they go simply trusting the owner of the vineyard. They have no guarantees about what they will be paid. They are invited to simply trust.
Isn’t trust the hardest thing? Isn’t there a part of us that would rather have an ironclad contract with God? I do this. I don’t do that. And you owe me this. If I do more you owe me more. No need for trust. It’s all on us.
Of course, that is assuming we have the ability to earn it. Last week we heard Jesus talk about the unforgiving servant owing a debt of 10,000 talents – the equivalent of 150,000 years of service. That is a debt so large no one could possibly dream of earning in a life time. If we find ourselves a bit put off by God’s generosity and concern for those who haven’t earned it – we are not alone.
Jonah had trouble to. I find myself laughing when I read about him pouting under the broom tree. There is a part of me that resonates with his anger at God’s sparing his enemies.
There is a part of me that would rather God dealt harshly with my enemies – not showed mercy and kindness. There is a part of me that would rather God made everyone work every single blessing they received. There is a part of me that would rather earn what I get.
Then God finds ways to break through. Sometimes with something as simple as the shade we get from a bush – that we receive many countless undeserved blessings each day. Who are we to say God shouldn’t extend blessings to others? Amen.