A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock on 2023.0924.A.Pr20.Fair Wages Exodus 16:2-15; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
"It’s not fair!” Who among us has not heard that indicting complaint? Truth be told, who among us has not uttered these very words – at least in our own hearts? Theologically, the concept of fairness seems to lie at the heart of what it means to be made in God’s image just as it seems to lie at the heart of a democracy. In both these arenas, fairness is understood as when everyone is treated equally, and no one is left out. Sounds … fair; doesn’t it? After worship and during coffee hour, it will be interesting to speak with the members of our Sunday School because they, too, are focusing on the issue of “fairness” and reflecting on the gospel lesson of the “Vineyard Owner”. And is there anyone who doesn’t stumble over the end of Jesus’ parable and how the workers get paid? Is it fair that those who were hired at the last hour receive the same wages as those who have worked all day? I can hear the kids now: “It’s not fair!” And it is not fair – not fair in terms of treating everyone the same, in terms of equitably. Yet, here’s the problem: Jesus is telling a story in the form of a parable; and as with all his parables, the main story’s character represents God. So then, given what Jesus says about the “Vineyard Owner”, is God unfair? I wonder what the kids will say about this. I wonder what you think and what you might say to our kids, if they come up to you at coffee hour and ask you what you think about God’s fairness or unfairness? And I wonder if this circumstance might increase the number of coffee hour “no-shows”?
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.1 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.2 It is hard to translate a “denarius” into contemporary money. What is clear is that the basic standards of a monied economy rest upon human labor. In Roman times, the work a man could do in a day was regularized and considered as the baseline. The denarius was deemed as that payment, for that labor, for that measure of time. One of my summer jobs as a college student was working as a service writer in the Service Department of a Ford car agency. My job was to listen to the customers and in many cases decode their needs in order for servicing their cars. As a service writer I also fed the day’s work to the mechanics. The point here is that the standard by which the mechanic got paid was pre-determined and printed in a book, called the “Chilton Labor Guide”. The “Chilton Book” was the Service Department’s “Bible”. Every car repair had been calculated by the experience of auto mechanics and engineers to determine how much time it took to disassemble and reassemble – or fix – a car’s mechanical operation. For instance, a tune up’s cost was a flat rate across the board. Both customer and mechanic knew this rate. So, the burden was on the mechanic and his expertise on how fast and how well he could get the job done. If he knew what to do and how to do it expeditiously, the mechanic had more time in a day to do more work, and thus increase his pay. Conversely, if the mechanic was less experienced and less skilled, he needed more time to do the same work and, consequently, got less paid for less work done in a day. The denarius strikes me as something similar to the “Chilton Book of Auto Mechanical Labor.” The book created a fair system, by which customers could count on basic costs, and mechanics could register their incomes through their expertise. It was a “fair” system of standards, accountability, and service. But it would seem that in today’s parable’s case there was no “Chilton” book of standards for work and wages – certainly no labor unions to challenge this unregulated situation. It appears that the landowner was the source of his own standards and did whatever he wanted with his business. Yet, while there was no such thing as a “National Labor Relations Board” or labor unions at Jesus’ time, there were, however, laws, God-given laws based on the covenant that the Holy One established with his people Israel. These laws provided guardrails describing the God-life that was to be shared among all of God’s covenanted people. Take, for instance, that much maligned fifth Book of Moses, called “Leviticus”. In a manner of speaking, Leviticus is the “Chilton Book” of the Torah, and the Torah is the essence of the Old Testament. Interrupting (as it does) the narrative of the Hebrew ancestor’s and their movement from Covenant to Exodus to the promised land, Leviticus acts like a “time out” so that Israel may learn and continually reflect upon what it means to be the chosen of God and what it takes to live as the representative people of God, especially in the midst of human invention and waywardness. In terms of the gospel parable for today, Leviticus 19:13 says this: “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” Grouped in what is called the “holiness laws”, the mentioning of keeping a laborer’s wages until the next day deals with two realities. One is that day laborers were individuals who were too poor to own their own farmland and, thereby, provide for themselves and their families. They were economically vulnerable members of the covenant family, and as members of the covenant, they were meant to be protected. Remembering the Commandment: “Do not steal”, Leviticus 19:13 is a “lower court’s” application of this element of the God-life. The other reality was that keeping the wages of a laborer overnight not only deprived the laborer of the money he undoubtedly needed that night to eat and sleep; holding back the wages allowed for a first century version of a hedge fund to be funded – and perhaps lost -- with no cost to the investor. For the poor, the undocumented, and the vulnerable, withholding wages is still a problem in our own time. Nonetheless, the parable’s landowner in our gospel lesson explicitly set a rate of pay for the laborers and publicly and promptly paid them at the end of the workday. Yet, as we all recognized, the problem emerges in terms of the owner's pay scale. Paying the last workers first, it soon became clear that the workers hired first were receiving a full day’s wage, which might have given the workers who put in a full day’s labor the expectation of some kind of bonus. But as we all know, everyone got the same pay no matter when they were hired or how long they worked. At this juncture, the age-old cry goes up, “It’s not fair!” And in a sense, that cry was justified. It is clear that equality and opportunity and equal pay for equal work were not what determined the pay scale. It is not fair. Yet, remembering that we are dealing with one of Jesus’ parables, we must expect the story to have an unexpected twist to it – even a bite to it. And this moment of being paid is precisely the point at which that bite is given. Yet, here’s the rub: If we are to be able to recall that Jesus’ is offering an insight into God’s nature and what life is like on God’s terms, we must monitor our emotions and any violations to what is familiar to us and ask one probing question: What is the content and value of the wage paid by the landowner? What does the “denarius” stand for in God’s economy? In God’s life? In God’s economy, what possible benefit would encompass being paid the same “wage” for any amount of work? The text tells us that the parable’s wage is a “denarius”, a day’s pay for a day’s work, but its value is not a matter of silver or gold or a mortgage. Rather (and this is the key), it is a matter of receiving God’s life by being in Communion with God. The wage is given by God freely and (one may say) extravagantly from God’s generosity, from God’s unending love, which is to say that the wage’s value stands in terms of being in relationship with God, of being in God’s presence., receiving God’s love. Relationship, I think we all know, is not a fungible commodity. Now don’t hear me, as if I am speaking “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye” platitudes. Of course, we need to be able to buy food and shelter, and that takes an economic vehicle of exchange – read some form of “money”. But how much food, how many houses does it take to compensate for not knowing and experiencing that we are loved – no matter what? On this, I am reminded of the young, pregnant wife of an army sergeant. She and her husband were both parishioners, and they were struggling to keep afloat economically. I was making a pastoral visit to her; and in the frank conversation we shared, she said something that still reverberates within me. In a soft, steady voice, she said: “I’ve been without money, and I have been without love. Let me tell you: I’d rather be poor.” Let me make the “wage”/“fairness” point once more with reference to another of Jesus’ parables. The famous – perhaps most famous – parable of Jesus is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. Clearly, the parable is misnamed because the focus of the story is not the “prodigal” but on the steadfast “father”. This parable reveals the unparalleled example of God’s nature and life. In particular, what the older son resents is the forgiveness given to the squandering brat of a brother. And he has a compelling, practical point, when he says to his father: “I have been with you all the time, doing what a good son should do; and you never threw a party for me in recognition of my dutifulness.” "It’s not fair!” is what the eldest son is saying. And in the world’s way of thinking and behaving, he is right! Yet, what the older son misses in this fungible attitude and approach is that the very insight that we commonly miss about the vineyard owner’s wage scale. The issue in both parables is that the wage that is being paid by the vineyard owner and the forgiveness offered by the Prodigal’s father are the same “coin of God’s realm”: namely, being given God’s presence and the life, hope, redemption, and Communion that being with the Holy One always entails. In other words, God seeks us out, hires each of us so that we have God’s work to do, which consequently brings life. Put more dramatically, would you consider yourself “rich” if you got to spend the entire day with the one you love or just an hour? Who gets what benefits? So, who has the benefit in the parable? If the wage that God – the Prodigal’s father and the Vineyard Owner all provide is the Holy One’s presence, then receiving such a payment at the last hour is overwhelming. Yet, to have had that same payment but had the entire “day” to be in God’s presence and doing God’s work is more than its own reward. Which is to say that “fairness” works well with keeping the rules of commerce; but Communion, relationship, connection conveying love and life is entirely another thing. It is a gift, generously given by God who gives what we truly need and to which we, being well-trained grown-ups, say a rejoicing: “Thank you” – not only with our lips but in our lives. Amen.
1 The Message. Matthew 20:1 2 The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Matthew 20:2