The Grace of Work

Matthew 20:1-16


Well, what do you think about Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard? Was the landowner fair and just to them? Or did he cheat the ones that worked the longest? In the parable the landowner needed workers to harvest his grape crop. The grapes had ripen and the harvest had to happen within the day or the grapes would spoil. So at dawn he hires what he thought would be enough day workers. They agreed to work the whole day for a single denarius each. Their day would be from dawn to dusk, the usual work day. A denarius was just enough for them to feed their families for a single day. As was true for many, they were subsistence workers living a hand to mouth existence. No doubt they wanted to work and would be hard workers.

Later in the morning at 9AM the landowner realized he needed more workers and went back and found some still without the day’s employment. Now he takes a different approach with regard to their pay. These he tells to go work in his vineyard and he would pay them whatever is right. He doesn’t offer them an amount. They need work badly and we can imagine their joy in getting any work that day.

The landowner throughout the day needed additional workers as the crop had to be harvest today and the workers he had were falling behind. So again he went for workers at noon, at 3PM and at 5PM for workers and promised each group he would pay them whatever is right.

When the day’s harvest was ended he ordered his manager to pay the work crew starting with the latest group – the ones that worked the least. He was ordered to pay them a denarius each. And likewise the 3PM crew, the noon crew and the 9AM crew were paid a denarius. And lastly the crew that worked all day was each paid the denarius they were promised.  As Jesus says at the end of the parable, the last shall be first.

But how is that just? The original crew worked a 12 hour day and received no more than the crew who worked one hour. No wonder they complained. They would have been crazy not to lodge a complaint.

But the landowner pushes back and says I gave to you the amount to which you agreed. You have nothing to complain about. I did not cheat you. I fulfilled our contract. It is none of your business what I paid the others who had no contract with me.

Indeed, in our modern day it is often not acceptable for employees to talk among themselves as to how much they were paid… because they may discover that their colleague who works less is making more! What employer wants this kind of dissension among his employees? In our parable, the workers broke that rule and found out the payroll wasn’t what they thought it was. But so what? Doesn’t the employer have the right to pay however he or she chooses?

Yes, an employer does and we pray that the employer is honest, just, and fair in his or her decisions. Given human imperfections and greed, it is something of a leap of faith to trust the employer and indeed some businesses are unionized to assure that, among other benefits, employees receive a fair pay for their labor.

But this is a kingdom parable. That’s clear by the opening line: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who …” So we are not really talking about the day to day management of a business and all of its benefits and failures. We are dealing with something far deeper. And like so many parables this one has multiple meanings the deeper you go.

At its literal level, we understand that in Jesus’ time many were day laborers who each day would hope for work. They led a precarious life one of poverty and uncertainty. They were often taken advantage of. Normally they were paid only enough to survive the day. So one teaching in this parable is that kingdom justice, the justice of God, is not centered on merit pay where you are paid according to your skill and time. Rather it is centered on what you need: each worker is expected to give what they can and in return receive what they need. That need is not pegged to what they did or to their skills.

In our meritocracy this is very alien to us. We believe people should be paid what they deserve given their commitment, skills and time. We would find God’s justice particularly hard to accept.

But in a meritocracy we must judge the value of each type of work. By that standard we have decided that being a CEO is more meritorious than being a nurse or a garbage collector. Yet nurses and garbage collectors touch our lives in very basic ways in health and sanitation. If no one wanted to or could be a nurse or garbage collector, the quality of our lives would plummet, whereas; far fewer people would be affected if CEOs were scarce. And furthermore many people our left entirely without the ability or opportunity of making a living wage. Thus, even our meritocracy is no guarantee of justice and fairness.

So at one level of this parable, we are challenged to adjust if not outright transform our way of providing the resources needed by each and every person. Yet we must go deeper in this parable. For our secular decisions on meritorious work are less an issue than it would seem on first reading.

Recall that the first group of workers had a contract with the landowner: they would be paid one denarius for their work. The landowner kept that bargain. But for all of the other workers there was no contract. They trusted the landowner to give them what was fair. They did not know what amount for which they were working, but they had faith that the landowner would provide for them.

In this Kingdom parable, the landowner is God. And the workers are those who strive to build God’s kingdom here on earth. This parable is a response to a question Peter asked Jesus in the passage before our passage. He remarks that he and the disciples have left everything behind to follow Jesus. What, he asks, will they get for their sacrifice?

This parable is Jesus’ answer. Jesus challenges Peter to consider what he is asking.  Did he believe that doing God’s work was a bargain he made with God that if he gave such and such, then God would return such and such? Or did he give to God because he wanted to build the Kingdom of God no matter what sacrifice he had to make? Is he like the first workers who needed a contract to work trusting more in the law than in the divine landowner? Or is he like the rest of the workers who needed no lawful contract to work, but only needed faith and thereby receive the grace of the landowner?

What price do we put on our work for God? Do we need a reward? A salary? Or do we work out of love for God and hope in the Kingdom?

It was 1985 when I decided to go into the seminary. I was a full time employee of Bell Labs. I didn’t know how I was going to budget my time between working full time and attending seminary classes, as well as driving between Madison and Piscataway.

At the time my immediate manager was Ray who was a very faithful evangelical Christian. We would occasionally discuss our beliefs and there differences. Of course, I was far more liberal in my beliefs than he. But our discussions were always cordial and respectful. When I decided to tell him what I wanted to do, he gave me permission to work the odd and somewhat disruptive schedule needed to duck out of work to go to classes.

This went on for five years with me leaving work in the middle of the morning or afternoon and returning later. It was awkward when I had to leave in the middle of a meeting but somehow I got away with it.

After I graduated with the Masters of Divinity I went back to a regular full time schedule while I was searching for a parish. I learned … quietly … that Ray had been covering for me all of that time. I learned that it was something that could never be done again. But by the grace of Ray and his strong faith that I was being called into the ministry I was allowed quietly to work my way through the seminary.

Ray, I suggest, is one of the late workers … he didn’t ask God what he would get out of helping me through seminary. He helped me for the sake of his faith out of love for God and faith in the coming Kingdom. He was quiet literally a godsend. He was what Jesus was telling Peter to be: to have faith and do what God calls you to do … and God will cover for you … for I am sure that Ray did not find it easy or secure to turn the other cheek while I was playing hooky.

But I needed him as I needed God to get through the seminary. Indeed, for that need of managing a full time job and part time seminary, Ray was God’s agent to help me. It was through Ray that God could help me. In Jesus’ parable, the landowner, that is God, does NOT harvest the crop. The landowner – God – needs the workers to do that.

God cannot achieve anything unless we are willing to step up to the job. Whether we need a contract to do God’s work or are willing to have faith in God, we are needed by God to build up the Kingdom.

God wants every man and woman to be able to feed their families, provide descent housing and good health care to their families and to be gainfully employed. But God will not act autonomously. God will not reach out from the Kingdom of God and restructure how we run our economy or our republic. God expects us to restructure and transform our economy, our way of life, our attitudes and our communities to become the Kingdom of God … for the Kingdom is not the afterlife or some mystical alternate universe. The Kingdom is where we Christians and all faithful people step up to the divine work of compassion, justice and inclusiveness.

The Kingdom emerges each moment, each hour, each day that we have faith that if we do what God calls us to do then we will leave the world a better place. If we will insist that our neighbors have more than a subsistence living and work for that to happen, then we add to the emerging Kingdom. If we embrace people from other faiths as children of God no matter what our neighbors think, then we help the emerging Kingdom. If we insist on peace rather than war, then the Kingdom emerges rejoicing. If we insist on justice and not vengeance, then God rejoices and the Kingdom grows. If we live each moment of our lives as if the Kingdom has come, then the Kingdom surely has come.


Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …