“The Kingdom of heaven is like” …this quote always means two things: listen up and hold on tight!
Listen up because Jesus is about to drop some wisdom about who God is and what our role as believers compels us to do.
Hold on tight because you are about to have your ideas about the world turned upside and you are going to want to either squirm in your seat at the awareness of the ways you are falling short of God’s kingdom vision or/ and, you will sit there tightly grasping your assumptions that Jesus is obviously talking to the other people in the room, you’re good.
Any of these thoughts sound familiar?
Any cringes in the congregation?
I have always been fascinated by the way the Kingdom of Heaven puts us in opposition to the economics of our world.
Jesus constantly calls into question some of the most basic ideas we have about money, wealth, and equity.
His original audience was no more immune this shock value than we are.
In fact, this is the second story in a row that ends with the same counter-cultural lesson, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In chapter 19, we read about the difficulty of wealth existing within the Kingdom. About the seemingly impossible maneuvering it would take for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven, like a camel going through the eye of a needle.
And in today’s passage we hear from wage earners about their ideas of how money is earned and what fair pay looks like.
It begins with a man hiring workers in the morning, negotiating their contract and then sending them out to the work.
This we understand.
This makes good sense.
This follows the common sense of our adages like, “the early bird gets the worm” and “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” and other phrases that have been handed down through the generations.
Then it is 9:00am, and the landowner goes out for more workers.
I am still okay with this.
I mean, 9 to 5 is a respectable work day.
They are still getting in on the ground level and really earning their pay this day.
Then, fast forward, almost the entire day occurs, marked subsequent trips by the landowner to the marketplace. Even at 5:00, one hour before the end of the work day he is hiring more workers.
He asks those still gathered in the marketplace at 5:00 why they are not working and hears that they have not been able to find work on this particular day.
And, here is where I would love to know more than the story tells us. I want to know what was going through the landowner’s mind.
Did he wonder what it was about these workers that prevented his neighbors and others in town from hiring them?
Did he give them a once over to assess their ability to do the work required in his vineyards?
But, we don’t get this information. We don’t have any idea what business model this man is running or what sort of employer he is going to turn out to be.
The end of the day soon arrives and the workers are called in from the vineyards, beginning with those 5:00ers.
At this point, they had put in some work, there may have been a little sweat on their brow, but with their late start, who knows how much they were expecting to get paid.
They were handed the wages for a full day and again, I want more character development.
Did any of them say anything? Ask any questions?
Remind the landowner that they had been part of the 5:00pm group, in case he had them confused for one of the early risers?
Somehow, those who had been working since morning heard about the wages going to these 5:00ers and began thinking, “jackpot! If these people who just worked a short amount of time are being paid for an entire day, just think how much he owes us for our work!
I bet we get double that!
I may not even have to work tomorrow with the bonus we are about to get!”
So they come in from the vineyard, tired, drenched in sweat from the work and the scorching sun, but full of anticipation about the extra-large pay check they are about to take.
But then, they are handed a regular day’s wage.
That’s right, the exact same amount that those 5:00-ers got. The.
Can you imagine?
Can you put yourself in their shoes for just a minute and really feel all the range of emotions they must have experienced?
Since I am in school to be a therapist, we are going to spend a minute naming some of those emotions.
Taken advantage of.
I mean, it goes against everything we are taught.
It is completely unfair.
How could a one measly hour of work ever earn the same amount as an entire day toiling under the sun?
If you have ever been around a pre-school aged child, you are probably imagining the same scrunched-up, reddened, big eyed look that accompanies the screams of “NOT FAIR! NOT FAIR!!”
And if we look honestly enough at our own lives, I am sure we can all come up with recent moments where all we wanted to do was scrunch up our face, go red in the cheeks and open our wide mouths to yell out about the unfairness of the world.
Maybe this feeling also comes up when you are watching the news.
Hearing about all the terrible things going on in our community, our nation, and the world.
Hearing about how your taxes are being used to help pay for medical treatments for people you will never meet or for international aid for some nation you would have a hard time locating on a map.
Do you ever want to pull another classic preschooler move and stick your fingers in your ears to block the unfairness of the world?
What hope is there if there is not fairness?
What good news comes in a world where we cannot trust that good, hard working people get the rewards of their hard work?
Ah, but then, this parable has more characters we need to examine.
There are people who began this day at a disadvantage. Unhired.
Worried about their ability to support themselves and their families if no work comes in.
They make me think more about those people around the world who we may only think about when their tragedy enters the safety of our homes on our TVs or through our Facebook feed.
And even about the faces we see splashed on the TV as the leaders of our nation fight over who deserves affordable healthcare and what pre-existing conditions should eliminate a person’s ability to be able to get the care they need.
These people that we push to the margins, Jesus, in his loving kindness makes an extra effort to draw our attention, and more importantly, our compassion towards.
We know so little about these workers.
Why were they still in the market at 5:00?
Had they been there all day and just not picked up?
Did they not arrive until after the other people left?
Did they have a valid excuse for their tardiness?
If they were qualified and capable of timely work, surely someone else would have hired them.
If they were valuable, surely someone else could have found them respectable work in the morning.
But, alas, that is not how the story goes.
Any lesson filled with these notions of capitalism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, every person for themselves, or “getting exactly what you work for and earning it all on your own” are economically never the lessons of the gospel.
Not the moral of Christ’s teachings.
You see, it doesn’t matter the reason why some worked since dawn and others began their work close to supper time, the landowner, the holder of the power and the resources, rewarded everyone with a day’s wage, with fair pay.
Fairness needs a different definition to help us understand this story and in reality, all of Christ’s teachings. I offer this one from my childhood:
When my brother and I were children and fighting over whatever it was that seemed unfair to us on any given day, we heard from our mother, “Fair does not mean equal.”
Fair does not mean equal.
When the landowner paid the workers, he looked past equal and everything being the same, and looked forward to fairness and the justice of making sure people have what they need to survive and thrive in this world.
Maybe he knew the circumstances that left some of the workers waiting until 5:00 for a job.
Maybe he knew their families and their narratives.
But, whether or not he knew their stories, he saw them as whole people, not just laborers that he could take advantage of or get a “good deal” on, like he was shopping the endcaps at Target.
He valued their humanity and their work.
He treated them fairly and paid them for their work.
He used the abundance of his vineyard to give people a living, fair wage.
If we look back to our reading from Exodus, we see a similar pattern.
The people are in need.
The entire traveling group of Israelites were all like the 5:00ers, worried about food and not having any sort of way to earn or buy or trade.
They are trying their best to follow God on this liberating journey from slavery into the Promised Land, but they were humans.
They were tired,
they were hungry,
they were thirsty,
and they were beginning to lose hope as the journey seemed unmanageably long.
So, God provided Manna.
God gifted the people food in the desert and a renewed hope.
God gave the people what they needed to survive, their daily bread.
God didn’t make a chore chart for the Israelites to earn their quail and their manna.
There was not a ranking order where the harder workers got more or the more important people got better choices.
All were fed, all was fair.
Luckily for all of us, God who placed the manna and the quail in the desert is the same one who provides for the early morning laborers and those who don’t begin the work until closer to closing time.
God redefines fairness in a way that ensures everyone has a day of Manna or a full day of wages. When people in this world go hungry for bread, or isolated from opportunities because of oppression and systemic racism or sexism or any of the other isms of our time, that is the work of our sinfulness, not the work of God’s kingdom we read about today.
God’s concern for our well-being is gracious, we are given more than we could ever earn, no matter what time we begin our work days and how scorching the sun is, God’s wages of love, community, and the forgiveness of our sins is a wage beyond our comprehension.
And that is good news.
What we do with this good news is our response to God’s love.
We keep doing good work, but always check our motivations.
What are we working towards?
Whom are we working for?
Are we gracious with our blessings or are we looking over our shoulder to see who has more than us?
Are we working to learn about God’s definition of fair and how we can move our world to be more like that Kingdom of Heaven or are we counting to make sure we have just as much (and hoping for more) than our brother or sister?
As we go out into the world today and this week, may we examine the work we are doing in our homes, offices and school.
And may we seek in all that we do to be arbiters of this gospel vineyard,
land where there is Manna for all
and the labor of all people is fully appreciated and put to the mission of God’s peaceable Kingdom.