I began my working life as a day laborer. It was the late-1960’s on the Olympic Peninsula in the drowsy Pacific Northwest. Each morning an old rickety school bus would prowl the neighborhoods, picking up any child unlucky enough to lack an excuse to go to the berry fields where child labor laws seemed unknown. In my town, many children my age were summer produce pickers ... it was how we earned a little spending money—very little in my case. It was also how our parents got us out of their hair during the summer. It felt like punishment. I avoided it as often as I could. My heart wasn’t in it ... on one particularly memorable and deplorable day, I picked raspberries all day long and made a grand total of 67 cents. That’s somewhat less than a denarius which is the wage in this morning’s scripture which is reportedly what it took to feed one person for one day.
The day laborers of my summer childhoods were a modest help to the local farm economies of that time. But throughout history, whole economies have been built on the backs of the working poor, including their children. These working poor have been variously named, whether day laborers ... or indentured servants ... or slaves ... or sharecroppers ... or migrant workers. These are the folk who inhabit the lowest levels of any workforce. They are completely at the mercy of those who might hire them ... they are paid the most menial of wages ... they work in sub-standard conditions ... the work they perform is often backbreaking drudgery ... and all this to simply earn enough money to put a day’s food on the table.
Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard does not seem to make its primary point about the plight of the working poor. It has another point to make as we’ll see. But I very much believe that the “homely” and rustic settings of many of Jesus’ stories cannot be too easily dismissed. We do well to not rush too quickly by the simple surroundings of the stories and some of the truths they can tell if we pause to watch and lean in to listen.
The secondary point of the story has to do with lifting out of obscurity these peasants who are not much better off than sparrows pecking at seeds in the dust. Every day is a monumental struggle to survive. Every day contains a belly-full of desperation. Every day one must exhaust oneself simply to earn enough bread to ease you on to the next grueling day. And there are scores upon scores of others just like you with whom you must compete for work and food. The system in which you operate, though it depends upon your life and your efforts, is utterly indifferent to you, for you are quickly and easily replaced. Your health and your strength, your relationships and your sanity are all compromised ... are, in fact, luxuries that many can never afford.
Presumably Jesus told this parable over and over ... enough times that it became embedded in the collective memories of his followers. And there must have been times when the listeners of the story would have momentarily paused to consider the humble actors who occupy the story’s stage, instead of forever looking past them to some deeper “spiritual truth.”
Every culture has its invisible people ... those who dwell in the shadowy places of poverty. The great shock for many of us in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, after the shocking power of the storm, was the extraordinary poverty that was exposed and could not be ignored. Who knew, right? Some knew, but many more assumed such poverty could only be found in so-called “developing countries”.
In India, the lowest caste of people were long known as the untouchables. Actually, they were not a caste within the caste system per se, but were below the caste system. Like the lepers in Jesus’ time, they lived in the extreme margins and contact with them was to be avoided at all costs. Even though castes have been illegal since 1948, the reality of the caste system persists. It’s estimated that 160 million Indians today are considered “untouchables”.
Gandhi was among the first to give serious attention to the untouchables and to advocate for their rights and even bestowed upon them the name “Harijan” which means “children of God.” Following in the spirit of Gandhi, a humble Albanian nun by the name of Teresa made a practice of touching the untouchables and caring for them and kissing and holding them, finally, as they died.
In telling his parable, Jesus brings us back to the humble day laborers again and again. And each visit reveals those whose plight is worse than the group before. Those who are hired in the morning may have a day of backbreaking labor ahead of them, but at least they know that at the end of the day they will eat, however simply. Each subsequent group that gets hired wonders if they’ll get hired at all until we finally come to the end of the day and the final group spells out their frustration and fears. The landowner asks them: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” We might hear in his question a sense of blame for their “idleness.” And they say in return and in their own miserable defense, “Because no one has hired us.” It’s a bleak response from a people with no prospects.
I have driven into the Home Depot parking lot on many an afternoon and I have seen our own local day laborers still waiting ... standing in a gloomy funk ... still waiting ... still wondering. If your language permitted it, you could approach them and ask: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” and the response would likely be, “Porque nadie nos ha contratado.” “Because no one has hired us.”
We could say that it’s the lucky ones who’ve gotten to spend the day mucking out ditches ... stacking rocks ... laying pavers ... doing all nature of menial, difficult work that ... somebody’s got to do. And I suppose some would say that others are even luckier who don’t have to wait around building supply parking lots for work, but have regular jobs as janitors and dishwashers and gardeners and field workers. They’re the lucky ones ... right?
It would seem to me that a compassionate reading of Jesus’ parable would insist that we do not rush through the story to its end, but pause to get to know the otherwise invisible characters who are yearning to be noticed and known and heard, who simply want a fair shake out of this life that we have in common where the roles we occupy could be so easily reversed and are ours only by virtue of the accident of our births.
In a Labor Day Sunday sermon two weeks ago, I was reminded of the saying that some people are “born on third base and act as though they’d hit a triple.” And others ... many others come to the plate with two strikes already against them. Such is the difficult and inequitable game of life.
Every time I go to Mexico to build a home ... or every time I have to participate in some particularly difficult and dirty job at home or here at a church work party ... I and others like me can often be heard to say: “Boy, I’m sure glad I don’t have to do THIS for a living.” Pity the poor souls who do ... and who barely eke out a living doing it.
When my older son, Jordan, began working as a waiter and would come home with stories of the unique difficulties of that line of work, I suddenly began to notice waiters. And around that time some of us were reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal documentary, Nickled and Dimed in America which tells of the enormous difficulties of “making it” as a part of the service workforce. When you have children working in that workforce and when you read books like Ehrenreich’s, it becomes harder and harder to ignore and turn a blind eye and a cold heart to those who are bussing your tables and mowing your lawns and cleaning your restrooms.
It is at the very center ... the very heart of Jesus’ parable that the least of the least come into view and into sharp focus. With the sun beginning to set and their stomachs rumbling loudly and their hope slipping away, they are given the universal lament of anyone who has ever been out of work: “No one will hire us.” “No one will hire me.” Jesus wants us not to pass by these unhired workers without seeing their faces and hearing their voices and sensing their need.
I suppose this could be a part of the sub-text of the movie, The Help, which is moving moviegoers these days to laughter and tears. Amidst the related themes of racism and sexism, are the indignities that get heaped upon the lower working classes, servers and servants, cooks and wet-nurses. The movie invites the viewer, as with the listeners of so many of Jesus’ parables, to see people as they really are, behind the starched aprons and culturally appointed roles and the old biases and blindness that can afflict us all.
And if we were to be painfully, brutally honest, in the midst of our new vision, we might say to the servers and servants and “day laborers” among us: “Thank you ... thank you for working at odd hours doing loathsome, backbreaking work at despicable wages so that I can enjoy clean restrooms, pleasant landscapes and fresh vegetables. Thank you.”
Now it’s the end of the day in Jesus’ parable. The sun is setting, the tools have been put away, the hunger of the workers is keen. The workers file in to receive their modest pay. And in an unusual twist, the landowner makes those hired first wait while he pays those hired later. To the amazement of both the workers as well as the hearers of Jesus’ parable, those hired as the day was ending receive a full day’s wage. And so it is with those hired before them all the way to the workers who were hired in the morning and spent the whole day working in the fields.
The amazement of the first-hired turns to anger and an acute sense of injustice. And it is at this point that the story ceases, really, to be about “day laborers”, for it would be a cruel storyteller, indeed, who would pit one unfortunate and powerless person against another to make a fine theological point. It is at this point that the setting shifts and we see that what is at the heart of Jesus’ message is the enormous and overwhelming generosity of God.
To claim that point, that message … does not in any way negate the implied point which I’ve taken up the lion’s share of this sermon making … that the worker deserves her or his pay … or, more widely: that EVERYONE deserves a decent job with a living wage and reasonable benefits for themselves and their dependents. And the bridge between the two points is that it is a crime against heaven and earth for people and societies who know better and whose faith has taught them better to allow the working poor to suffer or the unemployed poor to remain that way … if it is in our power to bring change where change is needed.
Let’s come back to the reminder that the common understanding of a denarius is that it was enough to feed one person for one day. Can you imagine being an employer and having your late-starting employee come before you for her pay and saying, “I know very well that what I am about to pay you is a starvation wage … waaay less than what what it will take keep the wolves from your door … but … fair is fair … here you go and have a nice day.”
Jesus’ parable hints broadly, but strongly at a God whose generosity is … frankly … ridiculous. This landowner/God won’t stay in business very long being “compassionately equitable” in that way. But heaven isn’t a corporation and the bottom line isn’t what matters most. Better to irritate the bean-counters than to knowingly send one away to suffer.
I don’t know if President Obama’s proposed jobs initiative or the coming proposal that the rich pay a fair share of their taxes … if either of these has any rootage in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers and the generous landowner. I kind of doubt it … at least not very directly. But more and better jobs with better benefits and an equitable sharing of the burdens of life and society are, at least, moving in the right direction. It moves us ever so slightly in affirmation of a phrase that a colleague uses when he says: “Everyone has enough, no one has too much.”
I’m not a politician or a creator of public policy … no one here is as far as I know. So the challenges that grow out of this parable for us may not be the same ones that should be heard by our elected representatives. For us, it may be that the best place to start is that wherever culture and society and traditional understandings have created a gulf or built a gap and allowed these to remain … perhaps our job is to build a bridge. Last week I gave a jump start to the truck of the Vietnamese woman who takes care of the yards in our neighborhood. You’d have thought she won the lottery. She thanked me with her hands pressed together and a small bow. We’re becoming friends in our own small way. For years the Russian women from next door have congregated in the Shell Ridge courtyard and every time I see them I rack my brain for the Russian greeting that best matches the time of day … dobra utra … doba dien … dobra vee-aitcher. They’re always kind and gentle and smiling in their corrections of my mistakes.
At the restaurant … at the checkout counter … at Home Depot … in your neighborhood … in the classroom … among different nationalities and languages and faiths and varieties of ethnic dress and customs … among the varying socio-economic classes … in every setting where you are with someone who is not you and especially someone who is quite different than you … build a bridge … be a bridgebuilder and a straddler of gaps wherever they exist in the human family.
We use the word “Shalom” a lot here on Shell Ridge … Shalom is a comprehensive peace marked by a compassionate and generous justice for all. Today’s parable hints at a world marked by Shalom. Shalom is probably less a place of precise arrival than it is a goal that can be steadily sought and slowly realized. In a world marked increasingly by Shalom, it will be increasingly true that “everyone has enough, and no one has too much.” No more filthy rich and no more dirt poor. And who are the creators of Shalom? The sons and the daughters of God, which is to say, ALL people … including YOU … including ME. It’s our job. It’s what we do.
So fall in love with humanity all over again … stretch your wings and your boundaries. Mimic the best you can the ridiculous generosity of the God who gives life to one and all.
Fall in love -- you won't regret it.
That's the best work of all -- if you can get it.
Oh that is nice work if you can get it.
And you can get it -- if you try.