All in a Day's Work

I have been fired from a job for which I never got paid. I had graduated from college, and was intent on pursuing a career in production. My dream was to be a music producer. One of the things I had learned about the music world during college was that most of the entry level "jobs" were internships. We worked hard, but we never got paid. I justified it because I got to work close to big stars like .38 Special and Another Bad Creation ("big" being a relative term); but that was simply the way things worked.

I was working at a production company the summer after graduation, learning the ropes and the lingo. And as the end of the summer approached, I looked at my checkbook and realized I needed to start getting paid. So I went to my boss and told him as much. He took me into the large recording studio and said, "Tell me how sound travels from that microphone to this reel-to-reel tape machine." I went through the steps as I knew them, and I thought I nailed it. His reply was brief, but clear: "Yep. Looks like you better find another job."

A friend of mine once wrote an article called "Interns Built the Pyramids," a description of how many industries - but especially the entertainment industry - use internships as a way to cut corners; and the distressing thing is how many people are willing to do it.

I tell this story because of the parable from Matthew 20 that we read today at church, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. It has specific economic implications. And as our community (as so many others) is faced with the realities of an uncertain economy, it seems only right that we should spend some time talking about both what is fair and how it is that we define "worth." This current market crisis has me concerned. As a pastor, I rely on donations to get a salary at all. What happens when everyone tightens their belts? Where does the church fall in the mix? No sooner do I say that than I am reminded that, in a global sense, I'm the worker who gets picked first; I shudder to think how this crisis is affecting those who are stuck in the marketplace until sundown.

I have been reading a lot of Kenneth Bailey's scholarship lately. Bailey is one of my academic heroes. He was born and raised in Egypt by missionary parents and spent much of his professional career as a theologian teaching in Lebanon. And the gift he has brought to the church is the ability to re-enculturate the gospels. For centuries, the "height" of Biblical scholarship has been considered to be in Germany. And these German scholars and their progenitors have brought much to bear on how we view our Scriptures. But they also brought their cultural understandings of language and context in a way that removed the gospels from their original Middle Eastern and Semitic heritage. Bailey, a Presbyterian, is - for all intents and purposes - bi-cultural. And much of his research comes from his first-hand knowledge of small village Middle Eastern Christian life, life that, in many ways, remained untouched for centuries.

So we come to the parable. In it, Jesus is once again describing the Kingdom of God. The marketplace would have been in the middle of any village, the place where the day laborers would gather to try and earn a day's wage. If you've ever been to any of the construction supply stores early in the morning, you've seen a similar scene as Hispanic day laborers gather, hoping to get some work. These men clamor around the landowner, who picks a few, promises them a day's wage, and then they leave.

Three hours later, he returns. Why? We're not sure. There are still men standing in the market. He promises them not a specific amount, but "what is just." The scene repeats itself three more times, as the landowner returns. The most surprising scene of all is when he returns in the afternoon, just before sunset, and finds a group still standing there. They must have known that no one was going to hire them by this point, but the idea of returning home empty-handed to face hungry families was probably far worse than the public humiliation of standing in the marketplace all day. And yet, they are hired, with the promise that they will also get "what is just."

Now there are several more surprises to come. First, we learn that the landowner had a steward. It would have been the steward's job, not the landowners, to get the workers from the marketplace. Second, the landowner begins by paying the last hired first. And third, he pays them all the same. Those who worked twelve hours were outraged. I don't know about you, but I can resonate with that. I'd be furious after working twelve hours in the sun to get the same as someone who came an hour ago. But, as the master points out, it's what they had agreed to.

So what is it about this story? So often the parables end up telling us something about the character of God, and often that character looks very different from any character we'd find among the human beings created in that God's image, ourselves included. The kingdom of God, if we can summarize all of the parables in one place, is not at all like the world. There may be glimpses of it, moments that touch, but God's character and desires are so different from those that come to us naturally.

It's a baffling parable. But here's what I'd like to suggest it is trying to teach us. Much of this comes from Kenneth Bailey's research, and I've put it in the context of aspects of God's character:

  • Compassion - the landowner, who represents God in the story, goes to the market again and again. If he needed more laborers, he likely would have drawn them all in the first go around. He certainly had enough to choose from. Instead, he goes back to the market again and again. We're not told why, but if this is God's stand-in, then perhaps it is because he is concerned about the fate of those workers whom he did not choose.
  • Dignity - when he goes back an hour before sunset, there is no question that there is little possibility as to his motivation other than compassion. And yet, rather than simply handing them a denarius and saying, "go ahead home," he offers them the chance to "earn" it.
  • Equality - everyone gets the same pay. Or, if we take this to the life of Christ, Simeon who held the baby Jesus in the Temple and the thief who was crucified next to him are both welcomed into the kingdom. There is a reason that the gospel is available for sinners.
  • Worth - the workers who come first in the day show their anger at the landowner by saying, "You have made them equal to us!" In other words, their vision of their "worth" comes from how much they earn. If this is the case, Jesus is saying that all humans have equal worth in the eyes of God.
  • Just - other than the first group of workers, the landowner only tells the men that he will pay them "what is just." We come to see what justice looks like in the eyes of God - it is made up of all these characteristics above.
  • Witness - it would have been far less painful if the landowner had paid the workers in the order they arrived. Each would have left happy: the first for getting what they were promised, the next groups for getting equal pay, and the last group most of all. Instead, there is a purpose in paying them in reverse, so that the first group is present to learn the bulk of what this is all about.

So what about us? How would we feel if we were in that first group of workers? Or perhaps we have had an experience like this in a different way: is our worth defined by what we earn? Do we look down on others (whether in an economic sense or another) that is called into question by the economy of the kingdom of God?

This is one of those moments when we are probably inclined to feel like God can be a bit "unfair." But let us remember; when we feel like we have been left out to dangle in the marketplace, remember that God is still at work.