Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
September 1st, 2019
When you pull into the parking lot of any Home Depot in Los Angeles, there they are. Men, latinx, numbering in the dozens. The cluster in groups of two or three, scattered about the parking lot. Jornaleros or obreros—day laborers, waiting for anyone who needs extra hands for their work, whatever it may be: home projects, garden projects, repairs or minor construction, hauling away of stuff. They make an earnest effort to earn a living—for some other avenues of employment are not open to them because of their undocumented status. They stand in the sun, talk amongst themselves, ask strangers coming out to their cars if they need help.
As in Los Angeles today, so too in 1st century Palestine. The rise of the cities and consolidation of plots of land (which the Hebrew prophets warned against, by the way) left many Jewish people in a hard spot, economically. As scholar Pablo A. Jiménez describes: “A good portion of agricultural land was owned by absentee landlords. Such farmland was cultivated by laborers just as the ones depicted in the parable. Their economic reality was characterized by poverty, subemployment, heavy taxation, and dispossession.”
Yet despite the seemingly clear correlations, many interpretations and analyses of this passage, bafflingly, fail to see the economic plight of the laborers and the economic gospel that it entails.
Some take the tack of approaching this parable as an allegory for the Jews (the early laborers) and the Christians converts (those coming late in the day), yet the same wage (salvation) is paid to all. While there may be some truth to such an interpretation for Matthew’s audience, the spiritualization of a parable that has to do with livelihood and labor cannot really pass muster.
Another analyst verges on blaming the workers who come latest, writing: “it is their own fault that, in a time when the vineyard needs workers, they sit about in the marketplace gossiping till late afternoon. …their excuse that no one has hired them is an idle evasion.” This interpretation takes a lot of liberties and makes a lot of assumptions about the motives and status of the last laborers. Worse than that, however, it perpetuates the lie that “poor people are poor because they are lazy.”
Pastor Mark Davis tells about attending a conference on addressing homelessness. The keynote speaker began the presentation by asking: “Do you know the #1 reason why people are homeless in Orange County?” After a pause, the speaker answered matter-of-factly: “Because they don’t have a home.”
We might think “Well Duh.” But the simplicity of the answer challenges us to put aside our assumptions about the people, their motives, who is to blame or who is responsible. Instead, we must look at the words we have, the story as it is told. Of course there are times when it is rich and even necessary for us to engage our imaginations with scripture. Sometimes, however, that can lead us to making assumptions that undermine the Bible’s liberating message.
We can empathize with the laborers who arrived at 6 a.m. and toiled all day. We understand their indignance. Our economic reality in the U.S. at this time is one in which work is paid by the hour so more hours equals more pay. Our economic reality in the U.S. is that there is a hierarchy of work which is considered valuable and thus more well paid. In general we expect that work requiring a more education will pay more. We are used to the idea that those who supervise other people’s work are to be paid more than those who do the day to day work under supervision; bosses get paid more than employees. Those who work harder get paid more, get raises or promotions. The early morning laborers are banking on that merit-based system as the vineyard owner starts to dole out payment. “Those guys worked an hour and they got the fully daily wage! We must be in for double the daily wage at least!”
Their disappointment makes sense. Yet, they were given the wage they agreed to, a wage which was the daily wage of that time: enough to buy one’s family’s food and provisions for a day. Though they may have wished for more, it is not like they are going home with a doubt about their dinner or their breakfast. They will be able to provide for their children and go to sleep with bellies full after a long day of work.
God, it turns out, is far more concerned with every one’s needs being met than with haggling about whose work was more difficult or longer or harder. God sees instead the need and says “you worked a day? You should have enough to provide for yourself and your family.” “You worked an hour? You should have enough to provide for yourself and your family.”
One of the organizations with whom I worked as a pastor in LA did a lot of advocacy work around economic justice for laborers, but particularly those in industries that tend to be taken advantage of: house keepers, car washers, day laborers, food service workers. Each year, the highlight for me was a big banquet where the guests of honor were laborers in humble professions. They would be brought up onstage and receive a standing ovation, an award, and applause. Each year it varied: from the young man fired as a cook at a local college for seeking to organize a union, to hotel workers seeking reasonable hours and accommodations, to the maids who were fighting their employer for protections from harassment. This ballroom of hundreds would stand with one voice to say yes, you work matters. You deserve dignity, right treatment, fair work, and to be proud of the work you do. You should be able to earn a living and thrive.
Part of the beauty of what Jesus is saying about the kin-dom of God is that this vision of the dignity of work is that we can read it to encompass all types of “work.” Children, whose work is to learn and play, should have the dignity of their needs being met. Those who are retired from their profession still do so much for our world and society; they should have the dignity of their needs being met. Those whose who are unable to work for whatever reason should be honored and not pitied or looked down on. Those who are not permitted to work because of their documented status or because they have been previously incarcerated might be granted dignity to work and find meaning in their work. People of all types of employ across all industries should know the dignity of their work and see that reflected in the way they are treated, being compensated not in a way that is “fair” by our economic merit-based standard, but in a way that is fair to God’s calling that we each have gifts to share, a role to play in this story, and work to do. Amen.