This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jesus Against the Market. Again.

Matthew 20:1-16

            Where do you put yourself in this story?  With which character do you resonate most emotionally?  What does your gut say about this story?  How about your heart, or your mind?
            Suppose we hear this story from the perspective of the laborers hired early in the day.  We work all day in the man’s vineyard, picking grapes, presumably, and maybe participating in the process of turning them into wine.  The pay for this was not good.  Maybe it was what we would call minimum wage, which is enough maybe for one person to get by, but you can’t support a family on it.  Still, it was better than being unemployed for a day.  You agree to it, maybe 50 bucks.
            During the day you notice that others are hired later and start working with you.  Maybe one of them asks you what you agreed to receive as pay and you tell them. 
            When the day is over and you gather with the foreman to receive your pay, the people hired last are called up first.  Some were hired very late in the day and only worked a couple of hours.  You notice with surprise and anticipation that they get the full amount you were promised: $50.  Logically you reason that it would be fair and just, if someone who only worked two hours to get that amount, you, who worked a full day, should receive proportionately more.  You do the math in your head and you start expecting as much as $300!  This is going to be great!
            Then your name is called and you look in your envelope and you receive... $50.  The same as the guy who came at 3:30!  How is that fair?
            The landowner hears your grumbling and says, “Here’s what’s fair: I contracted you to work for a whole day for $50.  You agreed to that wage this morning and you seemed happy.  I now fulfill my part of the bargain.  Where is the unfairness?”
            “But,” you say, “He came at noon and he came at 5 o’clock, and you paid them as much as you paid us, who have been here since 6!  If this is the way you act then maybe I will choose to goof off all day tomorrow and show up for work at 3:30 or later, knowing I will receive a full day’s pay.”
            If we identify with the workers who were hired early in the day, this story makes us angry.  We might cynically reason: If only I was not so darn industrious and responsible!  This boss rewards laziness!  He rewards lateness!  I could have gone to another job for the morning, then showed up here in the afternoon and still made a full day’s pay!
            The story is designed by Jesus to press the buttons of those who think of themselves as responsible, industrious, disciplined, hard-working, conscientious, respectable, and upright.  They see themselves as getting up before dawn to go wait at the corner to be hired.  They are the ones who sacrifice to feed their families.  They put in the overtime and produce without grumbling or complaining.

            Or we could make the mental effort it would take to put ourselves in the other position, that of the latecomers.  Jesus does not intimate to us what these workers were doing earlier in the day.  Did they have other part-time jobs?  We don’t know.  Were they really just lazy and decided to sleep in and hang out at Dunkin’ Donuts all morning?  We don’t know.  Did they have sick children at home?  Did they have to take their grandmother to the doctor?  Were they on line at the DMV?  Was there an accident on the highway?  In other words, did they have what we might consider an acceptable excuse?  We don’t know this either.  All we know is that when the foreman arrives to hire them they are “standing idle in the marketplace.”  Whatever they were doing they were stuck in the market.
            But for whatever reason, as a member of this group, you show up at the corner later in the afternoon and, standing there a while, you are surprised to discover the foreman from the vineyard coming, looking for more workers.  So you go.  As far as how much you will be paid, all you get is this vague response that you will receive “Whatever is right.”  You need the money so this will have to do.  You have no reason to expect a full day’s pay, but it’s something, anyway.
            You work in the vineyard for a couple of hours.  While there you ask one of the workers who has been there all day how much he’s getting.  When he says he was promised $50, you figure you’ll be lucky to receive $20.  More likely $10 or $15.  Enough to feed the kids dinner tonight and maybe save a few dollars towards the rent.  And you hope for better luck tomorrow.
            The day ends and you all assemble to receive your pay.  The latecomers like yourself are all called up first.  You get your envelope from the foreman and you look into it without much hope.  And then you are shocked!  Fifty dollars!  Is it a mistake?  Should you tell someone or just be quiet about it?  A whole day’s pay for a few hours’ work?  This can’t be right.
            The workers who had been there all day notice you counting out your tens and you see them raise their heads in anticipation.  You smile sheepishly and shrug. 
            Then they receive their envelopes, look in them, register disappointment and anger.  They then look at you with their eyes narrowed, as if you were the one who swindled them!  You overhear the argument between them and the owner.  You might actually sympathize with them!
            But you are also very grateful, feeling like a person who has just found a couple of twenties in the grass, with no one around to even imagine to ask if they had lost them.  It’s just a gift.  You go home amazed, humbled, and thankful, to celebrate with your family.

            Both workers received the same pay: $50.  One is grateful, the other is angry.  One received much more than he deserved and knows it, feels blessed by it, rejoices in it.  The other received exactly what he deserved and agreed to, and yet he is bitterly resentful about it.
            Jesus tells the story to remind us that we are really more like the later workers.  He wants us to approach life with the mind of the workers who come later and receive a full day’s pay, and to lose the attitude of those who are resentful and angry. 
            We must not flatter ourselves that we have been working hard in God’s vineyard all day.  On the contrary, I think Jesus would have us realize that in reality we were “standing idle in the marketplace,” which is to say, we were consumed with the tedious tap-dances, sour swindles, and empty exchanges that happen in the marketplace.
            The market is all about the relationship between work and money.  The early worker is resentful because in the first place he thinks his reward should be in proportion to his work; and secondly because he is comparing himself with someone else who worked less.  In his mind, the more work you do, the more pay you should receive; the less work, the less pay.
            This, at any rate, is the propaganda of the market.  It is what the market would like us to believe.  But we know that this is not true.  We know who does the important work in society, and we know who makes the most money, and we know these have never been the same people. 
            So his reasoning is wrong.  He is working in the vineyard, but the market remains firmly entrenched in his head. He continues to connect work to reward, but we know that this is not the case.
            Jesus tells us that the reward is not related to our work; it is based on the owner’s promise.  It is based on the contract, the covenant, the original agreement the owner made with us. 
            In the market, we think we are working hard but in a spiritual sense we are merely marking time, circling in a holding pattern, “standing idle.”  We are making no progress or headway.  We are mired in the useless theater of the market. 
            The market is probably our greatest, most powerful and consuming idol.  We consume ourselves to serve it, dedicating our time, life, and energy to it.  But all this work gets us no closer to what is really and ultimately important: God.  From the perspective of God when we are in the market we appear to be standing still in idleness. 
            It is we, when we wake up and come to God, when we hear the call of the foreman and climb in the back of the pick-up truck to go work in the vineyard, when we realize our idleness and the utter futility of what we have devoted our lives to and finally show up in the vineyard, it is we who are the newcomers.  We are the ones who arrive at 5 o’clock to see others who have been on this journey working in this vineyard for generations.  We are the recipients of a magnificent grace beyond all we could earn or deserve or work for.   

            In order to come to God’s service we have to be called out of the market.  We have to leave the market behind.  It can’t still persist in our heads, even.  We have to abandon its lies and start thinking differently.  We have to start thinking in terms of grace instead of work, gift instead of pay, humility instead of hubris, and generosity instead of compensation.
            Then, knowing that we have been liberated from the market’s corrosive and oppressive ways of thinking and acting, we may rejoice when still more souls are called out of it, abandon it and show up at the vineyard.  No matter how late they come we welcome folks and celebrate with them when they receive the same promise, the same salvation, we have.
            Spiritually, the point is not how hard we work or for how long.  The point is our relationship with the landowner.  We need to realize that we are truly blessed just to be here, that what we receive from God is completely undeserved and unearned, that many have been here before us.  Do we rely upon God’s promise, or do we rely upon our own energy and initiative?         
            Jesus says, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”  We, who in the global scheme of things are at the head of the pack, who invented and manage the market, who maintain its propaganda and truly believe we have what we have and got where we are because of our hard work, we are liable to have the most difficulty with Jesus’ teachings here.  We think we are the early workers. 
            Jesus says salvation comes to those with the mind of the later workers.  That is the mind we have to cultivate in ourselves.  We have to nurture in ourselves gratitude for the gifts we have received, gifts we neither earned nor deserved.  We have to nurture in ourselves humility, knowing that we have received more than we could ever merit.  And we have to cherish in ourselves a sense of joy.  Joy for those who have come to the vineyard even later than we, joy that they too have been released, joy that we are now together in a new kind of community.  A community of blessing, peace, love, and goodness, where the Spirit of God reigns.

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