~ Labor Unions Won't Buy It ~
“If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21: 25b, NIV). Speaking of Jesus’ works and, we are certain, His words, apostle John ends his gospel account. This includes not only Jesus’ private expositions to His apostles, as on the parables, but also the embedded wealth in what was recorded.
Study and contemplation are very different ways to extract meaning from literature, especially teaching tales. Study will teach us a “denarius” was a standard daily wage in Jesus’ days on earth, the amount the Roman government paid its low ranking soldiers. Study will tease our logic in another of Jesus’ “the kingdom of heaven is like” parables.
This particular one is recorded only in Matthew's gospel, in chapter 20. It is harvest time and the grapes cannot wait. Still the custom in many parts of the world today, the vineyard owner would pick up migrant farm workers in the morning waiting in the villages hoping for work, settling on a wage, which, by Mosaic law, had to be paid that day. These workers were poor, living day to day. No work meant no food for their families so they went hungry, perhaps moved on, or, reluctantly, went begging to hold them over until the next employer came needing labor.
In this story, the employer seemed to be pressed for workers, since he returned several times during the day looking for more. So desperate to keep ahead of the harvest, he even hired some who had been waiting all day, whom no one employed, at the eleventh hour (5 PM).
When it became too dark to work, the men were called in and each was paid the same, one denarius. Of course, those who worked all day complained, even though they were paid the contracted wage. The employer reminded them of their agreement and questioned if they were envious of his generosity to the others. Jesus ended with a statement He made before in different ways: So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Our labor unions, and we as individuals, would also have a problem with this employer. We Christians could rationalize our conflict with this labor practice by teaching ourselves that this applies “only” to the spiritual realm. If we really believe that, chances are that we will also have a problem with it in heaven! No? Jesus had the same teaching for His apostles when they argued, more than once, who among them would have the greater reward in heaven. Earth is the place for learning heavenly ways, and practicing them.
Time to shift from study to contemplation. Sociologists study people from their offices and write reports. Contemplatives enter the world of the people, physically or in the recesses of their hearts, and tell stories. Reports provide knowledge. Stories impart wisdom.
Upon reading this parable, many would cunningly think they would appear in the village late in the day and work less for the same pay. Many think these late-comers were the lucky ones. In reality, however, those hired last were the ones who suffered most, hence “they shall be first” to be rewarded with consolation and love. How is it they suffered the most? These were not late-sleepers or lazy people. They were hard-working migrant farm laborers who didn't know if they could feed their families that day. Those waiting in the village heat grew in despair as the day progressed. They may have prayed, “Please God, send work. The wife and children are hungry, sick, and sleep little in the night cold. Spare me from having to return to them again empty handed, again in sorrow.”
Then, with only a couple of hours of daylight left, an employer approaches them with work. They didn't jump for joy, but were probably torn between going to work or back to console and do what they could for their families. What they would earn would barely buy a couple of eggs or a little flour. But that was better than nothing.
Their labor was bitter-sweet. The men who had been working since morning spent the day in peace and joy. Early on, that day was free of worry and anxiety. They knew at night they would receive the pay of a Roman soldier. Joy and celebration for goodness will permeate their homes that night. They may have even taunted the late-comers about their “losing out.” Maybe the more compassionate offered to share their pay with a late-comer to tide him over.
In the end, nothing changed for the day-long workers. Receiving their expected pay, they could have gone home happy as they anticipated all day. The late-comers who still worked what they could, still despairing, were given a gift. Now they too, like everyone in the vineyard, could return home grateful and happy! The entire vineyard labor force could rest contently that night! And those compassionate workers who were ready to share their good fortune with those hired late were doubly rewarded: Their generosity was noted and appreciated, but they could now return with their full wage also, a bonus not anticipated.
But, as typically happens, the human heart generates its own misery. Much of the labor force was angry and indignant, unable to share the joy of those who suffered more than they and were now comforted by pure generosity and care. If the grape vines had heads and could think, they would probably have shaken them in sad disbelief at these humans. The vines were wiser. They knew their food and vitality depended on the Creator and whatever rain or sunlight fell upon part of their vine strengthened all.
In contemplation, a lot was going on in that vineyard. Envy, jealousy, a disdain for generosity and mercy bestowed upon others, making ourselves miserable by our humanly defined sense of “fairness,” are sinful and destructive forces in God's vineyard. How interesting that the first moral cry of a little child is typically, “That's not fair!” And when the child proclaims, “That's not right!” he usually means “That's not fair!” Blessed is the child who cries, “That's not fair!” when he gets the biggest slice of cake among his friends!
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like that landowner of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1a). I trust Jesus would agree the kingdom of heaven is also like the child who protests when he gets the biggest piece of cake, or sadly and compassionately declares “That's not fair” when he gets served first.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © January 18, 2003
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