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Sermon - 18 September 2005
Bible Verses: Matthew 20:1-16 & Exodus 16:2-15
(click the verses above to read the passages online)

What is Fair and What is Just?

Imagine yourself at the Annual Meeting of the Corporation of the Justice and Grace Vineyards. The C.E.O. is making his report to the stockholders and he is at Section III, Paragraph C, entitled "Labor Policy."
"Fortunately during the harvest, we can find an unlimited pool of available laborers down at the town square. We take the buses down at daybreak in order to find the best people, and we contract for as many as we think we will need that day. If the work extends beyond our projections, we can always go back at 10:00 A.M., or Noon, or even the afternoon, and we can count on there being people there who have not been successful in finding other work.. At the height of the crush last fall, we hired people as late as 5:00 p.m. and they worked the final two hours until sundown. We paid them the same amount as the folks who had worked for the entire day."

"Point of Order, don't you mean that you paid them on the same scale?"
"No, I mean in fact that we paid them the same amount."
"Let me get this straight, you paid a day's wage to people who had only worked for two hours?"
Correct, it's what the Owner specified.

And then there is pandemonium: "But that's preposterous!" "That's no way to run a business." "I move that we censure the owner and hire a financial management team to come in and set things right." "I second the motion." "All, in favor..."

Or looking at it from another point of view imagine yourself at the monthly meeting, Local #44 of the United Vineyard Workers, and one articulate young man, face burnished brown, with intense speech and dramatic gesture is describing the experience of working all day long at Justice and Grace Vineyards, and just before quitting time the foreman had brought in an additional bus full of laborers in to help clean up.

"They worked a couple of hours max, in the cool of the evening and when we lined up to get our pay, they got these big checks. Then when we picked up our pay, mind you we had been there in that sun all day, and were not given a penny more."

An audible gasp sweeps the Hall, and then shouts from every corner. When order is finally restored, and after much heated discussion, a moderate course is decided. The word will go out to boycott for one week all Justice and Grace products, and during that week there will be a picket line in front of the vineyard, "Justice and Grace, Unfair to Organized Labor."

There is a basic human reaction we can recognise here. And the way the parable is often interpreted with the main blame falling on the workers. but that in

But Jesus told this story in a setting where life was grim for those being employed. It is not an idyllic scene. These workers were totally dependant on their day’s wage, they probably didn’t have enough to even support a family and between jobs may well have had to beg to eat. One study says that there was huge unemployment and the big vineyard owners had gained their land by ruthlessly foreclosing on the small tenant farmers some of whom. along with their sons may well be among those who needed this casual work. They had about a five year life expectancy once on this sort of living – they were expendable. Far from being generous . Vineyard owners were able to exploit the big labour pool. The strategy of the Roman landowner was to hire day labourers one day at a time so as to keep them in the weakest position possible. Beside the poverty the rawness of being at other people's whim is humiliating, being an expendable resource to be exploited. The farmer's gruffness in accosting these men for standing around all day doing nothing has its echo in stereotypes of dole bludgers or people unemployed because they are too lazy to seek a job. These are among the poor for whom the kingdom of God would bring change.. and good news.
Jesus does something rather interesting. The landowner himself comes into direct contact with the workers, normally it is the steward or factor who does this work., and the harvest is obviously big enough that even he did not know how many workers were needed. Timing is crucial with grapes. So it was advantageous to have a pool of workers waiting.
And their pay was probably not generous, a denarius a day would not sustain life if there was no pay the next day. I wonder how a worker from the third world on these sort of payments would hear this parable? I doubt that to directly connect the vineyard owner with God would be good news.
At the end of the day the casual workers are lined up, and paid out by the steward – the owner has given the instructions and retreated. No wonder . The last hired is to be paid first and get the full day’s pay. The expectations of those down the line are raised, but find they have the same pay for twelve hours hard sweaty work as those who started at five o’clock.
Some claim that this is showing that a different standard is applied: need, not earning rights. This could be seen as a sort of unemployment benefit, it is how our unemployment benefit works when people are at the cusp between a low wage and receiving an allowance. In fact , in a NZ setting the extra might be returned by the last workers because it put them over the edge of having the benefit cut back.

But the problem with these interpretations, is that in the setting of Jesus The landowner is deliberately insulting them, he is giving the message that he values their day long effort in the scorching heat no more than the brief labour of the last workers. And these men who have nothing left to offer but their bodies, their energy, are being told their labour is worthless and in effect they are worthless,
The steward is employed to deliver the insult which succeeds in keeping the oppressed workers under control by humiliating and degrading and dividing them.
The first workers are forced to keep some sense of worth .
They are desparate enough to challenge the owner.. A dramatic confrontation takes place.
The landowner is cunning. He denies their charge of being unfair. He begins to blame the victims and like all victim blaming it is hidden in a cloak of courtesy and concern. He picks out one of them, Friend , hetaire is not a friendly term, It reinforces the difference between them, yet seems to be polite. A term we heard used in the elcetion campaign .
He now pretends that they had negotiated a wage, rather than him leaving them no choice.and he tells them to take what belongs to you and go. This is no “go in peace” but a banning from the neighbourhood – he will not get work here again.
And if we are in any doubt he then says “ I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you “– there is no question of paying wages for work done . The charity of the landowner robs the labourers of any sense of honour. “Am I not allowed to do whatever I choose with what belongs to me?” Really rubs it in if the labourers are the former free peasants who have been forced off their land.

So what does this parable tell us? In the context of Matthew it is a reply to The disciple Peter’s question about the reward for working long and hard and losing everthing for the kingdom. Matthew is using this as a warning to people in his community who imagine they are deserving of special honour because they have been in the community in leadership for a long time.
The real landowner is not the exploitative owner of the vineyard but God. The land is there to be used for all, so all benefit from it. When the true owner of the vineyard is in charge it will not be manipulative payments of the first being last and the last first, as a controlling employment strategy. But an overflowing abundance in which those who have just come in the door get the same generous love of God without limit as those who have been there for a while. Peter’s question is answered by a different economics to that they are familiar with in their daily lives. The thinking of the Landowner and the workers is overwhelmed by the real owner of all. And maybe one sign of the Kingdom of god is when those who have been there rejoice and ensure that those who arrive last enjoy everything that they have.

And our hope is that this God who has pursued us so in life, shall not stop pursuing us even in death, so that whether in life, in death, come early, come late, we are invited. The invitation is based, not on how long or hard we've worked, but on the mercy, the pursuing, never-ending mercy

for the opening illustration the late Dr. Norman Pott who was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael, CA.
Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech
William Willemon The Invitation

Rev. Margaret Anne Low


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