Professor Tom Long describes the scene:
“At 3 a.m., the men who have slept on the floor at the Border Farmworkers Center in El Paso rouse themselves. Soon the busses from the farms growing chiles and peppers in New Mexico will rattle into the parking lot. The overseers will step off the busses and look over the crowd of men hoping to work in the fields. Those who appear young, strong, and able will be summoned to get on the bus, while others will be left behind, hoping that another bus will soon arrive needing laborers. These workers will toil until evening under the hot southwestern sun, earning far less than minimum wage. The days are long, but there is no overtime pay, and the work is dangerous, but there is no workers’ compensation or health insurance.” [ON Scripture, 9/24/17]
“Matthew 20 puts us squarely in that parking lot,” Long says. The grapes have been exchanged for chiles and peppers, there were no busses to rattle back in Jesus’ time, but the brown-skinned men needing this work to feed their families are the same. The young, the strong, the able are still chosen first; the work is still hard and hot and long.
But, Professor Long warns us, remember that what we have in Matthew 20 is a parable, not investigative journalism, and as Clarence Jordan, author of the Cottonpatch Bible, once said, “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.” This story blows up all sorts of dearly held assumptions and values and leaves us sorting through the wreckage left behind.
“Those poor workers still haven’t been paid their fair wage?!” a woman asked me one Sunday morning after hearing this passage again. We find this story offensive, don’t we? What about justice for those first workers? Why are those lazy late-comers rewarded with equal pay, when all they’ve done is sit around the marketplace all day? Why doesn’t the landowner just pay the early workers first, and let them go, so they don’t have to watch everyone else get paid the day’s wage first? They’d never be the wiser. This is no way to run an airline.
We find it so offensive, don’t we? because most of us have been the ones who’ve been first in line. We know the rules and, mostly, live by them, don’t we? You show up on time, the boss sets your wage, you dress for the job, you don’t make up excuses. Actually, honestly, many of us in this congregation have been the boss, the owner, the supervisor, the one making the choices and bearing the responsibility for holding others accountable. We don’t like this parable at all.
But if you’ve been the one who has been late for work because your car has broken down yet again, or had to call in sick too many times because your childcare fell through yet again; if you’ve not been chosen for a job or even an interview because you don’t have any front teeth, due to a lifetime of no dental care; if you’ve been told you’re too old or not strong enough or bright enough or good-looking enough, then you want to sit with this parable a little longer. You wish there actually was someone who would pay you a liveable wage for doing what you could. You’d want to hear more about this “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus was talking about.
Just as last week we heard a parable that blew up our notions of keeping score of sin and forgiveness, so this week’s parable not only subverts our ideas about economic reality, but pushes us out beyond our comfort zones into the uncontrollable territory of God’s grace. As Tom Long says, the parable of the generous landowner is no more a blueprint for running a business than the parable of the prodigal son, as we call it, is a parenting manual. Here in the marketplace, in that parking lot, if you will, workers are hired not so much based on the need of the landowner, but on the laborers’ need for work. The wages are paid not primarily because of a contract or bargain, but out of the generosity of the landowner. Everyone gets enough to live.
If you’ve come here to church on the third Friday morning of the month, you’ll know that there is a line of cars looping up to our back parking lot. They are all waiting for the truck from the Vermont Food Bank to arrive with boxes of surplus commodities–meat, cheese, canned goods, who knows what else–which are available to senior citizens with certain economic needs. The truck usually comes about 11:30 or quarter of 12. The cars start coming about 8:30. One guy always seems to be first in line. I have never seen anyone turned away because they’ve run out of food. Everybody gets a full box. In fact, the truck usually waits quite awhile after the last car has left, usually close to 1 o’clock. But by and large, I’m guessing that most of the folks who come for these commodities have been told too often in life that they’re too late, there’s nothing left, try again next month. First come, first served. That’s how the world works, right?
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner asks the grumbling early workers? Or, as the Greek says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Is this not one of the issues at the heart of our current immigration crisis? We were here first. These jobs belong to Americans ….(who by and large, won’t do them. Who wants to work all day in the hot sun or the stifling factories for less than minimum wage and no benefits?) “Are you envious because I am generous? Is your eye evil because I am good?
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” Some people love that hymn. Others hate it. Some, like my husband’s grandmother, refuse to sing it. “I am not a wretch,” she muttered. But if you’ve been told that you are–a wretch, or good for nothing, or a disgrace, or an abomination– or if you feel like you are – a wretch, an unloveable, unforgiveable, worthless waste of space–then grace can sound pretty amazing.
I remember being a homely teenager, trying desperately to be good enough for the approval of all the adults in my life but mostly wanting to be pretty enough or popular enough for the approval of my peers. .. And my brother Bob, who had wrestled with some of the same issues, as many adolescents do, having taken a religion course in college that included the writings of theologian Paul Tillich– I remember Bob’s telling me he had had this experience, but maybe he just read this section of one of Tillich’s writings to me, like he knew what this was like–
Grace strikes us when …year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything–do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact you are accepted. When that happens to us [Tillich said] we experience grace.
“Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” You are accepted. Grace. It was a whole new concept to me as a 15-year-old. I fear it is a whole new concept and an unknown experience to too many people, maybe to you.
The Israelites during Week 1 in the wilderness despaired that they would die there from hunger and thirst. What kind of God, what kind of leaders would bring them out here into the wilderness simply to die from hunger and thirst? Give us the fleshpots of Egypt, they cried. At least we had enough to eat there.
And so God sent quails and manna from heaven, and told them to gather up enough each day for just that day. It would be just enough, no more, no less, and if they gathered more than enough, the manna would turn to worms.
I sometimes despair that I don’t have enough–we don’t have enough–courage, creativity, endurance, patience, time to do what needs to be done to save our world, our nation, our community from the future that we seem hell-bent on creating. “Save us,” I pray. “Stop us.” And then I am reminded of the generosity of the landowner. The quails that covered the ground each night and the manna each morning. Enough for the day. I am enough, I am accepted. You are enough. You are accepted. We are given enough–we will be given enough–for this day. It’s not too late to join the movement toward hope.
The story is told of a woman who was met at heaven’s gate by St. Peter, who said, “It will take a thousand points for you to be admitted. Points will be determined by the way you lived.” The woman said, “Unless I was sick, I attended worship every Sunday and sang in the choir.” “That’s 50 points,” said St. Peter. “What else?” “I gave a good deal of money to the church,” the woman said. “Well,” said St. Peter, “I think that’s worth 25 points. Anything else?” Realizing she had only 75 points, the woman began to get desperate. “I taught Sunday School for 10 years.” “That’s great, but it’s only worth 25 points,” St. Peter noted. The woman became frantic. “You know,” she said, “at this rate, the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God!” Peter smiled and said, “That’s worth 900 points. Come on in!” [told by T. Long, op cit.]
Whenever we open to grace, there is the kingdom of heaven. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark