Throughout most of my life I’ve been able to deal with today’s passage by telling myself that it is a parable. This is because parables are not meant to be taken at face value. Parables are keys to helping us unlock the mystery of God’s kingdom. As much as this is true, I have always struggled with the literal story.
There is a man with a vineyard and he needs workers. He went out at 6 AM looking and found some. After coming to an agreement on the daily pay, they go into the vineyard to work. At 9 AM the man goes out again looking for workers. They agree to be paid what is right for their work. The man does this again at noon and at 3 PM. Finally, the man goes out at 5 PM and finds that there were men who did not labor all day. Upon finding out that no one hired them, he tells them to go out into his vineyard to work.
When it is time to compensate the laborers, the manager first pays the workers who logged the shortest time on the job. They receive a full day’s wages. Naturally, those who worked the 12-hour shift expected to get paid more. When they received the same amount as the ones who only worked an hour, they were understandably upset. Thus they grumbled against the owner. The owner in response asks them two questions: 1) Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? And 2) Or are you envious because I am generous?
I have observed that the Asian community esteems education. It is a virtue. Moreover, an extra benefit of holding education in such a high place is that it jives well with job qualifications. Outside of networking connections, the education credential is a paramount factor in the hiring process.
With the racial climate in America, Asian-Americans are trying to figure out their roles. In a previous sermon, I likened Asian-Americans with the Hebrew midwives employed in service to the Egyptians. The midwives lived between two worlds – very much like Asian-Americans. Denying the Egyptian world would affect their economic well-being and privilege while denying the Hebrew world would affect their identity and demonstrate ignorance of their status as a minority.
It is complicated. I had a conversation with one of our members. As he reminisced of his college life from long ago he smirked and told me a story that he knew was strange. When he got to school, all of the minority groups reached out to him imploring him to join them because he was “one of them.” Yet, when he applied for a minority scholarship, the office rejected him on the grounds that he was not considered a minority for the purposes of the scholarship.
Perhaps you read articles or you yourself will argue how affirmative action is bad for Asians. According to some studies, non-Asian minorities get weighted scores on their standardized tests while the Asian demographic gets penalized. If you are a parent of an Asian-American student, this might concern you. Perhaps you even work in an organization in which Asians are not considered minorities. As a result, the Asian-American community has had to incorporate competition into their survival strategy. They compete against whites who are categorical equals to them on some levels. On other levels, they compete against other non-Asian minorities who seem to have an unfair benefit in the academic arena.
Keeping this in mind, according to Asian-American sensibilities, I would assume that this parable screams and reeks of: UNFAIRNESS! If this passage were not a parable, that’s where it would have stopped for me. I would have said, “UNFAIR” and walked away.
In the pledge of allegiance that I remember repeating daily at school, the phrase that stuck out the most was at the end, “and justice for all.” From a young age, I have always found comfort in it. It says to me that people are equal – especially in the eyes of the law. You do bad, no matter who you are, you will be punished. I have always equated justice with fairness. The assumption at work here is that everyone is equal and has the same chance.
This assumption leads me to conclude that if you go far, it is because you tried harder than someone else. Inversely, if you do not go far, it is because you did not try as hard as someone else. This assumption is what makes today’s passage so unbearable. Why should you or I, someone who studies and works hard, doing from 6 AM be treated or compensated in the same manner as someone who strolls in at 5 PM. How is that fair?! We are all equal and should be treated the same, or we must concede that we are NOT all equal and therefore subject to being treated differently.
The parable obviously does not hold the idea that all are equal and should be treated the same. It seems that the parable claims people are equal but are treated differently. Woe to the ones who work early and hard. It would then seem the lesson teaches, hope that you are in the 5 PM group because you can be idle all day or all your life, and at the end, you will be treated the same as everyone else. This message has got to burn for some of you. I know this bothered me for a long time.
But what if the assumption is wrong? The working assumption is that “everyone is equal and has the same chance.” I am okay with the idea that everyone is equal. I fully accept that no matter the color of our skin, we are all created by God and equally loved. What if we do not assume that everyone has the same chance? If we are all equal and claim “justice for all” – it only seems natural to say everyone has the same chance.
In the story, we are told that the owner went out at 6 AM to find workers. He went out again at 9 AM and again at noon and at 3 PM. He even went out at 5 PM. This is unusual. Most owners will only go out at 6 AM and make sure that they have enough workers to maximize their profits for the day. They want to get the most work out of their laborers. Maybe some disorganized owners will go out at 9 AM after having failed to meet their daily quota of workers. But they will surely not pay the 9 AM workers the same as the 6 AM workers since they will have labored 3 hours less than the others.
How much competition must there be for the laborers who are looking for work to try and be among those selected at 6 AM? Have you ever been in Queens early in the morning and seen a van come to a stop on the street? In a flash, it is surrounded by people willing to jump right in, take a seat, and go to work – all without asking how much they will be paid – without knowing where they are going. If you sprained your ankle the night before and cannot run, woe to you. If you had a sick child you had to deal with causing you to leave the house a few minutes later than normal – woe to you. The parable is silent on how the laborers determined who would be near to the owner looking for workers.
We assume that we are the first ones in line. We assume we are the ones trying the hardest to get hired at 6 AM. But sometimes, in the midst of our hustle, we lose perspective that perhaps the 6 AM slots are stacked in favor of a certain type of people. Maybe there are so many laborers, bouncers were hired to keep the unruly laborers in check. Maybe some of the laborers were friends with these bouncers and had an edge in getting to the front of the line. Maybe the problem is systemic and not so much individual. I am not here making a case for or against affirmative action. I am here trying to make sense of this passage.
What if we start seeing ourselves as not the 6 AM or 9 AM group. What if we were the noon, 3 PM or 5 PM group? This might not make sense to us since we are used to working hard and getting our way. But what allowed us to even think we belong in the 6 AM group? I propose the thing that helps us identify with them is this: 11And when they received [their compensation], they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
We are familiar with the position of comparing ourselves to others – and deeming ourselves to be better. If we are given more, all and good. But if we think we are better but are getting less? It is an outrage. That’s what happens here. We think we should get more than others and when that happens, it upsets us. It confuses us. Let me frame this situation in a less personal way:
Last week was Mission & Moving Up Sunday. For Mission Sunday, the plan was originally a scholarship project to support a female student/graduate from the Peruvian Women’s Shelter transition to be educated/equipped to get a job and housed during the process for a year. The estimated cost of the project was $6K. But Hurricane Harvey hit as we went to vote on this project. The felt it had to change the project to the more pressing matter. Session concluded that our community should raise $10K for the victims in Texas. Then Hurricane Irma hit the week before Mission Sunday. The mission project changed from Hurricane Harvey relief to Hurricane relief. Yes Irma was bad as was Harvey. But Irma came along and “took money” from Harvey. Likewise, Harvey came along and took money from the Peruvian girl. Who is more deserving? Aren’t they all in need? Yet funds are limited and priorities need to be established.
Someone feels like they lost out. Someone could say, “That is unfair.”
The problem with Mission Sunday could be remedied if we could change one aspect. If we said, we had unlimited funds to provide to the Peruvian girl, the victims in Texas, and the victims in Florida, the cry of “unfair” would no longer be heard. That’s the thing. We are a people with limited resources. We want to be generous, but we cannot do it without qualification. On the other hand, God has unlimited resources AND God is generous!
That is the key to the parable. The parable is NOT about the laborers. It is not about fairness. The parable tells us about the owner and what type of person the owner is. As stated earlier, most owners get all their workers at 6 AM. Some owners finish getting their crew at 9 AM. Yet the owner in the parable goes out at noon, again at 3 PM and even goes at 5 PM! The owner is TRYING to create jobs! The owner is trying to provide a reason to give people a day’s wages!
This parable is NOT about idleness or laziness either. Look at what happens when the owner goes out at noon and at 3 PM: 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
In each of these scenarios, there is a salary negotiation. The owner will pay what is right and the laborers agree by going to work. Yet look at what happens with the 5 PM squad: 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
There is no salary negotiation! The owner could have said, “You worked but I did not agree to pay you!” The owner luckily managed to get an hour worth of work from the last group for free! The individuals in this group obviously wanted to work because even without pay – they went! We cannot describe them as lazy. It makes more sense to conclude that they wanted to work, but some reason, some system prevented them from doing so. When given the opportunity, they worked hard – even for an hour.
God is generous. Is God not allowed to do what God chooses with what is Gods? Are you not allowed do what you want with your money? Who should tell God what to do with God’s? Are we then envious that God is generous? And to this I imagine we would have to say, “Yes, yes I am envious.” But this is if we continue to think that we are the 6 AM group. We are all the 5 PM squad. We are undeserving. Yet to the undeserving ones, God bestows love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.
I would even say that while the 6 AM group was trying to pace themselves to get through the 12 hour day – cheating the owner wherever and whenever possible, the 5 PM squad probably worked with a fury and passion that can only come from a debt of gratitude.
This is the kingdom of God. God is generous to all people. And all of us, as the 5 PM squad can live in gratitude for a God who keeps inviting people in and giving to us things we do not deserve. Thanks be to God.