At the Rochester/Genesee meeting this weekend, the new president of Colgate Rochester Divinity School reminded us that as Christians, we need to be concerned about the larger community. That is the core of the gospel. When you care about the larger community, you are obsessed with making things fair. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread, not give me my daily bread and to hell with the rest of you.” Dr. McMickle said that the church and the world is lacking prophetic pastoral leadership—an indictment to a whole lot of us. He said, the work of prophetic and pastoral leadership is to raise people’s focus from what they need immediately, to making things fair for everyone. Personal salvation is not what Jesus came to do, he came to encourage people to feed the hungry, set prisoners free, love one another, bear each other’s burdens.
John Leland was a prophetic leader obsessed with making things fair. He railed against slavery, and was suspicious of the state wearing the mask of religion. Machiavelli said that if you want to win a war you need to convince people that you are doing it on behalf of God. But secretly, you must never see yourself as accountable to God. It’s a ruse, a magician’s trick of misdirection. And if anyone uses God language and makes things unfair or violent, then you had better be suspicious.
So given what we know about Jesus and the task of prophetic leadership, what are we to make of today’s scripture? Is the scripture about getting into heaven? Is it about the generosity of the landowner, who is like God? Is it a put down of people who complain about injustice? Or is Jesus painting an ironic picture of how the world works—subtly pointing to a better way?
As the parable opens, we learn about the vineyard owner who needs to have his grapes picked or his vines tended. Vineyard owners were the elite. The upper echelon. The ones who get all of the perks. We can imagine that many of the hired hands might have at one time been farmers. Maybe some of them had even farmed land that had fed their families, but like so many rural Minnesota farmers they were one poor weather season away from foreclosure. Wealthy people bought them out at rock-bottom prices and then hired them to work on their own land. But the produce from land the laborers are to work on in today’s parable was not going to feed any of them. It was a vineyard, for the dinner tables of wealthy people.
The vineyard owner goes out early in the day to hire workers. He settles on a wage with them. He calls it a day’s wage, but we don’t know how much it really was. Throughout the day, the vineyard owner hires more workers. At the end of the day, the workers line up for their pay. The owner tells his manager to pay the last first, meaning the one who worked the least amount of time. He paid him a denarius, a day’s wage.
The next workers, having seen this and having worked twice as long as the first workers, figured they would get two denarii. They got one. And on down the line, they all got one denarius, even the ones who worked ten times as long. It was a flat wage. Equal pay for unequal work. The landowner certainly had the wealth to pay everyone a decent wage, but paying the one who worked the least first served as an insult to everyone else watching. Jesus doesn’t explain this. He just says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Thanks a lot.
If the vineyard owner was really generous as the parable seems to imply he was, then the longest working people should have gotten paid first, gone on their way and not have to witness the “generosity” of the owner. That would have maintained the dignity of everyone. But the owner did it backwards and rubbed his power in their faces. When the longest workers gave the reasonable response that this didn’t seem right, the manager told them not to be so uppity.
Like the prodigal son parable, we want to shout with the older brother, “It’s not fair!”
Maybe Jesus was saying that people who are being ripped off have a right to be a bit uppity. After all, the owner really only promised the first group the denarius. Every other group, he promised them he would pay them, “what is right”. What is right according to whom, though? Well, to the landowner, of course.
So what are we to make of this parable? Is Jesus really calling on us to be graciously submissive to the generosity of a wealthy landowner? Is he saying that we need to not argue with the crumbs that fall from the master’s table? Is he saying that we ought to be happy with our lot in life and not make such a big stink about things? If so, this would contradict most of what we know about Jesus.
A clue is this “first shall be last” statement. It appears at the end of this parable and in Matthew 19:30. The first shall be last and the last shall be first is a bookend to the parable.
Jesus always sided with the poor. Jesus always called into question conspicuous consumption. Jesus always called into question the propensity of those who would call for simply an individual relationship with God if it stood in the way of our relationships with one another.
The last in this parable are the laborers. The first are the owners. This whole system will be turned upside down. That’s what the Kingdom of heaven looks like. And heaven is not a far off land in the sky. The work of a Christian is to make the earth, the world heaven-like.
Jesus describes the injustice and says, now hear this. This system will not last. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. This system of equal pay for unequal work will not last forever. There is a better way.
We have had a wonderfully rich week with our sister church. I can still hear the lilt in their voices and the looks on their faces. I can still hear Pablo’s gentle voice and his hearty laugh at our house. We still smell his cologne on our jackets. I can still see the faces of our sister church members waving goodbye at the airport, their prayer shawls across their shoulders like scarves, mantles, stoles. I asked him about his work and he told me that he has a nice bicycle with a big basket. At 6am, he gets on his bike and fills his basket with soda pop, bread, sandwiches and heads off to the local factory. He’ll sell the food, then go back and get another load. He gets home at 8pm. He told me he works 14 hours a day seven days a week. He told me this trip was his first vacation in 15 years. He wasn’t grumbling. He was telling me what it’s like to live in the third world. He told me how one of the factories closed down recently and how it has made a real dent in his livelihood. Oh, and in his spare time, he co-pastor’s our sister church.
The teachers at the school we support in Leon make $100/month. Is it fair? Of course not. It’s not the way we want it to be or stay. So what are we going to do about it? I wish I had an easy answer. Reminding them that the first shall be last and the last shall be first seems like a cop-out. Suffer in this life so you can be rewarded in heaven. It ain’t fair.
We do a bit by sending down items and help. It’ a good step, but does it make things fair? Isn’t Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is about erasing the inequity. It’s about making things fair for everyone. Everyone being free. Everyone having a decent wage. Everyone paying and receiving their fair share.
Jesus would say that he sees this and wants a better life for all of us.
Yesterday, I was sitting next to Jean Lubke in an airplane on our way back from the Annual Meeting of the Rochester/Genesee Region. It always helps to sit next to someone smarter than you when you’re stuck with a conundrum from the Gospel that you can’t figure out. She told me of her work in anti-racism trainings. She said, when having courageous conversations, there are four things that are essential. 1. Speak the truth. 2. Experience discomfort. 3. Do not expect closure. 4. Stay engaged. I so much want to have closure. I want to tie this sermon up in a nice little bow and give us a solution. Our sisters and brothers in Nicaragua have so pervaded our souls that we are drawn to be continually engaged. I suppose that when there is dynamic tension, even chaos, then our fine creativity is unleashed. I look forward to seeing how we address this going forward.
Jesus always sided with the poor and the outcast. The parable may very well be about our propensity to blame the victim for their behavior that makes us uncomfortable. It confronts us with our blinders and our own propensity toward easy answers to complex problems.
And there is the rub. We tend to look at the victims of poverty these days and say, “If you weren’t so unruly, you could get a job.”
If you weren’t so unkempt you could get along better.
If you weren’t so dang uppity, you would have more friends and influence more people.
If you would just get an education, you would have the whole world.
If you stopped having children, you would be off the public dole.
If you weren’t mentally ill, you would not make our lives so uncomfortable.
All of which are acceptable ways to say, “go away.” I don’t want to be conflicted, confused or even convicted by your presence.
But Jesus wants better from us.
Our experience with our Nicaraguan sisters and brothers won’t let us go down that easy road.
Jesus calls us on our propensity to blame the victim who has every right to complain about being ripped off.
The reign of heaven has a whole lot more to do with eliminating the source of the grumbling rather than the grumbling itself.
And the only way to start eliminating the source of the grumbling is to take the scales off of our eyes and see the world as it is. That’s the subversive work of Jesus and all of his would-be followers. It starts by pausing before we blame the victim.
For in the victim’s perspective might be the code that will unlock the clasp on the gateway to heaven.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first. In the vision of the reign of God, all things will be fair. Making things fair is a key way we live out the Gospel.
Let’s go out and do it.
Let’s do it by having critical analysis of the world.
Let’s do it by organizing and voting.
Let’s do it by studying the Bible.
Let’s do it by listening to the dissonances of our lives.
Let’s do it by continuing to befriend those outside of our culture or comfort zone.
Let’s do it by defending the rights of minorities.
Let’s do it by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Let’s do it by loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and then loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Let’s do it by being those leaves on the tree of life which are for the healing of the nations.
Let’s do it by embracing our prophetic leadership—unleashing our voices and the wealth of our privilege so that we can join God in the ultimate plan to make things fair.
We can do this because we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And we can do it because these witnesses unleash the power of God in all of us.