Rev. Sophia DeWitt
Grace Community Church UCC North Fork, CA
September 21, 2014
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 & Matthew 20:1-16
“More than Fair”
This morning’s text from the Gospel relates what has been called, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard”. It is a parable that is unique to Matthew’s gospel. It is also the last parable that Matthew records Jesus delivering before he and the disciples reach Jerusalem for the last week of his life. From this placement it is clear that Matthew places particular significance on the parable and its message. It is worth recalling that Matthew’s gospel, like the other gospels, was written and constructed to interpret the theological significance of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection for a particular community of believers of which he was a part and to which he wrote. Matthew believed that the message of this parable had particular significance to his community—and so places it at a climactic point in his text. The community to which Matthew wrote, in around 85 CE was a largely urban community, likely in Antioch, in what is today Syria. It likely included people of all classes, from the very poor to the well off, people with a long history in the Jewish faith, as well as more recent converts. This diversity produced some tension—as did the fact that there was beginning to be conflict at times between those in Matthew’s community and those who followed a different understanding of Judaism and God’s actions for God’s people, that eventually became the rabbinic Judaism that we know today. Matthew’s community was undergoing significant change and stress, while still trying to hold on to religious traditions that were important to them. In this time of stress, tension and probably some confusion and fear, Matthew wants to
communicate to his community through this parable that God’s grace and love go beyond anything that they can imagine—and to encourage them to give thanks for God’s amazing grace.
Through the centuries, as the text of Matthew’s gospel spread to more and more Christian communities, the witness of the church was that Matthew’s understanding of the theological significance of Jesus, including this parable, had something important to say to them as well. As we confront the challenges of today’s world, I think this parable also has an important message for us.
The parable begins as a story that people could easily identify with. Early in the morning a landowner hires some laborers to work in his vineyard—and agrees to pay them the usual daily wage of a denarius—a wage that was simply enough for basic survival. While Matthew’s community was likely mostly urban, people were not far removed from knowledge of agriculture, or agricultural work. Day laborers were common—and commonly exploited—on both farms and in cities and towns.
Even today, this is still a story that we can easily identify with. Just think of the many thousands of people who rose before dawn in the valley just below us—on this day like any other— to pick our fruits and vegetables. Or, think of the men who stand waiting in the pre-dawn light in Home Depot and Lowe’s parking lots waiting to be selected for that day’s construction crew on a residential or commercial project in Fresno or Madera. Day laborers continue to be common in our time—and to be commonly exploited. In the case of agricultural workers, most are paid by the “piece”, by how much they pick. In 2011, in Florida, for example, workers were paid $ .85 for each 90 lb box of oranges. With average worker productivity being eight boxes an hour, or 64 boxes a day,
that comes to an hourly wages of $6.80—or below minimum wage. While Federal law says that large farms have to pay workers they hire at least minimum wage if they don’t earn it through the piece system, this does not apply to small farms, or to workers hired by farm labor contractors, about half of all farmworkers, who are not “employees” of the farms. The piece system also discourages water, rest and bathroom breaks. Many farmworkers also do not receive paystubs—making tracking wages difficult and wage theft easy. Workers are also exposed to pesticides and other occupational dangers. Through my work as a Board member of the National Farmworker Ministry, I recently visited with workers in NC tobacco fields, who are fighting for better conditions. Workers at the camp I visited work a usual 12 hour day. They are in danger of nicotine poisoning as hour after hour they pick tobacco leaves and store them under their arms until they get to the end of the row—with the heat of the climate and their bodies the nicotine leaches out of the leaves and through their skin and into their bloodstream—the equivalent of chain smoking. Nicotine also raises body temperature, putting the workers in serious danger of heatstroke in summer. They receive no paystubs recording their work hours and wage rate—and often live in camps with two showers for 60 people. Day laborers in construction and gardening almost all live in poverty—and are also often subject to wage theft.
So, Jesus’ parable begins with a situation that the members of Matthew’s community—as well as us today—can easily understand. The landowner goes early in the morning and hires workers at a subsistence wage to work in his vineyard—and the workers begin work. But, this is where the parable takes an unexpected turn—as so many of Jesus’ parables do. The landowner goes out an additional four times during the
day, including just one hour before the end of the day, to hire additional workers, promising to pay them “whatever is right”. This twist can cause your average hearer in Matthew’s time or reader today to ask some perfectly reasonable questions. First of all, why didn’t the landowner just hire all the workers he needed at the beginning of the day? Where were the workers he hired later when he came in the morning? Was there even any work for those hired later to do? Scholar Matthew Skinner reminds us that those hired later were likely those passed over by the landowner and other employers in the first round—perhaps older or elderly workers, or those with a disability or impediment of some kind. The landowner has included them as well—and has declared them worthy of concern.
The next twist comes when the workers wages are paid at the end of day. The workers who were hired last, and who were in the field for just an hour, get paid a full day’s wage of a denarius—as do all the other workers, including those who had agreed with the landowner for a denarius—and who worked a full day. The need of all the workers is met. For Matthew this is a symbol that God’s grace and love go beyond our imagination. In v. 8, the word that Matthew uses for “landowner” is the same as the word for “Lord”, “Kyrios”. This outcome goes against conventional values—and what people of that time, as well as this time, would consider strictly fair or just. Indeed, for the workers hired first, their complaint is not that the workers hired last have received a denairius—but that they have received the same, “you have made them equal to us”. (v. 12). It is the equality that bothers them. But, both Jesus and Matthew know that we all as people have the same needs. Just because the workers last hired only worked one hour, instead of twelve, that doesn’t mean that they had only 1/12th of the expenses of
others—a full day’s wage would give them and their families what they needed for the day—just like the others. In this parable we see that what is central for Jesus and Matthew is the value of the worker—the person. Instead of being based on a “fairness” or “justice” that demands a strict accounting, how many hours did you work, how many bunches of grapes did you pick?—here is your wage—this interaction is based on love, on a true relationship with the worker as a person. This is how life is to be lived in God’s kingdom. This is what Jesus was encouraging in his first listeners—and what Matthew was encouraging for members of his community. Matthew wanted the members of his community to understand that no matter what differences existed between people in income or status, or history of religious practice, God’s grace and love to all went beyond their ability to imagine—and that they should give thanks to God for God’s amazing grace—which desired to give them not what they deserved, but what they needed, and seek to extend that grace and love to others. The same message holds true for us. God’s grace and love are beyond our capacity to imagine—and we should be thankful to God—and seek to extend that grace and love to others around us.
What would it mean, and what difference would it make, for us to live in true relationship with others—the way God does with us? To truly see other’s value as people and to seek to meet their needs based on love and relationship? There are many answers to that question, but in the case of farmworkers here are just a couple of suggestions:
1) If you shop at Costco, support the Equitable Food Initiative, by buying fruits and vegetables with the EFI label. EFI is a joint effort between workers, including farm labor unions and the National Farmworker Ministry, growers and retailers to
assure decent working conditions, pesticide management and food safety. Starting in the Fall, fruits and vegetables produced in accord with EFI’s standards will have a label attached to them certifying that they are, “Responsibly Grown. Farmworker Assured.”
2) If you shop at WalMart, ask managers to put pressure on Gerawan Farms in Fresno, producers of their Prima fruit brand, to honor their September 2013 contract with workers, which has been certified by the ALRB. The ALRB has cited Gerawan five times for violations of this contract, as well as actively intimidating workers to try to get them to sign petitions to “de-certify” the UFW as the workers’ representative in contract matters.
Whatever you do, seek always to live in true relationship with others, to see their value as people, and recognize that God’s love and grace are beyond our capacity to imagine. Give thanks to God for that love and grace in your life—and seek to extend that love and grace to everyone you meet.