In or Out?

Matthew 20:1-16
September 16, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

In 1848, a thirteen year old boy from Scotland came to the town of Allegheny, Pennsylvania and went to work as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill for $1.20 a week.  He had no formal education but he was willing to work hard and always sought opportunities to learn new skills.  Consequently, at fourteen he became a messenger in a telegraph office, then official telegrapher to the Pennsylvania railroad, and eventually rose to be a railroad superintendent with a financial interest in the Pullman Company.  By 1868, at the age of 33, that former bobbin boy was making $50,000 a year, equivalent to over $800,000 today.  Comfortably wealthy, he decided to pursue a life of philanthropy and by the time he died, he had given away more than 90% of his income to establish 1700 libraries, some museums, a university, and a music hall in NY City where our own Daisy Wu performed last year.  His name, of course, is Andrew Carnegie, and he has become an American legend because he embodied what we believe to be the unique nature of America: here, we say, even the poor bobbin boy can, with hard work and dedication, become a millionaire.

In America, we are taught to believe that the industrious will prosper and that anyone who follows a good Puritan work ethic will succeed.  Even those not born here quickly learn that this belief in social advancement through hard work alone is part of our nation’s self image.  As concerned Christians, we acknowledge that social injustices and systemic inequities leave many unable to fulfill the American dream, but we strive to correct those injustices because our American DNA tells us that hard work should be the only thing that matters. When we threw the King and the aristocrats out of the country back in 1776, we declared that henceforth we would strive to create a level playing field in this nation, and the debates today are not over the value of hard work but over whether the system is truly as fair and equal as our founders intended. 

Deep down in your bones, whether you realize it or not, you have been taught to accept this Puritan work ethic in which “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” and this is why more than any of Jesus’ parables, this parable of the laborers in the vineyard disturbs us, unsettles us, and even angers us.  After all, doesn’t it seem like Jesus is denying the value of hard work?

“Let me tell you a story,” Jesus says to the disciples.  “Some workers go out to a vineyard and work all day in the hot sun.  They notice other workers coming into the fields at noon, and then at three, and yet again just an hour before the sun sets.  At the end of the day, the owner calls the men to line up, latecomers first and early workers last, and the early workers notice that the master is placing shiny coins into the hands of the latecomers. 

‘Look,’ one says in excitement to another, ‘I saw that man come in not thirty minutes ago and the master is giving him a whole denarius.  I’ve been working all day.  Just think what I’ll get!’ but when he reaches the front of the line and holds out his hand, the master drops only a single denarius into his eager palm.  His heart sinks and his face falls.  The worker heads to the Union bosses and soon an angry picket line forms outside the vineyard with workers shouting ‘Equal pay for equal work!’”

This parable makes us uneasy because it appears that Jesus is condemning the American dream and instead supporting a system which rewards everyone equally regardless of their efforts.  We view the latecomers in the story as shiftless lazy fellows who couldn’t drag themselves out of bed on time to get to the fields at a decent hour and yet, for all of their laziness, they receive the same reward as the first.  We assume that Jesus is trying to tell us something like – “Even the deadbeats will have their reward.  The couch potatoes and the loafers will receive the same reward in heaven as the dedicated industrious servants.”

In the animated series, “The Simpsons,” teenager Bart Simpson expresses our concern about where this parable might lead when he says to the local pastor, “I figure I’ll go for the life of sin, followed by the presto-change-o deathbed repentance.”

The problem with reading the moral of the parable this way is that it assumes we know why those workers were late to the vineyard.  We assume that they took their jolly time getting there because they were down at the pool hall having a few rounds of billiards with their pals and finally sauntered up to the marketplace just before supper to get a bite to eat when the owner spotted them and offered them a quick buck.  And then, assuming we know what motivated the late workers, we get annoyed when Jesus insists on giving them the same reward as those poor sweaty tired guys who have been batting away flies all day in the hot sun to get the grape harvest in.  The biblical scholar Matt Skinner says, however, that we need to place ourselves back in Jesus’ time and ask ourselves, “What kind of people are the last to find jobs [in ancient Palestine], added to the rolls only when there’s no more labor available?  Nothing suggests that those characters in the parable are irresponsible or lazy.  More likely, they are unwanted.  Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired but doesn’t find success until the end of the day?  In Jesus’ time, these would be the weak, infirm, and disabled.  Maybe the elderly, too.  And other targets of discrimination, such as criminals or anyone with a bad reputation…  

“In the end,” Skinner says, “it’s not about unfair payments. At the parable’s conclusion, the full-day workers don’t moan that they have been cheated. They complain instead to the landowner, ‘You have made them [the one-hour workers] equal to us.’… By dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their …worth.  The landowner’s undue kindness thus denies the full-day laborers the bonus they think they can claim: a sense of privilege or superiority.” 1

Over and over again, Jesus warned us that God does not care about our credentials or our social worth; God cares simply about whether we do the work to which we are called.  Jesus asked Peter and James when they were fishing by the sea: “Boys, I have some work for you to do.  Are you with me?” and throwing down their nets, they ran after Jesus proclaiming, “Count us in.”  And he said it to the tax collector sitting despondently by his coffer, “Levi, I have work for you to do,” and Levi protested, “I’m a tax collector, Jesus.  I haven’t led the most honest life.”  

Jesus replied, “I’m not talking about yesterday; I’m talking about today.  Are you ready to do my work?” and Levi put aside his money box, rolled up his sleeves, and followed.

And Jesus said it to the rich young man, “Tell me, young man, are you in or out?  Are you going to do the work of the Kingdom or not?”  And the rich young man felt the coins tickling his palms and said, “Sorry Jesus, I’m out.” and Jesus strode away without looking back.  And when the woman who had spent her beauty in prostitution begged to be a part of the work crew, the disciples laughed at the idea of a prostitute working in God’s vineyard, but Jesus said, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.  She’s with us, boys.  Get used to it.”

Jesus does not tell a parable about the lazy and the industrious receiving equal reward; Jesus tells a parable about the early workers — the skilled and socially acceptable — and late workers — the rough and forgotten and despised by society — receiving equal reward.  Early and late, expected and unexpected but all workers; all people who said to the invitation of the master – “I’m in,” and then rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

Norma Hotaling was a prostitute in San Francisco.  For twenty-five years she walked the streets of San Francisco peddling her body to strangers to get money to support her heroin addiction.  For twenty-five years she wasted her life, shooting up, sleeping in strange beds, thinking of nothing but her next trick and her next high while good hard-working people raised their children, went to church, gave their money to charity, and led decent lives.  Then one night, Hotaling, still recovering from an overdose of barbiturate she had taken in a failed suicide attempt, was taken in a car by three men to a cemetery where they beat her and tried to rape her. She fought back with a sudden ferocious desire to live and finally the men left her, bloody and beaten, to die in a graveyard.  That night was a turning point for her.  She dragged herself to a hospital, and after her release, when she couldn’t kick the drug habit on her own, she turned herself into the police, convinced a judge to lock her up, and spent eight harrowing weeks in prison, her body battling the brutal effects of drug withdrawal as she went completely cold turkey.  After prison, Hotaling enrolled in college, graduated magna cum laude with a degree in health education, and eventually went back to the San Francisco streets, but this time as the director of a program designed to help other prostitutes and drug addicts reclaim their lives as she did. 2   Norma had certainly not seemed like a good candidate for the work of the vineyard, and only arrived after many others had put in years of labor, but is her work any less valuable to Christ?  Is she any less important for the lateness of her hour?  Christ thinks not, but places a full denarius in her hands and says, “Good and faithful servant, it has been well done.”

Christ has a lot of work to be done in the vineyard and he needs a lot of workers to bring God’s kingdom of compassion and justice to the world.  He’s not looking for just the elite but only for the committed.  Jesus says to each of you, “Are you in or out?”  Jesus doesn’t care what was in your past.  Jesus doesn’t care how rich or poor you are or whether you are well respected in your community or no one recognizes your face.  Jesus doesn’t ask to see your resume, or a list of your academic publications.  If you struggle with mental illness or self doubt or still bear wounds of grief that refuse to completely heal, Jesus says to you, “I still need you.  Even those with troubled hearts and weary souls can work in my Kingdom, and perhaps the work will make the grief easier to bear.”  And if you are getting on in years and wonder how much you still have to give to Christ’s work, remember the example of those in our own congregation who served Christ through their constant compassion, their joyful smiles, and their attentiveness to others to the very end of their days, and made our worlds brighter for their presence.  Christ values each of us not by the standards of society but only by whether we will roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to the work of God’s kingdom.

And so let us with Christ, welcome every person who responds, and rejoice with him as he exclaims with jubilant celebration – “Welcome to the vineyard, good and faithful servant.”

Footnotes:

1. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/parable-of-the-workers-in-the-vineyard-commentary_b_961120
2. “Hope Magazine,” Jan/Feb 1998, p. 12