Sunday September 20, 2020.
Matthew 20:1-16, with help from Exodus 16.
Two of our readings today speak of people grumbling about their condition in life. A dictionary definition says this: to grumble is to complain or protest about something in a bad-tempered but typically muted way. Usually protesting something, but usually in a quiet way – under the breath, perhaps. We’ve all probably been guilty of this behaviour sometime in our lives. We may find that we grumble more when conditions are less than ideal, like when our team isn’t doing well, or when our favourite socks develop holes in them, or even during a pandemic. Surely we’ve all had occasion to grumble from time to time.
In the first reading, the people of Israel, having been captives in Egypt for some four hundred years, have been freed, and are on their way to a new home full of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey. But just two weeks into their travels, they are tired of it all, and, more importantly, they are hungry. And so they grumble. Their complaints are directed at Moses and Aaron, but, in the story, God hears their grumbling, and offers an immediate solution. Each morning a flaky white substance will be found on the ground – manna. This bread substitute will be accompanied by quails. There are some restrictions: take all you can eat, but eat all that you take. Also, on the morning before the Sabbath, they are to gather enough for that day and the next, and so be able to follow the Sabbath law of refraining from working. They, like people in every age and generation, push the limits of these restrictions, and soon learn that they are there for good reason.
Some biblical scholars have developed an understanding of economics that arises out of this first encounter, and later, out of the laws around Sabbath observation. They have termed it, fittingly, Sabbath economics. At its root, Sabbath observance is about gift and limits: the grace of receiving that which the creator gives, and the responsibility not to take too much, nor to mistake the gift for a possession. It might be seen as green economics, as it cares for the land; it might also be seen as a just economics because it calls for an equitable distribution of wealth, and a regular forgiveness of debt.
I’m not at all sure that God’s solution of providing manna and quails for a steady diet for the next forty years would have been a grumble-free solution. However, God did respond to the peoples’ needs with grace and mercy.
Our Gospel reading is a parable spoken by Jesus, a story of a landowner, or householder, and his employment practices. If we begin here also with a definition: a parable is a simple story with a moral – a story told to teach a lesson. In this parable, a householder, in need of workers to tend his vineyard, goes out to the marketplace at six a.m., contracts with a group of recruits for a daily wage, and sends them into his vineyard to work. He goes to the marketplace again at 9 am, 12 noon, and 3 pm, each time encountering those looking to work, and sends them to his vineyard. At 5 pm, near the end of the workday, he goes one more time, finds people wanting to work, who, when asked why they are there, make the obvious claim that no one has hired them. He sends them to work as well. At the end of the day he instructs his second-in-command to pay them their allotted wage, beginning with the most-recently hired, who receive a full day’s pay for their hour’s work. Each successive group is paid, and each receives the same wage. When the first group hired, the full-day workers are finally called up, they too receive the wage they had contracted. Now think “grumbling” with a capital G. “It’s not fair! They worked one hour, we worked a whole day. They’re getting the same money as we are?” Righteous grumbling? Or a parable – a lesson with a meaning that causes us to re-evaluate what is being taught.
It’s helpful, as usual, to see this story in context with what goes before, and comes after. The lead-in is Jesus’ encounter with a young man who asks this question of him, “What must I do – what good deed must I do – to inherit eternal life?” And the follow-up is an encounter with the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples who cadges to gain them a place of honour in the coming kingdom. In essence it becomes, “What must they do to sit closest to you?” These are examples of a works righteousness, gaining salvation by doing good. But the story of the householder and his vineyard can be seen to have a different ending, and, thus, a different moral lesson. The householder believed that it was his right to do whatever he wanted with the money to pay wages. It would seem that for him, it was much less important to base one’s pay on the amount of work done, than it was to base it on need. In the work environment of this story, and in many places in our world today, individuals are hired on a day-to-day basis for labour. The workers assemble at a chosen place, the managers arrive and choose those they need – possibly the youngest, or the fittest – and negotiate wages – or not. Those not chosen for the first job may wait around hoping for other managers to come. It’s not that they are lazy. It’s as they stated when the householder asked them why they weren’t working. Their truthful answer, “Because no one hired us.” Period.
With the onset of the pandemic in March of this year, many people lost their jobs. While some of those have been able to return to work, many others are still unemployed. It’s not because they don’t want to work. The fact is, there isn’t appropriate work for them. And it is in this environment that governments are looking and talking and thinking more carefully about a guaranteed basic income, which would ensure everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of work status.
Now please don’t conclude that I’m inferring that this story is about guaranteed basic income. I’m not. I do believe, however, that one way of understanding the householder’s actions in paying his workers was based on an idea of just compensation, where fairness is balanced by need. He understood that every one who assembled each morning with hope to be employed was in need of work to pay for the necessities of living. There were mouths to feed, shelter to be had.
Perhaps the crucial purpose in this and many of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom was to teach consistently and repeatedly about the person and nature of God; to help the listener see and know that God is a God of grace; that God’s unconditional love, and unfailing mercy, are gifts that we can never earn. There is nothing to earn—we don’t have to do more or be better in order to ensure that God loves us, because God loves us completely already. And for this we can say, thanks be to God!
The Reverend Paul Kett