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The Landowner and His Workers
The 2011 Labor Sunday reflection
Based on Matthew 20: 1-16, the vineyard owner and his laborers)
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And 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?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard." When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first." When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, "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." But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" So the last will be first, and the first will be last. -- Matthew 20: 1-16
The Landowner and His Workers
Scripture: Matthew 20: 1-16
Jesus told numerous parables illustrating the kingdom of heaven and how it could be lived out in our daily lives. A number of these involve a landowner who most scholars believe represents God and whose behavior or teachings provide insights into how life is lived in God’s reign, right here, right now.
In this parable from Matthew 20, the landowner has work that needs to be done in his vineyard. Early in the morning he hires the workers he needs and promises to pay them the usual day’s wage. When he goes out again at 9 a.m. he sees unemployed laborers standing about, hoping to be offered work. So he also hires them, promising to pay them fairly. The landowner goes out repeatedly over the course of the day. Each time he encounters more unemployed workers and hires them, even as late as 5 p.m.
Problems arise at the end of the day when the workers find out what they are paid. The ones who have worked since early morning receive the fair day’s pay they had been promised. But so do the workers who did not start until later in the day. All the laborers are paid the same amount, no matter how many hours they worked.
The workers did not think this was fair and maybe we don’t either. In the workplace today, most people receive different wages and salaries based on the number of hours they work and factors such as how fast they work, the experience they bring to the job, and their education and skills.
Some biblical experts turn aside from the question of whether the workers’ pay was fair or not and interpret this parable in a spiritual context. In their view, the parable indicates that it does not matter the stage in a person’s life when he or she becomes a follower of Jesus, whether early in life or later, at a young age or as an elder. God treats every believer identically, giving each one the same “reward.”
While this interpretation is certainly valid, maybe the parable also has a message for us about wages and the treatment of workers, a message about economic life as it is lived out in God’s reign.
Is this landowner, an employer, treating his employees fairly when he pays all of them the same amount, whether they worked all day or just a few of hours? Is this a fair practice, illustrative of the reign of God, or not?
The laborers worked for different lengths of time. Some may also have worked more quickly than others or had more prior experience tending vineyards and picking grapes. But the landowner ignored all these differences. Instead, all the workers received the amount of money they needed to live. The “usual daily wage” described by Matthew is a denarius, the amount of money that would support a large peasant family for one day. The wage was just enough to live on. It allowed for no “extras” but it did cover the necessities, what we might call a living wage. The landowner’s practice provided every worker with a living wage, even those who had worked just a few hours. Making sure that each worker and his family had enough money to meet their needs was more important than providing additional income to those who had worked more hours, worked harder, or had more experience.
Jewish teaching also stipulated that workers must be paid every day (Lev. 19:13). If the typical wage covered the expenses of just one day, then workers would need to be paid every day. In ancient times, the law protected workers who were living paycheck to paycheck.
Repeatedly over the course of the day the landowner went into the marketplace and hired anyone who was unemployed. The landowner believed that each person who wants to work deserves a job, an opportunity to support themselves and their family and to contribute to society. Is this fair?
Maybe the best time to examine this parable and its economic message is when the economy is in crisis, when unemployment is high and harming many workers, and millions of people in the United States and billions around the world live in poverty.
In the United States, we do not provide jobs for people who are unemployed. Instead, we wait for the “market” to do it and the unemployed suffer through months or even years of unemployment. In July, 2011, some 14 million people were officially unemployed in the United States. But a broader count of the jobless and underemployed – a count that includes people who work part time but want full-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work – shows about 29 million are jobless or seeking more hours. This is twice the official number and includes more than one in six potential workers.
While the official unemployment rate for the population as a whole was 9.1% in July, it was higher for already disadvantaged groups and lower for non-Hispanic whites: 15.9% for African American workers, 11.3% for Hispanic workers, 7.7% for Asians, and 8.0% for non-Hispanic white workers. In other words, unemployment among African Americans was about twice the rate for whites and the rate for Hispanics was about 50% higher than for whites. Unemployment among teens was 25%. As noted just above, a more comprehensive count of the jobless and underemployed is about double the official one. Putting this all together, fully 32% of African Americans (one in three), over 22% of Hispanics (nearly one in four), and 50% of teens are either jobless or working part time while wanting full-time hours. Unemployment is also higher among people without a college degree and in areas of the country particularly hard hit by the downturn in construction and manufacturing.
If we hear these statistics with our hearts as well as our heads, we understand that millions of people and households are suffering, losing their homes and their cars, and losing their opportunity for the full life God intends for all God’s people. Despair and hopelessness are the daily companions of millions of people.
The landowner’s practice of hiring all the unemployed people he encountered, providing a job for everyone who wanted one, is a compassionate practice and a mark of God’s just reign. It is also smart. Why should society waste the talents and contributions of people who want to work? Ensuring that everyone who wants a job has one is an attribute of “God’s economy.” It is smart and fair social policy. As people of faith, are we not called to bring similar policies into reality today?
In Jesus’ day, unemployment would have meant very hard times for a worker and his or her family. The same is true today. In the United States, most unemployed people have very meager resources to fall back on. Half of the unemployed have been out of work for at least 4 months. During such an extended period without income, one’s savings are quickly exhausted. The average unemployment insurance benefit is $300 per week but less than half of the unemployed receive any unemployment insurance payments. Even among those who qualify, millions have exhausted their coverage and no longer receive any benefit payments. Millions more will lose benefits if Congress fails to renew the benefit extensions that end in December 2011.
Many of the unemployed are eligible for food stamps. This entitlement is available to anyone with low income, for example, below $28,700 for a family of four. Today, one in seven people in the United States receives food stamps. The average monthly benefit is $134 per person, or about $1.50 per meal. Such a low amount forces many people to also rely on the charitable programs provided by church groups and others. But funding for these is being cut severely also.
The current federal budget, passed by Congress in April, imposed significant cuts on social programs. (Additional cuts were approved in the debt ceiling legislation passed in early August and more are on the horizon.) One program cut significantly was the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, reduced by 40%, some $80 million. This program has provided aid to millions of our poor and near-poor neighbors for nearly three decades by funding more than 13,000 non-profit and public food banks, shelters and homeless-prevention organizations. Under the current federal budget, more than 500 counties and cities will lose funding entirely. Among the more than 1,600 counties and cities that will continue to receive money, most will see significant reductions even though needs have skyrocketed. The Providence In-town Churches Association (in Rhode Island) has received funding through this program for decades to support their outreach and services to low-income and homeless residents. Diana Burdett, UCC member and executive director of PICA, reports that their funds are being cut at the same time the number of people seeking assistance has grown from 500 a month (including about 20 children) to 6,100 a month, nearly half of whom are children. The needs in our communities exceeded the capacity of charitable organizations even before the economic crisis began. Adequately funded public programs must be maintained.
In addition to providing the unemployed with jobs, the landowner in Jesus’ parable also gave each worker a living wage, enough to support the worker and his family, regardless of how many or how few hours he had worked. Is this another aspect of “God’s economy” that we might emulate?
In the United States today, fully one-quarter of all jobs pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot support a family of four above the official, entirely inadequate poverty level. But we could follow the lead of the landowner and ensure that all jobs provide workers and their families with a fair share of the world’s resources, God’s resources. Is not this a characteristic of God’s reign, a world in which everyone is paid enough to live life in fullness, although not extravagance? Let us be generous with God’s resources, even as we also recognize that all we have belongs to God (Ps 24:1)
Few of us are employers or have much ability to determine anyone’s pay or to give someone a job. But we do live in a democracy and have a responsibility to participate in society’s decision-making processes. We also live in an extremely wealthy country with enough for all. But too much of our wealth is squandered or hoarded. Instead, let us seek God’s reign. Let us raise our voices and use our influence to call for jobs for everyone who wants one, living wages for all, a safety net for those who need it, and generosity in sharing God’s resources among all God’s people.
 21.2 weeks Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Situation, July 2011.”
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm, Accessed August 11,2011
 National Employment Law Project. Less than half the states (22) provide 99 weeks of benefits. Most provide fewer. http://www.nelp.org/page/-/UI/2011/current.extension.law.impact.pdf?nocdn=1?nocdn=1 Accessed Aug 12, 2011
 Gross income below 130% of poverty. There are additional ways to figure income also. http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm#income
 Steven S. Taylor: The reality of cuts to anti-poverty programs, Monday, August 1, 2011, United Way Worldwide.
 Personal communication (email) Aug 11, 2011, 10:48am.