Labor Sunday 2011
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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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
weeks Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment
Situation, July 2011.”
Accessed August 11,2011
on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance,”
April 16, 2010. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1466
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
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.
communication (email) Aug 11, 2011, 10:48am.