a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
September 27, 2020
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Who doesn’t remember Fred Flintstone at “quittin’ time?” Yaba daba doo! Who doesn’t remember Andy, the wrongly accused murderer in “Shawshank Redemption” talking the “toughest screw in New England,” into buying beers for the prison work crew when they finished a hot roofing job? Ah! Quittin’ time!
Quittin’ time is one thing. Payday is another. So there you are, you’ve worked a whole day, out in the field for the farm manager. Your back is killing you. Your blisters have blisters. You are a daily wage worker and as you walk up to the boss man you get your pay in cash. It is barely enough to live on and you already owe the tax collector, you need to buy wheat so your wife and kids can eat a pitiful meal of bread, a few olives, maybe a fish if your oldest boy was able to catch something down at the lake. You watch as those guys who got there at noon get paid. They get paid the same as you! What? And then the guys who got there at the end of the day, barely worked an hour, hardly broke a sweat, and they get paid the same thing as you! You grumble, but not too loudly, because you need this job tomorrow.
More and more people these days are trying to pay their bills on minimum wage. That’s harder to do today than it was thirty years ago because the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. The stereotype of the high school kid flipping burgers is inaccurate. Minimum wage workers are not primarily teenagers. 76% are adults 20 or over. In other words, they are not working for prom tickets, book money or even their own tuition. The vast majority of people working for the minimum wage are grownups, many supporting children.
Waiters and waitresses’ wages have been frozen at $2.13 per hour for more than 20 years. Despite their tips, these workers – 71 percent female – are three times more likely to be paid below the poverty line than the general workforce and twice as likely to need food stamps. As the age statistics indicate, they are also more likely to be supporting families than earning spending money for themselves. While the minimum wage hasn’t kept up, in those same last 40 years, CEO pay has increased more than 725 percent. In capitalism isn’t that fair? Well, some say so.
Oh, Pastor you are getting into nonreligious things now. Well, Jesus told the story I am just making modern equivalencies. But the point of the story isn’t the minimum wage. I think it is pointed to the hearers on both ends of the spectrum, and everyone in between, asking the question, “do we think that we live in a world of scarcity, or a world of abundance?” Or to put it another way, does the Master of the Universe have plenty for everyone or only for those who deserve it [in our eyes]? Did the Owner – the Creator of the Universe – create a universe of scarcity where one must grab and hoard and cling and resent anyone else having anything?
All our lives we have been told the narrative that implies there is a limited amount of anything for everyone, and only the strongest, fastest, smartest and therefore best people will survive or flourish. It is called social Darwinism, a twisting of the scientific theory. The result is we all are scared of, or resent, or hate because if you get something there isn’t enough for me. If I get something there isn’t enough for you. And if you didn’t get it, the corollary is you are lazy, worthless, not good enough. I hear, by the way, that they are restarting that show, “The Weakest Link,” which sort of makes a game of making losers look foolish. The punchline, instead of “You’re fired,” used in that other “reality” show, is: “you are the weakest link. Goodbye.” I don’t know if they put a trap door under the loser to have them fall into the pit of eternal stench but I wouldn’t be surprised. All this suggests a theology that God is a harsh and demanding taskmaster who punishes anyone who can’t keep up, anyone who isn’t a stronger link, anyone who can’t beat everyone else, or at least enough people to take their stuff so you have enough. Its dog eat dog out there you know.
How we act in the world reveals the God we believe in. As much as what church or synagogue we attend, as much as what denomination we are members of, our daily actions in the world are the demonstration of our true god. If we believe that only those who earn life should get it we believe in a universe of scarcity. We have to get ours before others get theirs or we won’t have enough, because the Creator only made so much.
Alternatively, to share, to treat others as equals regardless of any reason, is to proclaim a God whose gracious love is so abundant that there is plenty for all. There is enough earth, sky and water. There is enough food, drink, love and forgiveness for everyone – in fact, more than enough. Now we can say we believe in this God, but if our actions – including our economic actions, our laws, our values of people’s worth is based on anything less than equality then our lips are saying one thing but our lives are saying another.
When you were growing up, can you remember as a child seeing a sister or a brother or someone older getting something you thought you wanted too? You would say, “That’s not fair!” As the last of four children I can remember my brothers or sister saying something like, “Life’s not fair,” or the never-ending [ it seemed ] chorus repeating: “That’s life! What’s life? A cereal. How much does it cost? A dollar two thirty five. I don’t have it. That’s life. What’s life? A Magazine. How much does it cost? Two and a half seventy nine. I don’t have it. That’s life…” Maddening.
The parable seems to address the problem of who gets God’s grace. The Pharisees seemed to think that they qualified but others didn’t. Jesus seems to suggest that God has a different measure. A lot of Christianity has been built around a central idea of exclusion. If you don’t do this or believe that or something like that, you don’t qualify for God’s grace. This passage seems to contradict this. To me, Jesus says of God, “if God is generous, why should we resent it?” If God will “pay” someone we consider less worthy, what does that say about our values?
Today we are deciding the value of others in ways that seem to devalue each other’s worth, or only decide based on what we believe is right, and we all seem to believe God is “on our side.” I think more than decide if that is right or wrong, it is important to always challenge our thinking, our believing, our attitudes and actions to see if we have become resentful, angry and hateful. I find myself constantly dealing with anger at the injustices of our society right now.
So I got to “quittin’ time” on this sermon and I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t have a “payoff.” I have really struggled with how to try to finish this sermon. I think the point of the Scripture – like most of Jesus’ parables – has “points” that work at many levels. In this case, perhaps the best I can say is they all lead me to say God’s grace is not defined by my values. Maybe I should thank God for that. So I look for ways to remind myself where my thinking may need changing. I ask myself what ways can I challenge my thinking and values.
I came across a song lyric, a poem that I think helped me. Maybe it will help you. It is a song by Victor Wooten, a jazz musician, and it is entitled “I Saw God Today.” It goes like this:
Now I’m going to tell you a story and this one you can repeat
I saw God the other day / just walking down the street
He said, / I have something I want to tell you
Something I’ve been dying to say / You’ve been waiting for my return
The truth - I never went away / I said hold on just a minute
How do I know it’s really you / She gave me a simple answer
She said, you don’t unless you do / wait a minute,
I don’t quite understand all this tell me what do you want with me?
you see I’m not a religious type of person
he said you don’t have to be / I don’t know if I’m the right person to talk to,
you know a few of my puzzle pieces are missin’
She said, I speak to everyone but not everyone chooses to listen
Then tell me how to treat my enemies / I mean the people I despise
He said the answer will be clear to you when you see me in their eyes.
I don’t care if you believe me or not / I know who I saw and it was God
I saw God the other day
she looked like me, he looked like you…
Now that you’ve told me all this, can you tell me what am I supposed to do?
She said, You may think its is up to me but it is really up to you
Now my eyes are open / and I can clearly see
I realized that all the things I paid for / in life I could have gotten for free
Now I’m going to share
her parting words to me with you and you might want to think this through,
she said If I only had one son, / then tell me, who are you?
If you are a child of God, and I am a child of God, and “they” are children of God how shall I treat her? How shall I treat him?
He said the answer will be clear to you when you see me in their eyes.
Well, “Yaba daba doo!” AMEN.