Tomorrow—the first Monday of September—is Labor Day. The holiday’s stated purpose is to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers, but—like most other holidays—the stated purpose is mostly a pretense. For those workers who’re so fortunate to celebrate Labor Day, the holiday is typically treated like an extra, church-less Sunday tacked onto the beginning of their week.We celebrate Labor Day as the symbolic end of summer with picnics, festivals, and sporting events, but there’s not much talk or consideration of labor. Today I’m hoping to put the Labor back into Labor Day. Let’s praise God for work and its meaning, and let’s raise our laments for all of the ways in which we do not experience work as work is intended.
If you’ve ever tried to draw any conclusions about the meaning of work or the purpose of economy from your television, you may have found yourself a little bit baffled. We hear a lot about jobs from our press corps and politicians. We hear even more about job creation, which is of course the task of Job Creators. I’ve never understood the term. Near as I can tell, a Job Creator is someone who buys the work that someone else is selling in the labor market. Sometimes I go to the farmer’s market to buy the broccoli that someone else grew. I never knew I could claim the title of Broccoli Creator.
And then there’s the fact that we talk about something called The Economy. No one could be blamed for drawing the conclusion that The Economy is a transcendent, God-like entity with a will of its own. One of my favorite cartoonists suggested that business TV shows are much more fun if you imagine that “The Economy” is the name of an angry giant who rules the world. One anchor says to the other, “Well, if The Economy tumbles, a lot of real estate will be at risk.” The other anchor replies, “Yes, the economy looms large over the president right now. Sources say it’s been consuming his cabinet all week.” That’s ridiculous. It’s also not so far off of the mark. One of my favorite theologians, Harvey Cox, made essentially the same point in an article he penned for The Atlantic magazine. Harvey Cox says that The Market has taken over the functions previously reserved for deities. Cox writes:
In days of old, seers entered a trance state and then informed anxious seekers what kind of mood the gods were in, and whether this was an auspicious time to begin a journey, get married, or start a war. The prophets of Israel repaired to the desert and then returned to announce whether Yahweh was feeling benevolent or wrathful. Today The Market’s fickle will is clarified by daily reports from Wall Street and other sensory organs of finance. Thus we can learn on a day-to-day basis that The Market is “apprehensive,” “relieved,” “nervous,” or even at times “jubilant.”
You can see the point, I think. We talk as if people exist and work for the health of some entity called The Economy. The security and livelihood of individuals is a secondary concern, because so many of our technocrats and leaders have put their faith in the doctrine of the rising tide. That is, “The rising tide will lift all boats.” If Gross Domestic Product grows, or if the Nasdaq index increases, then we’ll all be better off. Well, the rising tide has lifted the yachts, battleships, and speedboats. It’s even lifted the pontoon boats and some of the humble rowboats. But somewhere along the way we started ignoring all of the people treading water.
So I can’t help but reach the conclusion that our popular thinking on jobs and the economy has failed us miserably.
I was hoping that some of the Christian tradition’s thinking could lend us some more ethical clarity. That, as Rev. Skipworth might say, depends on the source.
It’s encouraging to read sound ethical teaching on economics from The Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ-ers, and many other groups. All of these groups affirm what ought to be pretty basic insights—that the economy exists for the health and thriving of people, and that everyone has a right to a fair wage and dignified work. All very good. But you might want to pull some or all of your hair out when you hear what some folks have managed to do with today’s scripture reading.
Jesus is telling another parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. These are little stories that are supposed to make us think about what life is like when the spirit of God is fully present. Usually Jesus’s parables draw on something familiar—something to get you thinking as you normally would. Then, the images or story lines are disrupted in an unusual way. Parables should be off-putting. A while ago I got to preach on the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” And his 1st century audience is thinking “Alright, cool, yeah, mustard seeds. I’ve seen mustard plants all around. They’re those invasive shrubs that grow everywhere.” But then Jesus says the mustard seed grows into a mighty tree and the audience is left to figure out, “wait, what’s that mean?” This time, Jesus is talking about wages and workers.
A landowner goes out early in the morning looking for some workers to tend his vineyard. He finds some laborers and offers them a denarius for the day’s work. They say yeah sure because a denarius is pretty standard pay for a day laborer or soldier—that’s considered fair. A couple of hours later, the landowner decides he needs more workers, so he goes out and finds some other folks who look like they could use some work. He says, “I’ll pay you whatever’s fair.” So the new workers start doing whatever it is one does when working in a vineyard. They’re stomping around in a giant vat of grapes, or something. Then near the end of the day the landowner sees some other guys just sitting around. They get hired to, and they work an hour or so, and then the work day is over.
So it’s time for the landowner to pay up. The folks who worked all day get their denarius, as promised. Everyone else gets a denarius too, including the workers who weren’t hired until late in the day. To the people who worked for the entire day, that doesn’t seem fair, so they give their employer an ear full. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ To which the landowner replies, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Jesus adds: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” Thus ends the parable.
Well, what’s that mean?
This is where you get to pull some or all of your hair out if you so wish. David Barton—that revisionist historian who thinks America ought to be a theocracy—thinks the teachings of this parable are very clear. Obviously God is forbidding both minimum wage laws and labor unions. Employers ought to pay their employees whatever they deem to be fair without any pesky intervention from government or collective bargaining processes. Well, it’s right there in the story, isn’t it?
But if you were a different sort of dishonest ideologue, maybe you’d see the story differently. Everyone gets paid the same regardless of the sort of work they do. Jesus is clearly giving communism a big thumbs-up. It’s right there in the story.
So this passage isn’t terribly helpful if your intention is to score political points. Setting economic policy according to the parable of the workers would be like gardening according to the parable of the mustard seed. So we’re going to have to dig a bit deeper. Any conclusions we make about work or labor from the parable of the workers need to grow out of a much more basic insight. Remember that the purpose of a parable is to use everyday stuff to point us towards something else. If we’re talking about literal workers and bosses, then we’re missing the point.
In most reasonable readings of this passage, the vineyard owner is taken to be a symbolic representative of God. Vineyards and wine are common symbols in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The prophet Isaiah describes God’s care for the people of Israel as being like a landowner who devoted his entire energy to a vineyard only to have it yield wild grapes unsuitable for wine. The book of Revelation describes divine judgment in terms of grapes being crushed. If you’re not familiar with Revelation, then you’ve most definitely heard it in the opening lines of the Battle Hymn of the Republic—“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Jesus might be playing on Isaiah’s image as a way of symbolically describing the work of God in calling people into life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven parables describe God’s New Social Order. They speak of a state of affairs in the world to come—a state of affairs we’re meant to seek here and now. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In God’s New Social Order, everything that’s broken is taken up and mended. Part of what that means is that all of the suffering and dissatisfaction that comes from our strained relationship with work is set right.
It means that in the world to come we will no longer blame massive unemployment on those who would love nothing more than to find work. Our esteemed leaders will stop speaking of an unemployment rate as if it is an election season talking point completely removed from the immense suffering it represents. And we’ll all finally know enough of empathy to realize that financial prosperity doesn’t always have very much to do with morality.
It means Bernardino, along with the millions of other workers who’ve been victimized by wage theft, will finally be compensated. Last year, I got to know Bernardino—a 64 year old dishwasher who was owed $10,600 dollars in back wages. His family was choosing between meals and medical treatment as his employer Vito made appearances as a celebrity chef. Some of the people I spoke to about Bernardino’s situation found it hard to believe that what he was claiming was true. The injustice seemed just too egregious. Surely he was exaggerating or there was more to the story. I wish that were true, but the reason I knew Bernardino was telling the truth is that he had in his possession a signed letter from Vito plainly acknowledging that he owed Bernardino $10,600 in back wages. You might’ve seen a more high-profile case of wage theft in the news fairly recently. Celebrity chef Mario Batali was ordered to repay over $5 million dollars that he had skimmed off of his server’s tips. So far as I know, Bernardino has still not been paid. He, along with millions of other workers, does not have the means for on-going legal action nor the benefit of a national media spotlight. When Bernardino, his wife, and a delegation of community members visited Vito’s house, he again acknowledged his debt and handed over two $20 bills. God’s New Social Order means that justice rolls down like mighty waters. No one is at the mercy of someone else’s miserly trickling brook.
It means, maybe most of all, an end to the meaninglessness of work. I’ll always remember a story my dad told me about one of the first days of his career. A longtime employee was putting in his last day, celebrating his impending retirement. He had printed off a giant banner that said something to the effect of, “400 hundred monthly cost reports, and I hated every one of them.” What a welcome to the world of work that must’ve been! But isn’t that pretty typical? We oftentimes treat work as something to be endured so that we can do other stuff. It’s a necessary hardship, maybe even a necessary evil.
The love of God and neighbor that brings us into God’s New Social Order changes all of that. Our theological ancestor John Calvin turned his world’s understanding of labor on its head. Instead of viewing work as a necessary evil required to provide food, clothing, and shelter, Calvin thought of work as “a calling from God, by which people could help build a better community free of sin and injustice.” Work is a divine activity; it is a means to glorify God in worship. And because work is divine all work ought to be “shrouded in justice, safe working conditions, a living wage, and fair relations between employer and employee.” Humanity at its most fully alive reflects the image of our God—the Worker who forms the earth and breathes life into every living creature. Our work is part of God’s economy of Grace, wherein the standards of value and the rules of exchange are given new meaning.
That denarius—the one the vineyard owner pays the workers in Jesus’s parable—it’s not like your bi-weekly paycheck, but it is currency. It’s God’s currency of Grace, the love and dignity and respect that flows through every participant in God’s New Social Order. We can spend it as widely and freely as we like while still possessing it. In fact, the more Grace you share, the more you’ll come to own. The same denarius is given to the all-day laborers and the late-comers, and its value is determined by the generosity of the giver, not the worthiness of the recipients.
Our loving and gracious God, the Architect and Master Builder of the beloved community, sends out a call for workers. The work is demanding, for “the harvest is great but the laborers are few.” But our work is meaningful and in God our peace is complete.
“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Amen.