Life can easily seem unfair. Consider two letters written by children to God:
Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up. Joyce
Dear Mr. God, I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart. I had to have 3 stitches and a shot. Janet
Our complaints about life’s unfairness are quite likely different than those. We may point to the death of a spouse, mistreatment at work, illness, or something else. However, almost everybody at least occasionally feels that life is unfair.
Today’s gospel reading appears to endorse unfairness. In a scene evocative of hiring of day laborers in many US mainland cities, the owner of a vineyard goes to the local street corner or marketplace where the unemployed workers gather and chooses from among them those he wishes to hire for the day.
Then the story takes the first of two unexpected twists – unexpected to persons unfamiliar with the parable. The owner returns to hire more laborers not once but three times, at nine, three, and five. Certainly, a farmer would know how much help he or she needs for the day. Day laborers who have congregated in hope of a job usually disperse once potential employers have come and gone.
The second unexpected twist occurs when the time comes for the laborers to be paid. The owner pays them all equally, a deed that feels grossly unfair. Those first hired have performed back breaking work in the hot sun all day, without cold water, sunscreen, or bug repellant. Yet they receive the same amount of pay as the last hired, who have worked only an hour.
Interpreters of the parable have generally gone in one of two directions, both of which have merit.
Some interpreters view the parable as a lesson in distributive justice. Day laborers in Palestine literally depended upon their daily earnings to purchase food and other necessities for themselves and their families. Workers did not have the benefit of minimum wage laws, unions, or other legal protections. No social safety net existed. The plight of first century Palestinian day laborers is strikingly similar to that of undocumented immigrant laborers in the twenty-first century United States.
In this morning’s parable, Jesus teaches that every person has the right to a living wage. Baptismal affirmations of the dignity and worth of every human ring hollow when our actions reflect an indifference to the hunger, thirst, lack of safe shelter, and lack of access to adequate healthcare of our neighbors in Honolulu, the US, and globally. We Christians may disagree in good faith about how to best meet those needs, but the imperative to provide life’s necessities – food, water, shelter, and healthcare – for all is foundational for Christian ethics.
The second direction interpreters of the parable often take involves spiritualizing the text, interpreting “day’s wage” as connoting God’s grace, given equally to all, regardless of whether one arrives early or late to the banquet.
On the one hand, I want to be clear that this is an inadequate reading of the text. Christians tend to ignore both the fact that approximately three-quarters of Jesus’ parables deal with economics and the Bible’s consistent emphasis on economic justice. Christianity must speak to human needs because God cares about our physical existence. Furthermore, spiritualizing the text conveniently ignores the enigmatic statement with which the parable ends: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That ending points to what Christian theologians call God’s preferential option for the poor.
On the other hand, spiritualizing the parable has just enough truth to be credible. God’s grace is given to all equally, whether they come to the table late or early, and regardless of their social standing, wealth, gender, race, etc.
In the mid-1960s, Woodrow Seal, a U.S. Federal District court judge, founded "The Society of St. Stephen" in a Houston Methodist Church. The Society of St. Stephen is now a national program with the sole purpose of helping the needy.
A congregation invited Mr. Seal to explain how they could begin a Society of St. Stephen chapter. They planned for the Judge to speak on the Society’s various ministries and then to have time for discussion.
The pastor introduced Judge Seal and the Society’s work. Meanwhile, the Judge took some cookies and poured himself some coffee. When the introduction was completed, Judge Seal walked over to the piano, put his coffee cup on top of it, and began to fumble in his coat pockets. Finally, he pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper from which he read the name of a mother and her four children, including their ages and clothing sizes. He noted several other needs this particular family had, said the address was on the paper, and then laid it on top of the piano.
After that, the Judge said, "If you want to start a Society of St. Stephen, you should contact this woman by 11:30 tomorrow morning. If you are not able to help her, don't worry, I'll be in touch with her tomorrow, and get her help by mid-afternoon." With that, Judge Seal remarked, "Now, forgive me, but I really must be going. Thank you for inviting me and for the coffee and the cookies." Then he walked out the door. It all took less than 5 minutes.
The needs of our neighbors may easily feel overwhelming. Honolulu has perhaps five thousand homeless people; tens of thousands of people who live here subsist below the poverty level, many choosing between buying food, shelter, or medicine. In the last two weeks, hurricanes and earthquakes have left hundreds of thousands in the US and elsewhere homeless and without life’s basic necessities. And, of course, there are the continuing needs of millions of people in Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and lots of other places.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, we do well to emulate Judge Woodrow Seal in his incarnation of Christian discipleship. God gave him the grace to respond to the neighbors he saw in need. In founding the Society of St. Stephen, Woodrow Seal incarnated the two superficially divergent interpretations of today’s parable. Filled with God’s grace in Christ, he worked to make the world a little more just. Grace never comes to us only for our own sake but also that we might be God’s hand, feet, and voice in meeting the needs of our neighbors.