Ever since I can remember hearing this parable of the day laborers, it has rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it does that for you too, as you sit here having just had it proclaimed to you. Yes, the landowner describes himself as “generous,” but it seems like he is only really generous to those who came in to work at 5:00, only to work an hour or so, and get paid the same as those who toiled all day long. It all just seems so unfair. Why work through the heat of the day and put forth our best efforts, if we’re going to get paid the same as those who have done nothing but stand around all day? Those of us raised with the American work ethic just bristle at such crazy talk, don’t we?
But when a Scripture passage rubs us the wrong way and makes us bristle, that’s really a good thing, because it’s usually an indicator that the Words have something important to say to us.
What’s interesting is that this parable in some ways is pretty timeless. It’s not like the concept of day laborers has come and gone; we still have them all over our world today. In cities all throughout our country, men and women continue to stand around waiting for work. They are, perhaps, undocumented immigrants, those who cannot find sustained work because they cannot provide a social security number. This election year finds that issue an important one. How do we protect our borders and uphold our laws and still provide safety for those who are in need?
But whatever we may think about that particular issue, what we need to see is that the day laborer fills a particular need for handyman help and odd jobs, and helps those people to provide for their families. But it is a precarious system. The youngest and fittest among them will certainly find work early in the day – if there is work that day, but the more elderly among them might not get an offer that day at all. And as much as we might feel justified in cajoling them for standing around doing nothing, we have to realize that they are really standing around worrying about whether they’ll be able to feed their families that day. Would you rather work all day, or worry like that all day?
And you don’t have to be a day laborer to have those kinds of worries in today’s economy. Those at the bottom of the pay scale know with acute anxiety the need to be able to work every day. Missing just one day can mean the difference between being able to feed their families, or not; or to be able to fill a needed prescription, or not; to be able to make rent, or not. So before we judge day laborers and low paid workers, we have to ask ourselves if we’d be willing to accept their worries for even just one day.
So think of all that anxiety and multiply it many times over, and you’ll understand the plight of the day laborer in Jesus’ day. Poverty was severe, and about 95% of the people were desperately poor enough to be on the verge of starvation. So those laborers standing around all day were quite literally worrying about whether they would feed their families that day. For those still waiting for work at 5pm, the fact that no one had hired them could quite literally have been a death sentence. What an incredibly extravagant gesture it was, then, for this landowner to have paid them for the whole day. In that kind of poverty, a fraction of a day’s pay might have been too little to have met their needs. But with the action of the landowner, they were given an incredible, wonderful gift.
But lest we still bristle for those who worked all day long, let us be careful to note that not one of the workers was treated unfairly. They were all given the usual daily wage. That those who worked a partial day also received the full day’s wage was an act of generosity, but not an act of unfairness to the others.
And maybe those full-day-working laborers should not have complained. How strict an accounting were they really hoping to have from the landowner? Had they worked their hardest all day long? Maybe, maybe not. Did they take an extra break, or slack off toward the end of the day? Was the work that they accomplished of the highest possible quality? We don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but the laborers and the landowner certainly would have. And if their efforts were anything less than exemplary, maybe even their day’s wage was an act of generosity too.
Many years ago now, I heard about the deathbed conversion of actor John Wayne. I thought at the time, “Gee, that’s convenient.” Here he may well have led a life of excess and who knows what all debauchery and only on his deathbed was he willing to form a relationship with God. Here those of us disciples have been working hard at it all this time, and yet some can get it just at the last minute? That makes me bristle with thoughts of unfairness. But, as the prophet Isaiah tells us today, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and our ways are not God’s ways.
The fact is, I don’t know what kind of life John Wayne led. I haven’t walked a day in his boots. I don’t know how long that deathbed conversion had been percolating in his mind or how much he had longed for it all through his life. We disciples can be pretty inappropriately judgmental about those who don’t live the kind of life we think they should be, and that is just as off-base as the judgment of the earliest-hired day laborers in today’s parable. The daily wage we are looking for is nothing less than salvation, and whether one receives that at baptism or on one’s deathbed, all the Church should rejoice that salvation was found at last. Because that’s how God sees it.
And maybe we don’t want to ask for too strict an accounting either. Because we come here today with our sins heavy on our souls, knowing that our labor hasn’t always been of the highest quality and our efforts haven’t been continuously stellar. We ought all of us to accept the gift of salvation when it is given, in this spirit that it comes to us, and not be concerned about when it finally comes to others. As the Psalmist tells us today, “The Lord is near to all who call upon him” – whenever that call is made. Today we are being called to accept and love and celebrate the generosity of our God. And all of us more-or-less hard-working disciples are blessed to be able to celebrate that in the most generous way of all, by receiving the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our God to nourish us and sustain us on the journey. Thanks be to God for his great generosity to us in every moment!