A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017
September 24, 2017 • 16th Sunday After Pentecost-A
September always reminds me of the time three years ago when our family first arrived in Albany and I became your pastor. We were, all of us, out of breath. Like a sprinter completing a race, we came here from a rushed, hard-working summer of moving. We lived in a larger house in Michigan with lots of storage. So we accumulated things. Now we knew that meant getting rid of things. So day by day, we cleaned and packed up. As the time shortened, we became more and more frantic. We hired a man to help us and he filled his pickup truck over and over with stuff for the dump. We took so many loads to the Salvation Army that they asked us to stop coming, stop donating. Always looming was that day in August when the movers would arrive to load everything and bring it here.
I thought about that experience this week as I read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Harvest is a frantic time. Grape picking is handwork and there’s far too much for this vineyard owner and his family. So the next morning, early, he gets up, hurries out of the house to where the day laborers gather. Every city then, every city now, has such a place. He looks around, he hires enough to get the job done, offering to pay them the daily rate, one denarius. I imagine some of the men smiling: a denarius is a living wage. No one gets rich on it but it’s enough to get you through to tomorrow and maybe the day after and who knows what will happen then? These men live day to day. So they hurry off to the field and begin picking grapes. But the owner can see it’s not going fast enough so he goes back, and hires more, telling them he will pay them what is right. In other words, he’ll be fair.
Even as the day begins to cool, as the workday begins to close, he is still hiring more workers, desperately trying to get the harvest in. By now, he recognizes some of those he passed over earlier. “Why are you waiting,” he asks, and of course they reply with the obvious: they haven’t been hired. Imagine the desperation of those men. All day long, they’ve watched as others left to work on farms; all day long they’ve been hungry; with no job, they have nothing to buy lunch. All day long, each time someone came to hire, they hoped to be chosen but they haven’t been. They face going home to tell their families there won’t be a wage today, perhaps there won’t be supper, or bread tomorrow. So to those left at the end of the day, his hiring must have been especially happy. They know they won’t make much; after all, the sun is already setting! Still, something is better than nothing and I think they must have been glad to go, glad to make even a few pennies, to make something for the day.
Finally, the sun is down; the workday ends. The hired men drift in to the area around the sheds, ready to be paid, already tasting the dinner they’ll buy. They’re hot and tired; so is the owner. So far, this whole story is so commonplace it’s boring. It happens hundreds of times. The people hearing Jesus know it, they live it, they must have wondered, “What’s the point?” Perhaps some of them are day laborers; all of them know how hard harvest is, how frantic, how everyone works and works to get it done. So perhaps they are beginning to drift off, their attention wandering. He’s telling them what they know and then suddenly he isn’t.
The owner breaks the workers into groups, starting with those hired last. Everyone knows they will receive less than a day’s wage; after all, they only worked a couple of hours. Fair is fair. So imagine how stunned they are when they are given a full day’s wage. Imagine the surprised looks, too tired to even celebrate. Group after group are paid, all the same: a full day’s wage, regardless of how long they worked. At first, the early hires, seeing what’s going on must have thought: oh, great, we’ll get a bonus but they don’t—they get the same as everyone else: a day’s wage. So, of course, they begin to grumble. It isn’t fair, is it?
Wouldn’t you grumble? And then Jesus drops the conclusion on them. The owner says that it’s none of their business if he decides to pay everyone the same; they agreed to work for a day’s wage, they got their wage, the contract is fulfilled, the debt paid. I imagine these workers leaving, also, but with a different attitude, still grumbling, still saying, “Not fair”. Wouldn’t you?
Jesus is asking us to imagine acting out something he apparently said many times: the last will be first, the first last; the Kingdom’s arrival means a reversal. Well, we’re all in favor of that but we seldom ask what it really means. Now he’s imagining it: what if the last really are first; what if you—all of you, all of us—who are first get paid last and no more than everyone else? Ouch!
A key issue of this story is the notion of a living wage. The standard daily wage for a worker in Jesus’ time is a denarius. it’s enough to buy food for the day or two; in that sense, it’s a living wage. So if you fall below that, if you don’t make the days’ wage, you don’t have enough to eat, enough to get through the next day. Today, a swelling movement including the United Church of Christ is building support for raising the minimum wage so that it will be a true living wage. I imagine in many pulpits today, that’s what’s being preached and it’s a good and worthy cause.
But I don’t think it’s the point of this parable. Every parable invites us to experience something and this one invites us to experience the workers. It asks us to imagine their hope of being hired, their hope of being paid and their sense of fairness, of justice. “I’ll pay you what is right,” the owner says when he hires them and this seems to be an agreed daily wage, a living wage. When the owner pays those hired last the same as the others, the parable compares their grumbling with the owner’s generosity.
Where does that generosity originate? Perhaps it is in the compassion that comes from noticing the condition of the workers themselves. This is, after all, how some great movements have begun. The movement to abolish slavery began in this country in 1789 among the Society of Friends and soon spread to others. One of those was a free African American who had gone to Sunday School at the Second Congregational Church in Norwich, CT. David Ruggles moved to New York City where he helped lead abolitionist efforts. Others were also working to end slavery. Still, the movement grew slowly until the 1850’s when Harriet Beecher Stowe, another Congregationalist, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a sentimental novel but it reached beyond the intellectual arguments of the abolitionists and made people feel the horror of slavery. President Lincoln, himself, is said to have believed the book was a major reason for the passions that ignited into the Civil War, when southern states seceded in order to defend slavery.
Well, abolitionism is a big issue and we are mostly day to day people. Does this have anything to do with us? Erik Reitan in an article responding to an evangelical Christian condemnation of LBGTQ people said, “The first act of Christian love is compassionate, empathetic attention.” What Stowe did was to focus compassionate attention on slavery. What happens if we bring compassionate attention into our own lives and focus on someone we need to forgive? I’m often asked, “Ok, I know I should forgive, but how do I do it?” Last week I talked about taking the first step, which is to embrace our own forgiveness. The second step in forgiveness is compassionate attention to another.
In 1993, Mary Johnson’s son was murdered by another young man, Oshea Israel.
Israel was arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for the crime. I’m sure Johnson didn’t think it was enough; I can only imagine the restless anger she must have felt. She talks about seeing Israel in court and wanting to hurt him. She continued to be obsessed with him and made repeated requests to meet him when he was in prison. Finally, he agreed. It had been 16 years since the murder. Israel, a 16-year-old boy when he committed the crime, had grown into a man in his early 30’s.
“I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you,” Johnson tells Israel. “But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.”
“And he became human to me,” Israel says.
At the end of their meeting at the prison, Johnson was overcome by emotion.
“The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can,” Israel says, “just hug you like I would my own mother.”
Johnson says, “After you left the room, I began to say, ‘I just hugged the man that murdered my son.’
“And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you — I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.”
Johnson set down the burden of anger. She forgave this man who had so terribly injured her. She went on to help other mothers of murdered children as well.
Now what Johnson did isn’t fair, is it? I know some are thinking, “I could never do that”; I know it because it’s what I thought when I first read it. Yet that’s the destination Jesus is leading us toward: a place where, as he says, burdens are light because he takes them up; where forgiveness is the rule.
This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: it’s not fair because we could never survive fair.
No, the Kingdom is where the principle isn’t fair, the principle isn’t what we earn, the principle isn’t what we deserve: it’s what we need. This is how God works: giving what we need, hoping we will accept it, use it, share it. That is indeed a living wage, it is what we need to live in the light of the love of God, it is meant to be shared.