"Labor Unrest in the Vineyard"

A sermon based on Matthew 20: 1 –16

The story that we heard this morning is usually called: the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. I believe a better title would be something like "the Unusual Hiring Policies of one odd Vineyard Owner" since most of the action revolves around his character... His decisions about whom to hire, when to hire, and how to pay them.

I think this is a good text to consider on Labor Day weekend… realizing, of course, that (in olden days) there were no labor unions; no contracts, binding arbitration, nor employee strikes. Michigan became a “right-to-work” state about the time that Patty & I moved here, and it seems to me that employ“part-time” employment without benefits has become the preferred business model for big corporations. (It probably began during the economic melt-down back in 2008, but it’s become the new norm.)

American workers lost a lot of their income in the bank-fraud and mortgage-bundling shenanigans a decade ago, and wages have been creeping back slowly since then. On the other hand, the Dow Industrial Average economy on Wall Street has rebounded nicely – it’s now over 26,000 points! In other words, “the Dow” has doubled in “market value” since the Recession. That’s good news for the top 10% wealthiest investors, who own 80% of all stocks and bonds. (!) The other 90% of us investors, who own the remaining 20% of Wall Street assets, are at least keeping ahead of inflation (which is 3%). Good luck to you day traders!

But let’s not forget that the “Wall Street” market is not a picture of America’s true economy which is made up of workers and consumers, farmers and retailers, school teachers and government employees… and ordinary day laborers like the vineyard workers in Jesus’ story.

Tom Brindley’s column this week in The Alpena News (Thurs., Aug. 30, 2018 page 7-A) reminded us that “Labor Day [is] a time to honor those who work.” The national holiday began in 1884, when our church here in Alpena was just 22 years old. Labor Day wasn’t so much of a big deal among farmers and logging communities like ours, as it was where there were factories and organized labor unions. The holiday “honors the contributions workers have made to the strength and well-being of our country” (wrote Tom Brindley). But he also pointed out the tension between Wall Street owners (the capital market) and labor (the job market):

“Labor’s position is that their contribution to the value of goods and services should earn them a reasonable wage and job security. To the capitalist [investor], labor is a component in the cost of production that should be minimized.

On Friday in The Alpena News (8-31-2018, 5-B) we read that the current Administration has cancelled the 2% across-the-board raise for civilian federal workers which was planned to begin January 1st. There are two million civilian jobs in the federal government work-force, and the President said the federal budget could not sustain such an increase. A spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees said that this “plan to freeze wages … ignores the fact that they are worse off today financially than they were at the start of the decade.” He said that “federal worker pay and benefits have been cut by more than $200 billion since 2011, and workers are currently earning 5% less than they did eight years ago.” To me, that’s a perfect example of looking at labor as “a component in the cost of production that should be minimized.” Cut their pay!

Over the past decade, many workers have lost company-provided health insurance (partly due to the federal government’s “Obamacare” revising of the health insurance market). As cost-saving measures, many employers have reduced their employees’ pension payments & offer very little job security. Wall Street sees a boost in profit-making when a company downsizes its labor force, or merges with a competitor and then lays off its management staff. The “real” economy (of working families in local communities where jobs are lost) is devastated, but the stock portfolio shows a profit.

That’s what Tom Brindley meant when he wrote about the “schism between capital and labor”. But he also recognized that labor unions reduced the work-week from 70-hours down to 40-hours, with extra pay for working overtime or on a national holiday. Child labor laws set age-limits on who was allowed to work, and other workplace safety measures and fringe benefits were added over the decades.

There seems to be some good news in the labor market – the unemployment rate is down to 4.3% nation-wide -- 5-&-a-half % in Alpena County, 6% in Montmorency… But that statistic plays well in the media. I remember back 30 years ago, when Patty & I helped start the Salvation Army assistance in Dowagiac, our unemployment rate was over 12% in Southwest Michigan. So the much improved labor market report should work well for the average worker, right? We should be seeing higher wages, better working conditions, better jobs… right?

But let’s be clear about what those government statistics measure. First, if you are unemployed and looking for work, you are counted. If you are out-of-work and receiving unemployment benefits, you are counted. But once those mandated benefits run out, you are dropped from the statistics of the “unemployed”... not because you got a job, but because you have been out-of-work longer than the program will pay for!

And, second, if you cease looking for employment, you are also dropped from the statistics – such as those who retire, or who simply give up looking for work. They are no longer counted – these unemployed people no longer factor in calculating the unemployment rate!

A more accurate statistic is to ask: how many people are actually working now, as compared to 10 years ago? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Market Information, Michigan’s total workforce employment right now has 250,000 fewer jobs than in year 2000.

How is it possible that the jobless rate is the lowest it’s been in 20 years… even though there are 250,000 fewer jobs in Michigan? It’s because those people who used to have jobs but are now on disability -- those who are retired, and those who simply cannot find work and have stopped looking -- are not counted in the labor statistics. So the unemployment rate looks good, but the jobs are gone!

Furthermore, many people today are working two part-time jobs just to make ends meet! That’s twice as many jobs being filled, but by a smaller number of actual people. As a result of all that that’s been in the news, on this Labor Day Sunday, I am tempted to focus on the plight of the vineyard workers, but the Parable (as Jesus tells it) has us look instead at the Owner.

It is the owner (the householder, the capitalist) who is seen going into town early one morning to hire a team to pick his grapes.

It’s a fact of life that poor people don’t provide many jobs… employers do. In fact, that was a “big deal” in the last Presidential election (if you recall)! One candidate was perceived as a big, bold, wealthy, business person who knew how to make a profitable deal for the stockholders; the other was seen as a rich politician who wanted to ensure that people got what they needed without them necessarily having to work for it: welfare entitlements, free college education, free health care, and so forth. More than once I heard it said: poor people don’t provide jobs… employers do. Owners do! So, let’s give a tax break to big business!

And this Vineyard Owner (in Jesus’ parable), who hires his best field-workers early in the day, goes back and forth all through the day hiring more workers… in the 3rd hour, in the 6th hour, in the 9th hour… He keeps hiring more and more unemployed people, and putting them to work in his vineyard, even up to the last hour of the day!

The “unemployment rate” in his farm village went down very quickly, not because the elders dropped names off the list... They quit being “unemployed” because they got a job! (!)

It is this same odd Owner who commands the steward to pay the workers in a certain order -- a reverse order (that is, the last ones hired were paid first and the first ones were paid last). And it is the Owner who is given the last word in the story, justifying his behavior when questioned.

Obviously, the Vineyard Owner holds the central role in the plot, in Jesus’ parable. But the tension, the conflict (which is how "the plot thickens") involves the workers and the rewards they receive for having labored for this Master.

Now, if this were a Bible Study, instead of a sermon, we'd take the time to establish "the context" of this story. Namely, what went on just before it (which causes Jesus to tell it) and what went on just afterwards. Matthew’s context gives us a clue as to what Jesus wanted to address when he told this very controversial story.

What precipitated the parable was a rich young man, who had so much stuff (so much wealth, so many possessions, investments, & obligations) that he could not get out from under, such that he was unable to follow Jesus, even though he wanted to. The rich young ruler could not get rid of it all. It was just too much stuff to give away.

As the young man walked away crestfallen, Peter said to Jesus:

"We have left everything we have to follow you.

What then shall WE have?" (as a reward).

It was this question from Peter that provoked Jesus to tell that parable about the Vineyard Owner and the disgruntled day workers.

What went on just after Jesus told this story was Mama Zebedee coming up to Jesus along with her two boys (James & John) saying: "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom!" from which (we are told) a dispute arose among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest!

Clearly the context reveals that the disciples are wondering "what’s in it for me?" "What do WE GET out of all this work we are doing for YOU, Master?" (!) They want Jesus to start ranking them, and rewarding them, like would happen in normal economic life.

These early followers imagined that God's Realm -- that is, the blessings God bestows in this world (as well as the rewards of eternal life, I suppose) -- would be parceled out using the same standards to which they were accustomed in everyday society.

I suspect some of us -- present-day disciples -- are apt to think the same way as they... That blessings are rewards, earned over time, which will be parceled out in greater & lesser amounts contingent upon how well you & I have worked for the Master. (Right?)

It's natural to assume such when we are so accustomed to a "free-market" economy, where we are told we must "strive to succeed." It’s the early bird who gets the worm! You can’t be a slacker if you want to get ahead. It’s the Protestant Work Ethic, after all. Hard work never hurt anybody, so, get up, get going, and get on with it. (Right? --!)

Those early disciples assumed that God's gifts & blessings would be UNEVENLY bestowed, according to a strict system of DESERVING (or earning... merit). Since that was the social norm in their economic system, they assumed it was God's order & design all along. Things happen “on earth, as it is in heaven”, right?

In that regard, not much has changed. Many of us still believe there is nothing unfair about an economic system that awards profits and luxuries to some, alongside subsistence wages and bare necessities to others… dividing our wealth of resources UN-EVENLY according to our notions of "deserving." If folks ain't got it, it's ’cuz they didn't earn it. (!) We endorse, without thinking, the un-even distribution of assets. Billie Holliday used to sing: "Them that's got, get more. Them that's not, shall lose... so the Bible says, but it still makes news."

Much of what was recently called "welfare reform" was fueled by the idea that poor people are "undeserving" of the financial assistance that our government bestows on them. Some even think that welfare programs hurt the poor more than they help. I’ve been reading about new rules in Michigan that mandate people who are on “Medicare” must either work, or go to school, or do community service if they hope to continue to receive health coverage at state expense.

I believe the uncomfortable feelings that many of us middle-class American taxpayers (employers, retirees, & wage-earners alike) come away with when we hear this parable is because we imagine ourselves as among the vineyard workers…

… Specifically, we imagine ourselves among the first-chosen, hardest-working, all-day-long pluggin' away crew. In so doing, we fall prey to the same grumbling words we heard from them in Jesus’ parable: "After all I've done for you, you owe me! I've done all this for you, for so long & so well... then you make THEM equal to ME!?"

In the Army, compensation was based on one’s time in service and time in grade. People got paid more if they had been in longer, or if they out-ranked the other. Rank has its privileges, you know. In some settings, it’s called “seniority.” First come, first served -- everybody knows that. Last hired, first fired. Get used to it. It’s how things are meant to be… world without end! (Amen? Amen!)

Since so many of us see ourselves mirrored in the discomfort of these first-hired hard-workers, let's consider the case... to see if their resentment is justified.

There was no economic surplus, nor safety-net, for most workers in Palestine -- especially not for an unemployed worker. (!) There was no Friendship Room, like our volunteers will serve tomorrow night at St. Bernard’s. There was no Salvation Army “Call us for help”, nor St. Vincent de Paul; no Social Security disability insurance, no unemployment benefits, no Medicaid, nor SNAP food stamp nutrition supplement program.

Not to be hired meant not to receive that day's denarius. No denarius meant no supper that night. One denarius was what it cost to buy that day's evening meal. Those are the economics involved in Our Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread." It cost one denarius to buy a family’s supper. I guess you could say it was a “living wage” …but only at a subsistence-level. Less than that meant someone was going to go hungry.

There were no unions or federal employment guidelines in Jesus' day, and landowners -- employers -- were not generous…

… except, apparently, for this one Vineyard Owner in Jesus’ parable... who strikes us as ODD because of it. (!)

This capitalist -- this landlord, this Vineyard Owner -- brought more and more workers out into the vineyard to assist the other workers throughout the day -- and together they accomplished much - - and yet the workers complain!? (!) While the town rejoices that for once there has been full employment -- for once, if only for today, no family has to go to bed hungry -- they stand out in the field pouting & refusing to join in the celebration! (Doesn't this remind you of another hard-working older brother, who refused to accept the invitation to join his father in welcoming his prodigal brother home?)

Jesus has described a situation in which "fairness" -- pure justice -- would result in deprivation for the latter workers. This is a subversive story, in the end, because it exposes the traditional economic social order as de-humanizing. (!) When everyone receives the same amount, it is taken as an insult! (!) We say “that’s not fair!” … Equality is not fair?

People who enjoy privilege within the implicit hierarchies of our "fair" system, may resist those who advocate for the poor, who speak for the voiceless, who stand with the alien-stranger in our midst, who seek to address the needs of the invalid, the elderly, the children, the sick. It's not by accident that such efforts are "non-profit" in our day!

We still see the all-inclusive embrace of the Vineyard Owner in the story as odd behavior, and bad business. But (according to Jesus) that's the kind of God we serve. That's who we are to emulate... That's what we celebrate! God’s economics are odd economics!

Now -- on this Labor Day weekend -- go and do likewise!

Reach out to someone who doesn’t expect it from you.

Tip that server a little extra, and see how good it feels.

Give to a non-profit, and feel the joy of making a difference for people who really need it.

Volunteer that extra hour and see how it makes people smile.

It’s no wonder we feel so good when we can be generous: because that’s when we are most like God… most like that resourceful and generous Vineyard Owner, who made sure everyone got "enough" for once in their lives.

Hallelujah, and Amen.

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