Sermon, April 3, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
The parable of the landowner is often interpreted as a metaphor for God’s unending generosity and grace. I would bet some of you have heard preaching on this verse with God as the magnanimous landowner willing to squander his money paying a days wage to someone who hasn’t worked a full day, with the tacit message that everyone will receive an equal portion of the Kingdom of Heaven, whether they were there first or just showed up a few hours ago. This passage is from the book of Matthew, and Matthew’s community was very mixed. Some of his followers had known Jesus personally, some were Jews, some were slaves and became newly-converted Gentiles, it is likely there were feelings of resentment, envy and “I was here first.” Sometimes it is what we need to hear too - when it feels like we haven’t done much to earn the love of God lately, it can be hard to accept, and so this parable speaks to us.
But. It can be difficult to disentangle our capitalist selves from our spiritual selves. Today’s bible verse immediately captures our imagination and offends our sense of fairness. I don’t know about you, but I immediately saw myself in the unsettling place of the worker hired first, called up to get paid last, and I, too, was offended. Capitalism teaches us that we should be fairly rewarded for what we earned - and it certainly seems clear here who earned the higher pay. But the landowner only promises the denarii to the first workers hired for the day; to all the rest, he promises to pay them ‘whatever is right’. Which shifts the debate from fairness to morality.
What is right? What is fair? And why is it our tendency to equate God with wealth and power? What if God was one of the laborers - after all, Jesus was almost certainly speaking from experience as a laborer.
Years ago, my seminary hosted Dr. Reza Aslan in a panel discussion, a religious scholar who’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, was atop of the NY Times Best Seller list. He had received some unintentional fame when, while appearing on a Fox News talk show, was challenged on his right to author a book on Jesus, since he is Muslim. Aslan responded that he was a historian and religious scholar, and the book is first and foremost an expose on Jesus, the actual man who quite specifically lived in an ancient world called Palestine. (And he thanked Fox News for the bump in book sales.)
During that talk, Dr. Aslan said that historically speaking - that is, not using the New Testament as a historical source. Aslan wrote this book from a historical perspective – verifying what could be verified about Jesus without using scripture, and then filling in the historical context like the background on a painting. The only historical facts we can verify about Jesus of Nazareth are when he lived, and that he was crucified alongside two bandits by the Roman Empire. (Bandits – not thieves – is a better translation, according to Aslan. Bandits was the word used to denote revolutionaries and insurrectionists. Crucifixion was used in Roman times to send a message of intimidation – a warning – such as ‘don’t you dare try this.’)
Aslan argued that while we can’t historically verify the happenings detailed in scripture, we can learn very much about Jesus of Nazareth through the context in which he lived, and in that context, what he had to say about it. One of the facts we do know is the enormous wealth inequality that existed in his time. Rome was a massive and hugely successful empire with everything from Roman Senators to a subsistent peasant class to both war and debt slaves.
Because of this massive wealth inequality in his time, apocalyptic ideology was common, which often led to violent insurrections. And these insurrections were even more violently squashed by Rome. According to Aslan, historical records show that the city Sephoris, not far from Nazareth where Jesus lived, was a site of a rebellion that was put down, quite brutally, by the Romans when Jesus was about 5 years old. The city was burnt to the ground, and Jesus likely watched it happen from the high elevation of Nazareth only a few miles away. Ten years later, when Jesus was probably around 15, Herod Antipas, the appointed ruler over the Galilee region who eventually beheaded John the Baptist, set about building a gleaming city upon the ruins of Sephoris.
Now, Jesus is often referred to as a ‘carpenter’ – and in our modern world, we envision a competent, middle class tradesman who does woodworking and building. But the Greek word in the bible was ‘Tecton’, which was actually simply one step up from a slave. A Tecton was someone who traveled village to village looking for day labor. A tecton more closely resembles the men you see hanging on the street corner near Home Depot, waiting for a truck to pull up and hire them for the day. A Tecton, Aslan said, was a status so low in Roman society that the word was actually used as a curse word.
A curse word. Think of the words in use today to denote someone of undesirable status. That was the man we call the Christ.
Since the building project at Sephoris was the greatest building project in the history of the region, there is no doubt that Jesus was one of the mass of day laborers that flocked to that city looking for work. Nazareth was a village made up of mud huts and no roads…and every day we can assume that Jesus walked the hour journey to Sephoris, a gleaming city of mansion after mansion, to get a days’ wage.
A days’ wage – the denarius – was barely enough to feed a family for that day. It was a subsistence wage. It was the kind of cycle that ensured you only ate each day if you worked each day. That’s why we can see, in our Matthew scripture today, why these day laborers were still waiting around at 3 pm and 5 pm – still hoping to make a days’ wage to feed their family.
What Aslan has uncovered in his historical research is that Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and his consistent focus on the poor, came from intimate knowledge of the poorest and the wealthiest of his time.
Day-laborers constituted a limitless and disposable fuel—bodies to be burned up—that made the ancient economy run. Our world is again full of such bodies, who make our clothes, produce our food, and assemble our electronic gizmos, yet never gain enough traction to be able to join the world of consumers. The parable thus pulls back the curtain on the ways our own world works, as it would have for Jesus’ audience.
With this Lent focused on refugees and immigrants, I have been learning so much. Today’s activity after service is a panel discussion on the Netflix docu-series, Immigration Nation. There are six episodes in the series; the first two focus on people arrested by ICE - immigration, customs and enforcement. The third features people using the political system to push back on the immigration policies. And the fourth one focuses on immigrant laborers and wage theft.
I don’t know when it was exactly that someone clued me in that the people who cluster around big box hardware stores like Home Depot in cities are day laborers looking for work. They park themselves in the place where contractors or landowners might show up early to get supplies for the day’s job - and they may need a few workers as well. So immigrants congregate there, modern day Tectons, hoping to get hired on for a day’s wage. And what the fourth episode of Immigration Nation shows us is that, too often, today’s day laborers get cheated out of their wages.
Wage theft happens in all industries, but is more likely in job situations where the worker is susceptible to being threatened with deportation if they stand up for their rights. A landmark 2009 study called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” found that 37 percent of undocumented immigrant workers surveyed were victims of minimum wage violations in the prior week, compared with 24 percent for immigrants with work authorization and 16 percent for U.S.-born workers.”
In our Matthew text today, we have these workers standing around in the daytime, and the odd occurrence of the landowner coming round and offering them work, repeatedly. The morning workers are promised ‘a days’ wage’, but the workers hired mid-day are promised ‘whatever is right’. By the end of the parable, we see that every worker hired was paid equally, whether they worked 1 hour, 6 hours or 12 hours. Which, of course, sets up the basic point of the parable – what IS right?
While the unbidden generosity of the landowner becomes clear as he returns again and again to fold workers into his fields, and then pays each equal – what also becomes clear is the wide gulf between the landowner and the workers. Truly, he is so wealthy that he has the freedom to do what he will with what is his – buy huge yachts or fly to the moon. With today’s gulf between those who own the capital and those whose labor builds that capital - growing ever wider and deeper, we could all be served by asking, ‘what IS right?’
Is it right to pay people what the market says they are worth, when it is hardly enough to live?
Is it right that we still have some of the economic conditions of 1st century Palestine?
Is it right to keep wages so low that they won’t support a person or family?
Is it right to force people to cross a life-threatening river or risk detention in order to fill jobs that don’t have anyone to do them anyways?
It is right to require those people to live in fear of the ICE officer around the corner just to do the work that feeds their families?
Is it right to have the uber rich and the barely making it?
The capitalist system tells us that we should value people according to their ability – and those in minimum wage jobs have the lowest value. Capitalism tells us that those with skills will get ahead by virtue of their ingenuity, but that the economy functions best with a flush labor force, people desperate for work, even for a subsistence wage. But God’s value system turns this upside down.
Rather, we are not appreciated by market value in God’s eyes. We are each uniquely created and loved by God, not for what we do but for who we are. There is no way to earn a place in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ parables offend all who assume that the future, if it is to be good, must be earned and deserved. And yet still, this parable unsettles us.
I think the most telling question for our reaction -at least for my reaction - is -
“Are you resentful because I'm generous?’
Are we resentful when people are unexpectedly generous? Are we resentful of foreign workers here when the jobs are plentiful? Faced with God’s boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others, we reveal whether we view our own labor as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfillment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.
With this story we are reminded that God’s love, grace and forgiveness go above and beyond our own human tendencies. We long for a sense of order, and fairness that we can rely on and plan around. But we are again confronted with the truth that God doesn’t operate by our rules. God does not sign on to our human ideas and systems of fairness. God’s grace doesn’t exist in a zero-sum / earned and unearned / market system of scarcity, or in Capitalism – as much as we would like to believe it so. God is trying to tell us something about how to create the kingdom of Heaven. That we are to discard our notions of fairness in favor of grace. That we are to discard our notions of deserved and undeserved, and just proclaim welcome and affection. That we are to embody the reckless generosity of the landowner who will do what he wants with his abundance - who will shower it to all whom he meets, everywhere he goes. And that we will show compassion to all, regardless of where they come from or what they have.
May it be so. Amen.