"And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Becasue no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
Matthew 20: 6-7
I used to see them standing idle.
Like the laborers from Jesus' parable in Matthew 20: 1-16, they stood on street corners in Los Angeles, waiting for some contractor in his big Chevy pick-up to come and offer them a day's work. I was a middle school teacher, and as I drove to my own work every morning through the streets of LA's Harbor District, I'd see groups of about six or seven Mexican guys just hanging out, waiting. Maybe they'd get lucky and someone would put them to work painting a house or digging a trench. I'm pretty sure they didn't get paid union scale. My hunch is that many of them were illegal, just working for whatever they could to get by. If no one needed them that day, they'd go home with nothing.
I used to feel for those guys. Granted, I've never been out of work for too long a stretch myself, but I remember how it felt when I was a kid and my dad lost his job. I was about ten years old, and I came home from school one day to find my dad already home. He was never home before me. It felt weird. He and my mom were standing in the living room facing each other. People don't stand in living rooms, I thought. They sit on ugly, overstuffed 1960's era furniture and watch TV. Even as a ten-year-old I could tell that something was wrong.
"Daddy doesn't work for Douglas anymore," my mom told me (Douglas being the aeospace giant that employed half of our town). Unfortunately, Daddy didn't work for anyone for the next fourteen months.
Fourteen months. Unemployment benefits ran out. Savings vanished. Debt. Food Stamps. Pride kicked to the curb. "Sorry, kids, we can't afford it."
And you only have to be out a short time to get a long ways behind.
For the next fifteen years, until he took his retirement, my father's work history was spotty: a couple of months here, a couple of years there, punctuated by lay-off notices and some outrageous and always unsuccessful self-employment schemes. It was very hard for a boy to see what that did to his dad. My dad was of the generation that believed that good, honest people worked for a living, and bums didn't. Being out of work made him feel like a bum.
When I read the story of the laborers in Matthew's gospel, I don't get too outraged over the indignant attitude of the one's who've worked an entire day for the same wage as the ones who've worked only an hour. Rather, I feel a tremendous sense of relief for the ones who have been left standing in the marketplace, fearing that they will go home with nothing with which to feed their families. How grateful they must have been to the man who gave them a job!
Jesus' parable teaches us about the Kingdom of God--the ideal of a world in which perfect obedience is given to the Lord of Creation. In this kingdom, mercy and grace are valued over our human ideas of justice and "fairness." The landowner gives each laborer the sum they bargained for--"the usual daily wage." Isn't this what we all bargain for when we ask, "Give us this day our daily bread?"
Indeed, the landowner was abundantly generous in rewarding those who worked for only an hour. To my way of thinking, however, his greatest act of generosity was that he allowed them to work at all. In so doing, he gave them more than their wages. He gave them their dignity.
Today the U.S. unemployment rate is rocketing towards 10%. President Obama has proposed a jobs plan that will cost this nation billions of dollars. The deficet hawks will certainly try to bring this plan crashing to the ground. But this old religious guy wonders if they ever consider what unemployment does to the soul of this country. Have they counted the cost to human dignity? To self-worth? What happens to our spirit when we are left standing idle in the marketplace?
This parable is usually interpreted to mean that God's grace is sufficient for all, and that it is not up to us to decide who is more or less worthy of God's bounty of forgiveness and care. For me however, it will always be a picture of compassion--of hunger, despair, and rescue.
Let me know what this story means to you, will you? And thanks again for stopping by.