Jesus liked to tell stories, and the story we’ve heard this morning speaks of a vineyard owner who goes down to the corner, where the day-laborers gather, to hire some help for the day.
Back in California, in places where construction is taking place or in agricultural areas, a scene like this is quite common. A truck drives up, a person gets out, asks the group if anyone there needs a job. The prospective employer will describe the job, tell the prospective workers how much the job will pay, and if there are any takers, the laborers jump in the truck and off they go. That’s not all that different from what happens in Jesus’ story – except for the pickup truck – for obvious reasons.
In Jesus’ parable, the vineyard owner goes down to the corner early in the morning, hires the hands he needs and puts them to work. He’ll continue doing this throughout the day. I don’t know if the job ended up being bigger than he thought, or he’s just overly generous. Near the end of the work day, around five in the afternoon, he stops by the corner one more time, and seeing a group of workers standing there, he asks – “need a job?” When they say yes, he tells them to come along, promising to pay them what he thinks is right. And so these unemployed workers go with him because at least one hour’s worth of pay is better than none.
These words – “need a job” – which form the title of this sermon can be taken as both a statement and as a question. It’s no secret that we’re living at a time when getting a job, especially a well-paying and meaningful job, is difficult. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high even as the economy slowly recovers. Of course this all has political implications in an election season, so we have politicians of every stripe telling us that they have the solution, and hoping we’ll believe them!
I hope you think that the text and theme are appropriate for this weekend. After all, we’re deviating from the lectionary to take up a Labor Day focus. I realize that for many people this weekend is the signal that summer is coming to an end and the children get to head back to school. The time for fun and games is over, and we all have to get back to work. Of course, we can wait until Tuesday, and enjoy all the big events from sales at the mall to the Detroit Jazz Festival. You might take in a sail on the lake or pay a visit to Royal Oak’s Arts, Beats, and Eats.
Of course Labor Day is about more than fun and games. The holiday itself was established in the late 19th century, during a time of great labor strife, as a way of recognizing the need to give workers the right to good pay, decent hours, and safe working conditions. Maybe we don’t pay much attention to the purpose of this holiday because we often take these rights for granted. But, at a time when the CEOs of the nation’s 350 largest companies make on average 231 times what the average worker makes, even as union membership decreases, maybe it’s time we take another look at the world of labor.
Now, Labor Day isn’t a religious holiday, but it does speak of matters of justice, and God cares about justice. So, maybe we should ask what Jesus thinks of the current state of labor in our country.
He tells parables about working and the Biblical story pictures God as one who labors. Consider the creation story in Genesis 2, where God plants a garden and then takes some clay to form the man who will help him tend to the garden. Later God makes a partner for the man, fashioning woman from the man. Doesn’t this suggest that God values work?
Of course, this story also reminds us that God rested from his labors on the seventh day. And if God rests, then shouldn’t we rest from our labors as well?
Work is good, but not all forms of work are the same. For example, there are jobs that demean a person’s humanity. Think about sweat shops, which we’ve largely banned from our shores, but which still benefit us when we purchase many of products made overseas. Just the other day, while I was in Costco, a man said to me – look at all the cheap clothes we can buy that are made in places like Bangladesh by people who make $35 a month. No, not all jobs are the same.
As for me, I’ve been working since I was a kid. By that I mean, I mowed lawns, pulled weeds, and shoveled snow. I also had a paper route and later got a job as a box boy at a small grocery store. I’ve set up mobile homes, done janitorial work, tended irrigation ditches, was part of the staff at a summer child care center, pulled brush, served as a youth minister, worked in a book store, ran a library, taught college, and now I’m employed as a pastor. I even spent one day unloading cases of frozen Brussel sprouts from a freight car. You can understand my disdain for that vegetable! Even if our work histories are different, I think most of us can tell a similar kind of story.
I understand the value of work, but I also understand that sometimes work is difficult to find. When I graduated from college in 1980, the nation was in the midst of a recession. It wasn’t as deep or as long lasting as the one that hit in 2008, but I do have a feel for what people are experiencing today, especially young adults and returning veterans.
There’s another issue that is affecting our ability to find jobs that are rewarding and also pay a living wage. For the past few decades we’ve been moving out of a manufacturing-based economy to a service and finance-based economy. What this has meant is that many of the good paying jobs that ushered people into the middle class are no longer there. Work is good, but the story is complicated.
But there’s another question and its part of the reason why I thought it wise to observe Labor Day. I was reading a book recently about “how the church fails Businesspeople.” The author suggested that the church doesn’t do a very good job encouraging and honoring the work that people do in their everyday lives. We honor church staff and volunteers for their labor in the church, but we don’t honor and bless the work that people do when they’re not at church. We teach the bible but we don’t address the kinds of issues people face at work. So, I thought – why not address this issue on Labor Day I the sermon and in the prayers.
Now, getting back to the parable, when the workers gather at the end of the day to receive their pay check, the owner starts with the ones he hired last. To their surprise they receive a full day’s wage, as did everyone else, including the workers he hired first. As you might expect, these workers weren’t very happy about this. This didn’t seem at all fair. How come they got the same wage as those who worked just one hour? After all, they worked all day in the hot sun.
For his part, the owner replies: Well, didn’t I pay you what I promised? Are you mad because of my generosity? I don’t think they cared so much what the others got paid, they just thought they deserved more.
I’m not so sure that we should draw any business conclusions from this story, but Jesus’ message that the last shall be first and the first last, suggests that God not only treats us equally, no matter what we can contribute, but that God is also concerned that we have jobs that provide a truly living wage.
May we honor Labor Day by blessing those who work, asking that their employment will provide them with a livable wage, a sense of fulfillment in their work, and the opportunity to be a blessing through their work. That is, may we recognize the presence of God in the world of labor, so that we might live and work in ways that express the justice and love of God.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 2, 2012