Peace is Providing What’s Needed
A sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16
given at Mount Vernon, OH on September 21, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Most of you probably know I was a lawyer, but what you probably don’t know is that before and during law school I worked in and managed – believe it or not– pizza restaurants. Seriously, I could pull beer like nobody’s business; change a keg in less than a minute, make fifty pounds of dough, twenty gallons of sauce, make and toss pizzas, and cook ‘em and dozens of other pies without burning any of them.
Over the years that I worked in restaurants I came to respect all the work that needs to be done and the workers. See I started out as a dishwasher. I also bussed, I prepped food. I even delivered pizza. And this is kinda a fun side note, one year Nancy and I even served food at the Emmy Awards in Hollywood! . . . I know how hard it is to do restaurant work. It may not pay well, and it generally doesn’t, but it is hard work, deserving respect so I tend to tip well and leave notes that say “Great service” and “Thank you” on my restaurant bills.
And you know most people working in your average restaurant, if they are lucky, make just enough to cover the cost of living. For most they pray that their day’s wage will be enough to survive. I fought hard as a manager for employee raises and I made sure that people living off their job were scheduled as often could be. I knew that they needed the day’s pay to live day-to-day.
Jesus’ parable from the Lectionary reading has a landowner paying all the workers (regardless of hours worked) a denaruis, which is correctly translated in the reading as a day’s wage. This is important– the landowner makes sure to provide the cost of living; to give the workers that day their daily bread. Any less and the worker would not have had enough to survive on. 1 To those workers in the story that pay would have been a necessity. It quelled hunger. It meant survival for another day. We can hear the story as calling listeners to imagine a world where every worker is given their daily bread. It doesn’t matter how much work was done, luck plays no role, enough for survival is just provided–that’s justice in the story.
And did you catch how in the story those last hired workers are not slackers, they want to work a full day for a full wage. Jesus himself tells us that the only reason they did not work was “because no one has hired [them].” We don’t know why these willing-to-work-last-hired-workers had not previously been hired. As day laborers in ancient Palestine we can be sure they were pretty much expendable to the upper classes and the government. They were the peasant poor that the elite could and did just toss aside. They were folks just barely hanging on; no land; no steady work; no one willing to hire them– Not much hope. Without work there is no pay. Without pay there is no food for the day.
Today is International Day of Peace. The word “peace” – shalom– in the Bible means more than the ceasing of physical violence, peace means well being . . . Shalom. 2
God is what we live and move and have our being in, so it makes sense that God wants well being for all in God’s being-ness. It also makes sense the Bible claims God is love, and that love in the Bible means desire for well being. God is love, the desire for well being.
The word justice in the Bible means providing that which is due. 3 We . . . all of us. . .everywhere, are, according to the Bible, due a desire for well being from each other (love). We are to love – you see– so that we can obtain peace on earth good will to all.
So God’s ultimate aim is peace, well being for all. All means everyone whether we like them or not, whether we think it is fair or not, or whether this or that political pundit or party wants it or not.
Justice is how well being comes about, it’s the desire for love in action. It’s the prerequisite to peace.
Today’s Lectionary text is very much about peace, about well being. We can understand these folks in Jesus’ story as on the threshold of being lost, truly down and out. Their well being is very much at risk. In the ordinary way of the world it is highly unlikely most of them would be given their daily bread. In the story though the risk is overcome by the extraordinary actions of someone with resources and the ability to make a difference in a heavenly way– even if just for one day, even if just for a few workers on the edge.
The first out-of-work workers are offered a full day’s wage those approached later in the day are offered work for unknown wages, what Jesus calls “whatever is right.” The laborers have no choice, so they work what hours they can trusting they will get some crumb of pay. So the landowner offers the full day laborers a full day’s pay and to the later in the day workers the landowner offers paying what is right.
In the system back then– not unlike today– workers worked to get paid. That was what was considered fair. The more work, the more pay. The less work, the less pay. 4 That’s what WE expect would be the right pay. “That’s the way the world works, if it is fair. But is it fair?” 5 We all sort of agree that what’s fair for a day’s wage is a day’s work. But we all know that life is not really fair. I mean some people don’t do much work at all and make loads of money. Others work hard and don’t make nearly the value of their work to the culture.
Indeed many hardworking laborers are lucky if they make the modern equivalent of a denarius. Often retail and restaurant and laborers– who work hard– barely, if at all, making a living wage. And there are, of course, those who want to work but are either unemployed or day laborers –just hoping to find a few hours of work. A day’s wage for a day’s work is sometimes only a dream. People do fall short all over the world – and even in this nation– of what is needed to live.
And if we think this shortfall doesn’t happen in Ohio we need to think again. Here’s the saddest statistic I can think of (and I just saw it on Monday): pockets of poverty lead to increases in infant death. This happens in Ohio, so much so that African-American “babies in Ohio are more likely to die before their first birthdays than anywhere else in the nation.” 6 Ohio, not the deep south, leads the nation in African-American infant mortality. And we are among the bottom 7th in total infant mortality. 7
And nationwide the numbers are also disturbing, our own government rates Serbia, Croatia, and Cuba among the 55 countries ahead of our Nation in making sure to adequately care for all OUR babies so they live. 8
The United States is a good and wonderful country and I love it dearly, but we do not take care of our newborns nearly as well as we should given our vast resources and blessings. Babies, babies are dying when they should not be, because we don’t provide the bottom line necessities to human beings. That may seem dramatic, and it does because it is.
Sadly as a culture we tend to see the lack of necessities as the baby’s family’s problem not ours. And so infants die. Jesus’ parable today asks us to imagine a world that considers every single human being’s income problem as our problem. He asserts the Kingdom of Heaven– the Empire of God– is like that, not like it is. And it should not just trouble us that our babies are not surviving as they should, it should matter that people are not getting what is due, enough to have well being. That’s Jesus point. And this is a matter of peace, a matter of well being, a matter of shalom.
It may seem fair to us that our citizens are to sink or swim on their own fortune or misfortune since that is the set of the rules we purportedly live and work and get paid by. But Jesus’ parable is not about earthly ideas of rules of fairness, he’s asking listeners (us!) to consider what the world might look like when the Kingdom of Heaven’s rule are applied on earth. Are people getting their due, their daily living portions of resources? Is everybody being allocated what is needed to live? Have we created an economic reality – liberal, moderate, conservative or libertarian– where all are they getting enough? Or to put it in the very real unacceptable negative of my example, are babies dying because under our present system of living the well being of all is not paramount . . . so that peace is not our objective?
Our culture’s way of doing things doesn’t insure to provide adequate income, education, health care and nutrition for all. And the consequences are real. The richest nation in the world is on the 56th rung for infant mortality rates. The state we live in has the 7th highest infant mortality rate in the nation. The color of a baby’s skin leads her to face a higher risk of dying in this state than any other. I am not an economist. I am not a politician. I am a Christian clergyman and theologically speaking, letting families go without enough is sinful, it leads to shameful, heartbreaking realities. It leads to injustices. It leads away from peace.
Like I said justice is about getting what is due. And while the human economic rules that we live and breathe by may say that what is due is what you or your money have worked for, Jesus and God’s idea of what is due is something altogether different. It’s about peace, well being FOR EVERYONE.
Jesus told the story we heard today because his listeners were often nobodies, poor worthless-to-the-culture beings; expendables who did not have well being, their being was not well. Jesus’ story offers hope to those who can barely, if at all, find work, and it offers instruction to everyone else: God’s way is not about human rules of fairness in the workplace, but about justice – everyone getting what is due– in our day-to-day living. Ultimately it is about all getting what they need to survive, babies and children, and teens and adults.
Stephen Patterson, in his book remarkable book The God of Jesus has these questions and observations about the Parable of the Vineyard Workers:
What does a human being have a right to expect from life? Fairness? Hardly. What is fair depends on the rules by which we agree to play, whether in fact the rules are followed. A days wage for a day’s work. You’re paid what you’re worth. If you don’ work, you don’t eat. It all seems fair enough. But it really never works. The rules are not consistently applied. Does everyone really work a day for a day’s wage? And what are you worth? And how do you eat if there is not work? This parable is about work, worth and eating. If one still labors under the illusion that the workaday world is a fair and just way of making sure that all have the basic means to life then this story will be deeply disturbing. It is unfair. But more than that, if taken seriously, it deeply undermines the quid pro quo system of human relationships that govern our economy. Who among the workers will show up the next morning at the first hour? Everyone gets the same, regardless of how much they work. Will anyone show up at all?
But what if we define the question differently: In the Empire of God, what does a human being have the right to expect? A denarius a day. That is, enough to eat on for one day. You get what you need– what everyone needs– no more no less. In the Empire of God, it’s not what a person earns , but what a person needs that is due. Is that, could that be the basis for an economy? Yes, but only if one is willing to reimagine radically the basis for human relationships. Jesus imagined an Empire of God in which the basis for human relationship would be the mutual assurance that all would have what they needed, not what they could earn. Human worth is a given. It does not depend on one’s ability to offer something of value to someone else, to secure one’s own existence in a rough-and-tumble world of brokerage and competition. In the Empire of God, the means to life are offered to all freely, as a gift, regardless of what has been earned. 9
This is radical stuff. Usually today’s Bible text is used to preach about how God’s grace is doled out equally in heaven to those who come to Christ, whether they come along in the morning of life or come along just before night falls. There may be truth in that understanding, but it misses Jesus’ point in the parable, that the Kingdom of Heaven’s way of doing things on earth – God’s justice– is that all get what they need to make it through each day, whether they have earned it by human standards of fairness or not.
Jesus’ point is that we are all to have enough, no matter what. That may not be our standard and we may choose to dislike it, hate it, reject it and/or fight against it, but justice – fairness– by Jesus’ heavenly standards is that no one is supposed to worry about having enough work, having enough pay, having enough worth, having enough health care, having enough to eat.
God’s justice means basic necessities are provided to all humans. For most in the world throughout history and today, for many even here in Ohio that is about as good a news as could ever be hoped for. But imagining God’s justice, heaven on earth is not easy. Hearing Jesus call is not easy. Figuring out how to do it is difficult. Following it is hard stuff.
Our task –regardless of whether we accept it or like it– is to find a way to do as Jesus’ landowner does, give us all this day, and every day, our daily bread, enough to survive. May we one day accept that task, figure out how to pull it off together, and bring about peace– shalom– well being on earth to all.
1. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg, Trinity Press International (1998), 144. This book greatly influenced this entire sermon.
2. .McKim Donald, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (1996)
4. Patterson, p 144-145.
5. Ibid at 144.
7. I added the whole section on infant mortality late in the process and in preparing this final draft I realized I did not make note of the source. I tried to trace my steps but could not locate it. I found sites showing Ohio as 4th in 2010 at these two links: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/states/INFANT_MORTALITY_RATES_STATE_2010.pdf ; http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/ki-infant-mortality.pdf). I found other sites with other numbers (as high as 14th), but, as of finalizing this draft I could not find the one claiming 7th. I remember 43rd (7th from the bottom) as the rating in the source I found on line. I regret the oversight in not noting its location. This is how I preached the sermon and left it at seventh from the bottom.
9. Patterson at 144-145.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014