NOW, JUST WAIT A MINUTE!
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
September 20, 2020
Texts: Jonah 3:10–4:11; Matt. 20:1–16
Every morning at about 6:30, summer or winter, rain or shine, a group of men stand at the corner of Front and New Streets in Plainfield. They hope that some contractor hoping to cut a few corners will come by and hail them in for a day’s work. Usually Hispanic, they come from countries as diverse as Mexico and Ecuador, Peru and Guatemala; most are uneducated and semi-literate, the products of generations of social systems where the rich hold all the power and the poor starve.
At the end of the day, they get their meager wages in cash, when they get paid at all, go to a restaurant and get supper for a few bucks and squirrel away the rest until they can send half a week’s wages back home to support their families. They are the day laborers, undocumented, hunted by ICE since they are clearly a threat to our national security. They work in the vineyards so necessary to our standard of living in America.
The landowner in Jesus’ parable is a bit like the contractors who need the workers and who go out early in the morning to hire the men standing on the corner. One New Testament scholar has written that if we want an idea of what life in Palestine was like during the time of Jesus we need only to look at life in third-world countries. Most people even in this agrarian society did not own the land they worked; their existence was meager to say the least. Roman government imposed heavy taxes and tax collectors were often corrupt. If you look at photos of third-world farmers, you will see very, very few fat people. The fat ones are the owners who rent out the land or who directly manage it.
What’s interesting about the story is that it doesn’t say that the landowner needed the workers; it only says that he saw them “standing idle in the marketplace.” He hires them and returns several more times to finally get more who are still idle at four or five o’clock, about two hours before sunset. Everyone gets the same wage whether they have worked eight hours or two. Our sense of “fairness” is affronted. Certainly those who work longer, harder, should get more money. After all, that’s the foundation of our so-called capitalist system. Work hard. Get rich.
The past several months have seen the fruits of that so-called system come home to roost in an unprecedented way. The marginalized workers who have been cutting our lawns, cleaning our houses, and rebuilding areas devastated by hurricanes and fires are cut out of all the pandemic relief that the rest of working America received. We are connected to the rest of the world through our markets as well as through the people we exploit.
For months, some Senators have been calling for assistance for the people who are losing their homes because of the loss of income, costs of healthcare, and everything that accompanies the economic devastation we have suffered over the past six months. They even passed a 3 trillion-dollar relief package but who did it relieve? Not the people at the bottom, even those who are citizens, but the wealthy.
What Jesus calls for here is a fair and living wage for everyone. People are not to starve because they cannot find enough work. The radical equality that Jesus proposed as God’s grace extends to all, not just those who are laborers in the vineyard. So, you may ask, what’s the point of working if you don’t get more goodies than your neighbor? Isn’t the point of it all to work hard so we can buy more toys? What do we do with our anger and resentment when it seems like those who don’t work hard get the same goodies as those of us who work and work and work?
Perhaps what we need to consider is the extravagant nature of God’s grace that opens the world to all of us whether we are hard workers or not. And perhaps what we need to do is to rethink what it is that we actually do when we work in the vineyard. Our work is actually an instrument of God’s grace. Look at the story of Jonah, a wonderful parable of learning how to share God’s grace with others. First, Jonah doesn’t even want to go to Nineveh and then he’s really aggravated when the city heeds God’s call to repentance, so aggravated that he just wants to sit down and die. The story reminds me a bit of what that old Baptist preacher Will Campbell once said about Nixon: We were so angry that the one thing we could not have stomached was the idea of Nixon repenting because then we would have had to forgive him. It’s the reason people are still executed in spite of their repentance for their crimes. Our term for it is justice.
God’s justice is different, of course, than our human conception of justice, which is sometimes a little more than an excuse for vengeance. God’s justice is laced with grace and mercy. And so should ours be. And our work for God is the same. Just as human justice should reflect a higher vision of justice and be an instrument of that justice, so should human work reflect our willingness to be instruments of God’s grace. That’s what Jesus was saying in this parable; that’s what the parable of Jonah is all about.
When we see those day laborers on the streets of our towns and cities like Red Bank, Freehold and Plainfield, what should our response be? Quite frankly, any so-called proposed guest worker program does little but enrich business owners and immigration lawyers who specialize in labor visas but will do little to alleviate the situation, primarily because it is aimed to help large agriprocessors and factory farmers. The small business owner, even the small contractor, you know, the guy who paves your driveway and upgrades your kitchen, cannot benefit from such a program because it works on the premise of securing the worker from abroad. What small contractor is going to Ambato to get a bunch of Ecuadorian cabinetmakers? Honestly, now.
God's grace and God’s promise of redemption is not just some salvific plan for souls floating off to heaven. Jesus preached a kingdom of God’s justice here and now. We are called to live that kingdom as if it actually exists here and now. Thus we must be instruments of God’s grace to the world as it actually exists. We should open ourselves to the possibility of surprise; the important thing is that we don’t respond as did Jonah but rejoice when others respond through God’s grace.
Let us pray: Eternal and Holy God, help us to be instruments of your grace in this world as was Jesus. In his name we pray, Amen.