Three summers ago, after three delays (one our fault, two their fault), our house got a new hat. We had known for a couple of years that our roof needed to be replaced. We bought the house 27 years ago; the roof had been replaced the year before we purchased the house, so this was a first-time experience for us. Upon hearing about the event, a friend posted on Facebook that getting a new roof is like getting new tires on your car. Very necessary, very expensive, and no one knows that you did it except you. And now all of you as well.
Around 7:00 on Wednesday morning, a van pulled up in our driveway. While they waited for the dumpster to arrive, the five guys got out and started unloading. Jeanne, as is her custom, immediately started asking them if they needed anything. Coffee? Water? Breakfast? After providing coffee for four of the guys and orange juice for the one non-coffee drinker, things got started. We have a small house, so it was a one-day (roughly twelve hour) event. Jeanne provided bottles of water for everyone mid-morning, then jumped in the car to run to the bank. Upon returning, she put an equal amount of cash (a significant amount of it) in five different envelopes, sealed them, and wrote “Gracias” on each—an additional “thank you” for each man’s hard work to be distributed at the end of the day.
“Wait a minute,” you say. Why is your wife giving the roof guys envelopes of cash in addition to whatever hourly wage they are making? Getting a tip for doing your job might be expected in the food service industry, but for roofers? My explanation: Jeanne is the most generous person I have ever met. Period. Furthermore, she would simply say “I’m Italian! I take care of people!” It’s her language of love.
Toward the end of the day, Jeanne noticed that at some point an extra roof guy had showed up—neither of us noticed when. “Do you have a ten-dollar bill?” she asked me. “I have to make envelope for this other guy, and I’m $10 short.” After she gave everyone their envelope, she laughed that “This is like the crazy vineyard owner in the parable who pays everyone the same thing at the end of the day, no matter how many hours they worked!”
Indeed, it was. I have the opportunity to use this parable, one of my favorite New Testament texts, in seminar every fall with largely parochial school educated freshmen who are under the false impression that they pretty much know everything that they need to know about the Bible. In Matthew 20, Jesus says that “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” a crazy vineyard owner who pays everyone the same daily wage no matter how long they have worked, from a full day’s labor to just an hour or so. The workers aren’t unionized, it is clearly a “supply and demand” and “hire and fire at will” situation, so what is going on? What is this vineyard owner up to?
My students bristle at his apparently cavalier attitude toward the rule that people should be paid in proportion to the amount of work that they do, a rule so ingrained in our Western, Protestant-work-ethic assumptions that any apparent violation is not only a mistake, it’s an economic crime. “This guy sounds like a socialist!” several of my students complained, as if that in itself was a devastating argument against how the vineyard owner is choosing to distribute wages. And on the surface, at least, these students had a point.
The situation described has a very contemporary feel to it. People out of work gather at an agreed location, hoping that they will be one of the few picked when bosses with work available arrive at the crack of dawn. Those looking for work might not have proper documentation, might be illegal immigrants—whatever their situation, they are not blessed with the security of regular employment. The vineyard owner or his representatives arrive at dawn, agree with the handful selected to work for an agreed upon wage for their day of labor, and those who are not selected are left unemployed for yet another day. But the harvest is ready to be gathered, and the owner returns every three hours, at 9:00, at noon, and at 3:00, hiring more workers each time. Even at 5:00, a few more are grabbed from the marketplace to help make a final push in grape-harvesting for the last hour of the work day.
Only when wages are paid at the end of the workday do things get weird, as the vineyard owner pays all of the workers the same amount of money, no matter how long they worked. Why does he do this? Is it because, as my students suspected, he has bought into a social and economic experiment that forces him to pay everyone the same, no matter how hard or long they have worked? No—when he responds to the complaining laborers who have worked all day and have just been paid the same amount of money paid to the one-hour people, it is clear that this is no economic innovator or radical:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
In the vineyard owner’s world, contracts mean something. This is what we agreed to—this is what is going to happen. And in the vineyard owner’s world, the profits from his vineyard are not common property—they are his property. He’s a first century capitalist, in other words.
So why does he distribute wages in such a non-capitalistic way? In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the kingdom that it is the responsibility of all of us who profess to follow Jesus to establish on earth now, familiar rules are not eliminated. Rather, they are transformed. With Kingdom of Heaven eyes, the vineyard owner sees something more important than profit—he sees that at the most basic level, all human beings share the same needs. A daily wage is meant to meet daily needs—and each person has these needs regardless of how long they work. The vineyard owner never asks why his workers were unemployed, nor does he ask why some of them were not available for work until late in the day. These details simply do not matter.
What does matter is that each of the workers at the end of the day need the same things, and the vineyard owner chooses to satisfy those needs out of his own money. In the opinion of those who worked all day, they deserved more than those who came late. In the eyes of the vineyard owner, all deserve a daily wage because all have the same needs. It turns our expectations upside down and violates our comfort zone. But that’s how things work in the Kingdom of God. The more you own, the more opportunity you are provided to give it away.
In the Jewish scriptures, the prophet Micah asks a basic, crucially important question: What does the Lord require of us? He then provides an answer so direct, so seemingly simple, that it always jerks me up short.
He has showed you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
The genius of the vineyard owner in the parable is that he is an embodiment of Micah’s directive. The vineyard owner embodies humility because although technically the profits from the vineyard belong to him, he understands that everything we have is a gift, and that the only possible response to such generosity is to channel the generosity outward. He understands that justice is never spread evenly in terms of talents, wealth, abilities or anything else—it is our responsibility to create, just as he does at the end of the work day, a world in which all human needs are responded to equally, regardless of which humans have the needs. And he is merciful because he sees his laborers not as necessary cogs in the money-making machinery, but fellow human beings with whom, at least for this day, he can share his abundance willingly and liberally. Justice. Mercy. Humility. That’s what the Lord requires of us. Let’s give it a shot.