Justice! Equality! My fair share! These three things are the same, aren’t they? Today’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew suggests that perhaps, in God's eyes, they are not. It also suggests that value is calculated differently in the kingdom of heaven and that this is something we should think about with some intention.
Let’s begin with the vineyard workers. Some are hired first thing in the morning to work all day, others throughout the day, and a few just for the last hour. When it comes time for pay, all of the labourers are paid the same full day’s wage. Those who worked longer begin to grumble and the vineyard owner offers a lesson in his own autonomy and managing expectations around business deals.
At the end of the working day, the labourers who are dissatisfied with the pay scheme begin to blame the vineyard owner. They believe they are entitled to more than their fellow workers. The vineyard owner asserts his right to do as he pleases with his money and reminds them that he held up his end of their bargain, so they’ve nothing to complain about.
It is easy for us to side with the labourers first hired. We have been taught that time is money. If I did more work than someone else, I deserve to be paid more. Or, if not that, those who came later and did less should leave with less. Either way, I want my perceived self-worth in this market of labour reinforced by the pay at the end of day, because money is the way we have all been taught to measure value. But perhaps the problem here isn’t the vineyard owner or the day labourers. Perhaps the problem is the entire system.
Day labourers in this time and place, just like today, head to a market and wait to be hired for a day’s work. They usually end up doing simple, often strenuous tasks. The going rate, a denarius, is subsistence wage for a day. Enough to buy some food and pay for the barest expenses, but no more. If a labourer goes too many days without being hired, the risk of starvation is real unless they have charitable neighbours. And, of course, if you’re this poor, your neighbours probably don’t have much to share either.
A denarius really is the bare minimum wage, with no wiggle room for any unexpected expenses or ongoing needs. Not dissimilar to working in this city for the minimum wage of $13.50 per hour when the estimate of a living wage in Winnipeg is closer to $18.34 per hour. We’re about three quarters of the way there and have plenty of people in our parish, our neighbourhood, living just like these day labourers in the vineyard did.
Even if you’re willing to work for a subsistence wage, it’s a competitive market. All of the day labourers hang around in the same place, waiting to be hired. What business owner is going to hire anyone but the most energetic, fit, capable-looking workers? Woe to you who are a little older, a little slower, have an injury, or even a cough. If you’re not an ideal specimen, it’s quite likely you’ll end up without work regularly. And without regular work, you’ll often be cold, hungry, sick, tired, and less likely to be hired the next day. You can see how this vicious cycle “takes care” of the poorest in the community. This is a world where even slaves, people understood as property, live more securely than day labourers. Even for those able to work and fit enough to be hired regularly, is a subsistence wage, barely enough to live on, just recompense for a day’s labour? Working all day to be able to barely afford food and a place to sleep?
And this can’t be a simple allegory about justice, where God is the vineyard owner and sets things to rights. He doesn’t change the system; everyone is still paid a subsistence wage. He could have just hired all of the workers at the outset of the day, but didn’t. He hired some first—probably the best workers—and came back later to collect the others. So this isn’t about turning the system on its head. If the vineyard is like the kingdom of heaven, this story is about illustrating something else.
If today’s story isn’t a simple allegory about economic justice, then what can we learn from it about the kingdom of heaven? The verse immediately before the beginning of today’s Gospel passage is the same sentiment as the last verse we heard: In the kingdom of heaven, the first will be last and the last will be first. Those who were hired last will be paid first and those hired first will be paid last. In the kingdom of heaven, nobody is fabulously wealthy, neither is anyone tragically poor. Everyone’s needs are met and all are content because they want for nothing. Without the grasping and coveting and status-chasing that money and greed breed in this world, in the kingdom of heaven enough really is enough.
Everyone in the story makes it into the kingdom of heaven. Whether you were hired last or paid last, everyone was attended to. You don’t need to worry about your place in line when it comes to God’s kingdom because we’re all getting in. This is important to remember when we start posturing about who’s been where the longest, whose parish is older than another, or we use awful terms like “cradle Anglican” as a way of asserting status in our communities.
God does not value any of us more than our neighbour. Neither does God value any of us less than our neighbour. God does not place any of us in higher status over another. No matter when we arrived or how many grapes we picked, no matter how fast we worked, how much water we drank, or how many rests we needed, God’s valuation of us is the same.
In the kingdom of heaven our value is not connected to how much money we can make or how many widgets we can produce or any of the things that neoliberal capitalism has convinced us are good measures of worth. In the kingdom of heaven our worth is measured by God’s judgement of us, made in God’s own image and likeness, as good and very good. In spite of all of our differences, God looks at each of us in love and says “Good and very good.”
If we are not more or less valuable than our neighbour, if we do not have higher or lower status than our neighbour, if we are not worth more or less than our neighbour, and if we are all getting into the kingdom of heaven, regardless of when and how we arrive, then what are we to do? Between now and the Last Day, the work of the kingdom still needs doing. The vines need trimming, the grapes picking, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the grieving comforted, the sick visited, the vulnerable protected, and so on.
If there is no greater reward to chase—no status, no money, no house, no boat, no political office—and we are all going to be looked after and make it to the kingdom of heaven, then it seems the only sensible thing to do is to invite our neighbours to join us in the work. Together, with all of the wild, diverse gifts God has given us, we will do so much better than in competition. Together we can build and grow the kingdom so much more quickly than working against one another, pursuing earthly glory. Glory in the kingdom of heaven is not riches or status but Jesus crucified, resurrected, and ascended.
It is there, at the Cross, where God’s kingdom and our lives meet. We, responding to the salvation Jesus has won for us through death, seek to build His kingdom here, not for ourselves but for love’s sake. God, in spite of our differences and failings, looks at each of us through the love poured out on the Cross and says “Good and very good.”
Thanks be to God.