Fairness Isn’t the Issue Grace Is
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 20: 1-16. The Parable of the Landowner and the Laborers. Focus on why God is gracious and just but not fair.
Day laborers have always been easy to exploit. In New Testament times these laborers would be landless peasants, with no union power or job security. With no sustained employment, they would line up every morning, waiting for a foreman to come by and point to them, relying completely on the chance that someone needed workers that day.
In almost every economy throughout history, the abundance of those needing work has vastly outnumbered the employers who are looking to hire. That inequity of supply and demand is what keeps day laboring wages low, masking the critical role that day laborers have played in agriculture, mining, fishing, building, and maintenance industries over the years.
Mark Davis, author of Left Behind and Loving It tells the story of visiting a small village in El Salvador, where the primary employment for real wages – outside of the creative bartering systems that develop out of necessity – was the brief harvesting season for coffee beans. That year, despite the exorbitant increases in the cost of a cup of coffee at local coffee shops in wealthy countries, like ours, wholesale prices for coffee beans were at an all-time low.
The owner of the local coffee franchise—not a local person, but an investor from San Salvador—decided that it would be more profitable to allow the beans to rot and fall to the ground than to pay the costs of harvesting and selling them. It was simply a matter of supply and demand. It was the right economic choice for the landowner. But it was a devastating choice for the local community.
The day laborers in this village would be considered idle, at least when it comes to wage-production. Common wisdom claims “idle hands are the tools of the devil,” approving of the judgment that has been echoed from II Thessalonians 3:10, to Captain John Smith. But, they were not idle.
They were subsistence gardeners who scratched out an existence from their own labors. And since they had no money to buy seed or fertilizer, they broke boulders and used the pieces to make a steep dirt path into a cobblestone road that would not wash away in the rainy season. And they became inventive, fashioning something useful that they might barter on the street during market days.
In the parable of the workers, the remarkable fact that some of the workers were still at the market as late as five o’clock, indicates that the jobless outnumbered the jobs that day, and they didn’t even have their own sustainable gardens to go home and tend.
This parable, then, is grounded in that intersection of power and material dependence that we have come to call a capitalistic economy. As such, the parable posits two competing views of what constitutes just compensation – I call them the “economics of fairness” and the “economics of need.”
In the “economics of fairness” we think of wages as hourly payments, setting human need aside for an objective, fixed measure of “this much per hour.” With such an objective measure – whether from our parable or from our understanding of a “minimum wage” of current economies – the “economics of fairness” gives an aura of blind justice at work through the rule of simple mathematics.
What the “economics of fairness” typically leaves out of the picture is that the fixed number is typically calculated according to the correlation between available laborers and scarce jobs, not the actual costs of living. That’s why jobs that pay only minimum wage rarely if ever provide for the actual costs of living.
The “economics of need” however, is based on something other than the medium of a fixed wage per hour. It is based on the workers’ needs. That is, it recognizes that someone who is only employed for one hour out of ten still needs to pay 100% of the costs of feeding a family, not just 10% of those costs.
This is the landowners point in our parable. The early morning hires did what they agreed to do and received what they needed. The five o’clock hires did what they agreed to do and received what they needed. The “economics of need” reflects the human-centered and not wage-centered economy, which Jesus says is what the Reign of God, is like.
Whether speaking of a 1st century field hand, a 21st century peasant in El Salvador, or a single mother working a minimum wage job with no benefits, this parable still arouses indignation among those whose needs are already met. They claim it’s not fair. But we worked all day and you paid us the same as those who worked for only an hour.
But take a moment and imagine who might be left at this late hour of the day: maybe the elderly, the infirmed, the inexperienced, those who have an injury or disability. People who would possibly not have survived the whole day in the field but people who still have the same needs, desires and aspirations of those chosen at the first part of the day: to provide for their family, to have a sense of worth, to build some financial security.
Yet, the randomness of life denies them the opportunity to work the full day to be as successful. The burdens they already carry are a full-time job.
The generosity of the landowner in this case shifts our thinking away from what a person can achieve or offer to the way in which a person and their very life is valued by the landowner. The landowner wants to give value and opportunity for life to even the weakest within the community of workers!
Just as in Jesus day the workers who came first grumbled and no doubt many of Jesus listeners wondered at how unfair the parable seemed – so too for us. Living in a free market economy ruled by supply and demand. Where people are paid for their supposed skill set the parable still rubs against the grain, it feels unfair.
Jesus’ parable calls into question the way our world operates and how it devalues people and let’s be honest exploits many who work in conditions we wouldn’t tolerate so we can have cheap products. Maybe, this is what Jesus is trying to help us realize, that good news is not just for the privileged few – it’s for all especially the ones who don’t deserve it – yet need it the most.
The kingdom of heaven is like this – all are rewarded, given the dignity of work, rewarded with life and hope, rewarded with a future, rewarded for a great effort or a little labor at the 11th hour. Who are we to be envious? Who are we to begrudge God his generosity? Are we so sure that we won’t need it some day that we can question God’s justice and mercy?
Each week we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. Heaven, God’s rule, is a rule that promises generosity in life, which is hard for us to fathom – and yet it is this kingdom we pray for each week when we say the Lord’s prayer.
The question is do we really want a generous God or do we want God to look at us and answer as he does in our parable: “Is your eye evil because I am good.” Good luck with that. Amen