The parable of the workers in the vineyard calls us to re-evaluate our own
economy, to value people over productivity.
Matthew 20: 1-16
By Sam Laurent, PhD
Let’s talk economics, old school. The Greek word oikos, which means
“house” or “home” is the root word for our English word “economy.” We get
it by way of the Greek oikonomia, which means “household.” This is a
worthwhile connection to point out, I think, because today’s Gospel calls for
a new perspective on our own economy.
Farmworkers today are often paid by weight for what they pick. Their
wages are based on their productivity. This is not a scandalous notion to most
of us. We are taught that you work hard for everything you get. A farmworker
here in North Carolina, the nation’s leading sweet potato producer, can expect
to earn roughly 26 dollars for each ton of sweet potatoes they pick, which
comes out to less than minimum wage. 1 Small farms are often exempt from
wage laws, and if the worker is undocumented, as they very often are, they
have little power to argue for better pay. But I can easily chalk all of that up
to market forces at play. The market values the strenuous work of picking
2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes at $26. Those wages, low as they may be,
draw people from other countries to come work here. It isn’t scandalous.
It should be scandalous.
If we follow our economy back through to the Greek, we might begin
to think of it as a household. Economics describes the relationships by which
value is assigned and distributed throughout a system. And the ancient
intuition was that it worked like a household. Ephesians 2 tells us that the
doors are open wide and we are members of the household of God. Each
person not a stranger or an alien, but beloved of God and part of God’s
household. God’s economy.
What, then, is valued in this divine economy? Look at today’s Gospel.
A landowner is hiring day laborers. Perhaps you’ve seen the places where
laborers gather, waiting for someone to come and hire them for the day. If no
one comes, they don’t get to work, and don’t get paid. Being a day laborer is
a very precarious existence. The landowner hires some laborers early in the morning, some at 9
o’clock, some at noon, some at three, and some at 5. He really spends a lot of
time bringing people to his vineyard, and he tells each group that he would
pay them what is fair.
The last group is of particular interest. They have been standing idle in
the marketplace all day. We might feel the urge to call them lazy, to assume
that they made life choices which justify their unemployment. But the
landowner asks them why they have been standing idle all day, and they say
“because no one has hired us.” They have been passed over all day. The
landowner hires them.
At day’s end, each group gets paid the same sum. The ones who worked from near sunrise to the end of the day get paid the same as the ones who started at 5:00. Anyone of us, had we started working early in the day,
would take issue with this. We worked longer, did more work, so we deserve
more money. That’s how our economy works. But not the economy of the
kingdom of heaven. The grievance of those who worked all day is the
grievance of any of us when we have worked hard. “These last worked only
one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of
the day and the scorching heat.”
So then, where is the value assigned? It is, crucially, not assigned to the
work done. A person’s worth in God’s household, God’s society, cannot be
reduced to the number of grapes they harvested or the sweet potatoes they
The landowner could have paid a straight hourly wage. He could have
even used the surplus of labor to drive wages down. Supply and demand do
not work in favor of laborers in the global economy. The precarity of
someone’s situation, in our system, becomes a justification for paying them
less. There is always the prospect of someone who will do the work for less,
leaving more for profit.
God, in no uncertain terms, rejects that way of assigning value to
people. Their value exists in their very existence. Your value exists in your
very existence. The landowner in the story places value on the relationship
between himself and those he employs. Each receives enough money to make
it through the day. They are given, you might say, their daily bread, no matter
what. Because that is how God’s kingdom, and God’s economy work.
There is a lot of resistance in our time to the grace that this story
models. We each like to think we are the ones who were hired early in the morning. We have earned what we have, and others are just looking for
handouts. Handouts, you may notice, are vilified in the mythology of
America. We narrate our history as a hardscrabble people fueled by
democracy and gumption. A blessed people who manifest our destiny by
working exceptionally hard. “God helps those who help themselves” goes the
refrain, drawn not from the Bible, but Ben Franklin. It has worked its way
into our thinking so much that a local ministry to the homeless used to have a
sign out front saying their ministry was “a hand up, not a handout.” God
forbid we appear to make sure someone has enough to make it through the
day, just because they are part of our community. All of this speaks to where
we place our value, and all of it is challenged by today’s Gospel. 2
The takeaway, then, is that in God’s economy, we do not earn our
value. We don’t have to produce work to demonstrate our worth to society.
God provides God’s grace for no reason other than because God chooses to.
And we envy God’s generosity. We develop our own systems of assigning
value, ones that inevitably favor our own interests, and we bristle at the
notion that God’s grace operates on a much simpler principle.
But there is relief to be found in this as well. The notion that your work
produces your value to the world is the source of so much of our insecurity
and anxiety. How much are we consumed by jealousy of someone else’s
wealth or success, or fear that we will not reach the goals you have set? How
often do we beat ourselves up after an unproductive day? The shame cycle
within our over-achiever society is driven by our society’s demand that we
prove our worth through work. And we must prove our worth in contrast to
others, a dynamic that casts them not as neighbors but as competitors, people
out to get the wages that we want. Our exploitative ways come from our need
to prove our value.
Grace lets you off that hook. You are valued and beloved, simply
because you are. You were created by a God who does not stop loving you
and caring for you. And God does the same for each and every person. We
were not created to be in a rat race. We were created to be in a household.
This story is sneaky. When you get down to it, it serves the landowner’s
own interest to pay everyone a day’s wage. Those who don’t have enough to
feed their families will either starve or move away, and then who would
harvest the grapes? As a management strategy, you could say that paying
each worker a day’s wage is a way of maintaining the community in which
the landowner lives. With full capitalist cynicism intact, the grace of equal
pay still makes some sense.
But that would still be a pale shadow of the kingdom of heaven, for we
would not delight in our neighbor’s wellness. Our challenge today is to see
that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of each of our neighbors.
We are asked to meet God’s grace with our own generosity of wealth and
spirit. The last will be first, and the first will be last, and all are beloved
members of the economy of God.
- Based on wages cited at http://nfwm.org/farm-workers/farm-worker-issues/low-wages/
2. For a more detailed Christian theological critique of capitalism by an Episcopalian, see
Tanner, Kathryn. Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. United States: Yale University