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Tell Us a Story: A Fair Wage

October 15, 2006

Matthew 20:1-6

Before the existence of temporary employment agencies like Manpower or Kelly Service here in Spartanburg, you could go by the County Courthouse almost any time and hire a person to work. Unskilled laborers, generally all men, gathered there, hoping someone would come by and offer them a job for the day. Some of those were probably ne’er-do-wells that simply went to pass around a bottle clothed in a brown paper bag. Many of those people, however, earnestly wanted a job so that they could provide for themselves and their families.

In the first century in Palestine, the situation was very much the same. People who wanted to work for a day would gather at the marketplace early in the morning, even before daylight. They, too, hoped someone would come by and offer them the opportunity to work for a day. The book of Leviticus actually addresses this arrangement, saying that the employer should pay the hired worker at the end of the day. The standard wage for working from six o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night was one denairus.

In the parable for today, Jesus tells of a vineyard owner who needs some extra workers. At 6:00 in the morning, he goes to the marketplace and hires some laborers who agree to work all day at his vineyard for one denairus. When the owner of the vineyard realizes that he needs additional help, he returns to the marketplace at 9:00 A.M., again at noon, and at 3:00 P.M. Finally, at 5:00 P.M., just one hour before quitting time, he hires more workers.

When I was in Kentucky, even during my seminary years, I worked on the weekends as a chaplain at a camp for juvenile delinquents. The camp was in the mountains of Kentucky on Lake Cumberland at a place called Monticello. One of the childcare workers at the institution was also a tobacco farmer. One weekend he asked, “Why don’t you come to camp early next weekend? You can help me strip my burley tobacco. We’ll work together.” I had never stripped tobacco and mistakenly thought that job would be interesting. I worked at stripping the tobacco with this farmer just that one time. Once was enough. Working tobacco is hard labor. In the course of the day, I talked with the farmer about all that was required to raise tobacco. He said, “When you have a tobacco farm, you always have some task to complete. The work is never finished.”

His statement was an echo of one I had heard as a young child and teenager: “There is always work to do at a lumberyard.” I started working at the lumberyard when I was in the seventh grade. My dad said I could work there only after I learned to work for my mother, which was actually harder. I felt relief when my time to work at the lumberyard finally came.

The very first day, my father assigned me the responsibility of unloading a boxcar load of cement. Since I worked there before the days of palletized cement, my job required me to lift each bag, stack it on a set of hand trucks, and roll it into a warehouse for storage. About the best I could do was to move two or three bags at a time. A man I worked with, Charlie Norman, could actually load about ten bags of cement, each weighing ninety-six pounds, on hand trucks, break those hand trucks down, and roll them up a ramp. That night when I got home, I was so exhausted I fell asleep, sitting at the supper table.

During my first year at the lumberyard, my dad paid me $2.00 a day, which began at six in the morning and ended at six that night. I will let you figure up the amount I made an hour. It was not much. The second year, I got a raise. I worked for $.50 an hour. Years later, I asked my father, “Why did you pay me so little?” He quipped, “Kirk, just be glad I didn’t pay you what you were worth! Seriously, I never wanted you to get the idea that working in a lumberyard was an easy way to earn a living.” I definitely learned that lesson very quickly. It did not take many years of working there before I heard God calling me to another profession.

Just like the tobacco farmer and my father, a first-century vineyard owner could also say, “There is always work to do.” In the wintertime, vineyard workers haul rich soil, side-dress the vines, and repair the stone fences surrounding the vineyard. In the springtime, workers prop up the vines, sometimes by tying them or by using huge stones underneath. When the grapes become ripe in the summertime, laborers push hard to harvest the crop before the rains of fall come. There is always something to do in a vineyard.

That job was hard work during Jesus’ day. The going pay was minimal. A day’s wage, a fair wage, was one denairus. At 6:00 in the morning, the vineyard owner agrees to pay a denairus to those he hires for a day’s work. Those he hires later really do not have any advantage at all in negotiating a wage. The owner of the vineyard says, “I will pay you what is fair.” They are so glad to have the work, to make any kind of money, that they accept his offer. Those hired at the last hour of the day think they will probably get only a few pence, but figure that little pay is better than nothing. All of these workers need a job to feed and clothe their families.

This vineyard owner has a wonderful sense of humor. He could have easily said to his steward at the end of the day, “Let’s first pay these who started working at 6:00 this morning.” The workers would have gotten a denairus and left happy because that was the bargain. I imagine they probably assumed those hired later would receive less pay. The vineyard owner told his steward, “Let’s pay those workers hired last, first.” He does just that. He pays those hired at 5:00 in the afternoon a denairus. He pays those hired at 3:00 and those hired at noon, a denairus. The laborers hired at 6:00 that morning see the others receiving a denairus and probably assumed that their pay would be higher than originally stated. When the owner pays them their wage, however, they also receive exactly one denairus – not more, not less. They receive exactly the amount of the agreement.

If you want to be miserable, just look at what other people have. Look at other people’s salary. Compare that to what you have and to what you earn. You will decide it is unfair. The first workers the vineyard owner hired, those who had toiled all day in the heat, begin to compare themselves with all the others hired that day. They are not members of a labor union, but a negotiator speaks for them, grumbling to the vineyard owner, “Foul! Listen, you have made them equal with us. That is not fair.” I suppose the owner could have said, “Well, I never promised to be fair,” but he answers, “I have not wronged you. I gave you exactly what I told you I would give you. It is my money anyway. Who are you to tell me whether or not I can be generous with my own money?”

Almost every year, we read in the headlines about a professional athlete receiving an extravagant contract. Last year, one football player signed a contract for $25 million dollars to play four years on a professional team. News broadcasts often includes stories about him because he proves to be a troublemaker for every team that hires him. This year, he is grumbling that he is not getting enough attention and complaining that younger players are getting contracts bigger than his. Actually, his contract would cover the church budget for many, many years. Poor guy! I am sure you feel sorry for him. He is making himself miserable because he is comparing what he makes to what somebody else makes. Goodness! He has a contract for $25 million dollars! If you want to make yourself miserable, just allow the comparisons to eat at you.

The vineyard owner does not feel sorry for these disgruntled workers either. He is very fair to them, paying them a reasonable wage. They do receive their end of the bargain. Is this any way to run a business? Consider the reaction of a business consultant or an efficiency expert if the vineyard owner had said, “Let me tell you about the way I pay my employees. I plan to pay the same amount to all of my workers, even those who work for an hour. I will pay those who work for twelve hours the same amount as I pay those who work one hour.” I imagine the expert would be pulling out hair and blowing up the calculator.

Jesus is not telling this parable as an economic guide, though we do find some business principles about how employers should treat workers. Without a doubt, employees certainly should pay a fair wage for a day’s work. Jesus does have the best interest of workers at heart. He knew the value of work. Remember, as a carpenter, he understood manual labor. He had worked with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop and considered working with your hands a noble occupation, a profession that merited compensation.

Scripture tells a wonderful story about an encounter in the synagogue between Jesus and a man, who, according to tradition, was a stonemason. Luke, the physician, makes a special point of reporting that the man had a withered right hand. Can you imagine a stonemason with a withered hand? He would be unable to work, unable to provide sustenance for his family. Jesus performs a miracle when he restores the man’s hand to health. To that man, the healing is more than a miracle. The healing restores his ability to work and be a provider for his family.

The principle Jesus is teaching in this story goes much deeper than business administration and management. Look with me at a passage preceding this parable. In Chapter 19, beginning at Verse 16, we see a rich young man coming to Jesus and detailing all of the commandments he has kept according to the law. His bragging is reminiscent of the rhyme that goes, “Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb, pulled out a plum, and said, ‘Oh, what a good boy am I!’” Similarly, the rich man is saying, “I have kept all the laws. What a good boy am I!” Jesus knows something is wrong in his heart. His unwillingness to part with his money keeps him from being righteous in the eyes of Jesus. Jesus told the man, “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Jesus did not demand that everyone who followed him give up his riches, but this man’s emphasis on his bank account is impeding his spiritual life. Jesus’ refusal to include the rich man into his fold baffles the disciples, as did his comment, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24). According to the Jewish way of thinking, people who obeyed the law would prosper. The disciples expected those who were obedient to the law to prosper.

Simon Peter, the spokesperson for the astonished disciples, asks in Verse 25, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replies, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” You cannot earn salvation through obedience to the law or through good works. You cannot earn a star in your crown. The grace of God saves us. Still confused, Simon Peter said, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us? What is going to be our reward?”

The parable of the workers in the vineyard comes in response to this question from his disciples. Jesus uses this story as a way to train his disciples. He is telling them, “Listen, fellows. Follow me and do what I tell you to do. You will receive the grace of God through faith. Everyone who accepts Christ as Savior will receive grace.” Jesus is saying, “Listen, you cannot earn grace. It is a gift for everyone. You may have been a Christian all of your life, gone to church faithfully, tithed, studied your Bible, and performed good works; but you do not earn God’s grace by doing those things. You receive the grace of God in salvation because of your faith in Jesus Christ.”

The early church often interpreted Jesus’ parable as an allegory. They thought each group of workers hired in the parable represented groups of people who came to heaven through different gates. All received the same reward. Just as those vineyard workers who work all day receive the same wage as those who work only one hour, people who accept Christ on their deathbed receive the same grace as those who had accepted Christ years earlier. Notice how Jesus begins the story: “Let me tell you what the kingdom of God is like.” He does not begin with, “Let me tell you what the economic world is like.” In the kingdom of God, everybody who professes faith in Christ Jesus receives the same reward. Grace is the unmerited gift of God. This parable challenges us to see that grace is a gift for everyone.

An Iowa farmer and his five sons were working in their field one day, harvesting corn. They were pulling it from the stalks by hand, stacking it in baskets, and carrying it over to a trailer. A neighboring farmer came by, driving a big tractor and pulling a large piece of equipment. He told the farmer, “You need to buy one of these corn harvesting machines. Your boys could be doing something else with their time. They don’t need to be out there, pulling corn with their hands. Get one of these machines and make short work of harvesting your crop.” The farmer replied, “I appreciate your concern, but let me tell you something. I am raising more than corn. I am raising sons.”

The church has no degrees of perfection. We are all sinners saved by grace. Some of us work a long, long time for the cause of Christ. Others come to it at the last minute. Regardless, all of us receive the same reward – the grace of God, fully expressed in Jesus Christ. Have you accepted Christ? Do you know him as your Savior? Regardless of what has happened in your life up to this point, all that matters is that you acknowledge Christ as your Savior. If you will do that, God will offer His salvation to you. Some of you have other decisions to make. You know that God has led you right here to this church. This place is to be your church home. If that is the case, we invite you to make that decision today as we stand together and sing a beautiful hymn, “I Surrender All.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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