Living from paycheck to paycheck, “Richard” has just lost his job…again. There was a pattern here. Richard would get a job, but then he would get in conflicts with his supervisor. Then they would “let him go.” Richard told me that he would get so angry that he would want to beat up his employers. The only thing that kept him back, he said, was that he would tell himself that God saved him from hell, but that his boss was going to burn. He gave his supervisors the mental middle finger because they are were going to hell.
Certainly this is a case of major anger issues, resulting in unreconciled relationships, and frankly, a major misunderstanding of salvation. But this is also very much a money issue and a “workers” issue.
Parable of the Laborers, not about Heaven and Hell
We often lose the issue of money and think only of heaven and hell when we read the Bible.
The Parable of the Laborers in Matthew 20:1-16 is often read as it if is about grace and forgiveness at the last minute of one’s life. One this reading, some follow Christ early in their lives (the morning), some follow a little later (9am), and other later still (noon and 3pm, as the story goes). Then there are those who follow Christ on their death beds (5pm when the work day is over), and we are told that those who worked all of the day (or even part of the day), should not grumble over the generosity of the one who desires to save everyone.
Certainly learning not to begrudge the generosity of others, especially God, is a worthy lesson to learn. But let us not disconnect the grace of God and money, the actual issue here.
It is better to connect the generosity of God (the landowner who goes out to find workers) with God’s commitment that all would have enough to live on. The landowner gives the morning workers a “living wage”, enough money that they might be able to support their families. But then he finds that some workers have not been hired and are in jeopardy of making a “living wage” that day. So he hires more people offering them the same amount. And on the story goes until the end when those who had not been able to find work all day are given a “living wage” even though they were not able to find work that day. This is the generosity of the “kingdom of heaven”, that all would have enough to live.
This parable is much more about God providing “daily bread” than about the fairness of “getting into heaven”.
But I Earned It
Reading this parable in light of getting into heaven keeps us from an important lesson that needs to be exposed in American culture.
In the parable, those who worked the full day feel they have “earned” their money. They have what they have because the worked hard for it. The inverse being, those who have no money have not properly earned it. Reading this parable aggravates this mentality because it seems to suggest that people get stuff who haven’t earned it. This mentality can become an entire political platform that blames the poor for being poor.
The main point in this parable is not what you earned, but can you live. The landowner desires that all would have the means to live.
We should resist again “spiritualizing” this lesson. God is not magically at work in the world providing for people so they can live, but is always calling each of us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
This morning the lectionary put before me the reading of Acts 11: 19-30. The growth of the church in Antioch is reports and Barnabas is commissioned to go there and flourish the church. Then prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem and Agabus prophecies that there will be a severe famine. This prompts what is often called the Jerusalem Collection, where Paul collects money from his missionary trips to give to the poor in Judea.
Outside of Acts we get a glimpse of this collection in 2 Corinithians 8. Paul mentions the poor churches of Macedonia have given richly, and he (not so gently) shames the rich church in Corinth to follow suit.
The issue for Paul is not “who earned it?” but “what do you have?” As Paul says, every gift is “ acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Cor. 8:12). He finishes his plead to the Corinthians by quoting Exodus 16:18 regarding the collection of the daily bread of manna, that when the people go out to gather the manna they would share it so that “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2 Cor. 8:15).
God provided the manna, but also, the people provided for each other. This is still how we should understand the material provisions in our lives.
The Politics of Grace
As we move into election season, with different social and economic policies being thrown about, judged, and criticized, we must listen to this parable (and all of Jesus’ words about money).
To those on the LEFT, do not outsource your responsibility to be generous because you support government programs aimed at helping the disadvantaged. Do not make government taxation (of other people) and regulation the proxy for obedience to what God calls of you personally.
And to those on the RIGHT, do not outsource your responsibility that all would receive a “living wage” to the mechanisms of capitalism when capitalism is about the profit for owners, not lives of workers.
Do not abdicate ensuring a “living wage” for all people because of your personal generosity, when your gifts could be better used to ensure gainful employment for all.
[Photo: Danumurthi Mahendra, CC via Flickr]