Summary: Serving in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom is a true blessing because the work is done with the confidence that God’s reward awaits at the end of the day.
Every morning they line up on the streets – dozens of people outside the temporary services agencies in Chicago. They’re lined up at 6:00 am each morning looking for a job, but these agencies won’t find jobs for them. They’ll only find them work to do – work for one day. By 7:00 am, over 100 of the people waiting will be “hired” at this agency. Eight hours later, another 100 will be “hired” for the next shift. Eight hours later, the pattern will repeat yet again.
And these few hundred at this particular temporary services agency are just a few among the estimated 30,000 day laborers across Chicago who are hired each day for only one day’s work. They are part of the workforce that helps make the economy run. They make the meals for airlines flying out of O’Hare. They stuff envelopes for marketing firms. They count inventory at warehouses. They package orders for shipment for internet retailers. They do light manufacturing and industrial work. 30,000 day laborers do this every day during the peak season.
Once they have been “hired” for the day, they are assigned an employer, they agree on a wage – usually the $5.15 federal minimum wage – they are then responsible for getting themselves to their workplace, and at the end of the day they receive their pay – barely $41 for the eight-hour shift. And at the end of each day, they don’t know if there will be work for them tomorrow. But for at least one day they know that they will be able to sustain their family and make it one more night.
When we look at the parable of Jesus this morning, we see a very similar pattern in first century Palestine as we see in twenty-first century Chicago. The same group of workers lining up first thing in the morning looking for work for the day. This time it’s at the marketplace rather than the temp services agency. This time it’s a vineyard owner doing the hiring. And this time they’ve agreed on a wage of one denarius for the day’s work – a typical day’s wages for manual labor. There is some disagreement among the biblical scholars as to just how much a denarius was worth, but it seems it’s rather more generous than the $41 minimum wage we have. The one number I saw indicated it was worth maybe $100 of our money today – nothing extravagant, but certainly a decent wage that can support a family.
So in the parable, the workers are invited by the vineyard owner to go to the vineyard to work. Hard work, to be sure, but work done with the knowledge that $100 was waiting for them at the end of the day.
Several hours later, the vineyard owner returns to the marketplace and finds others who are still looking for work. He hires them and tells them he will pay them “what is fair” for their labors. He repeats this throughout the day, until his final trip to the marketplace at 5:00 pm, when he hires the final group of workers for the vineyard.
At 6:00 pm, the end of the workday comes, and the vineyard owner pays the workers. The ones who had just been hired at 5:00 are paid $100 each. So of course, those workers who have been hard at work since early in the morning are impressed with his generosity and begin getting excited – if he’s giving $100 to the latecomers, surely those who worked all day long are in for a nice bonus!
So then the vineyard owner pays those who worked for part of the day -- $100 each. Those who had been working since 6:00 am get a little anxious. When it is time for them to be paid, they receive the same $100 as everyone else!
They’re indignant! “Where is the fairness?!” they cried! By the time any kid gets to kindergarten, they’ve got a strong sense of fairness – any six year-old would tell you that it’s not fair to reward someone who worked hard for twelve hours the same as someone who worked for only one!
The vineyard owner’s response? He tells the workers that he is generous in his giving, that he rewards all who work for him equally, and that they should appreciate what they have been given rather than envious that others were given the same. The parable doesn’t tell us if those who worked all day ended up agreeing with the vineyard owner or they just continued to grumble.
So on one side, I laid out the struggle of the day laborers here in Chicago. And on the other side, I described the parable of the vineyard owner. There are a number of parallels, and the situations sound quite similar. But the day laborers in Chicago are in a situation probably none of us would choose to be in (and in fact, 97% of them say they would prefer to be in a regular job that works regular hours and pays a regular salary) while the parable is described by Jesus as a way to understand the Kingdom of Heaven!