“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.”

Matthew 20:1-16

These rustic little stories of Jesus are two thousand years old just now, but it’s remarkable how timely and timeless they turn out to be. In every land of every age, the poor gather around the town square hoping for temporary work from wealthier landowners and estate managers, because in every land in every age the most surplus commodity on the market is always human labor; there are always more workers than work to do, especially in agricultural areas where the demand for labor is sporadic and blotchy and bumpy.

You need lots of help in the spring to plow the fields, in mid-season to prune and weed, and at harvest to pick the crops; the rest of the time there’s not much to do but watch the grass grow and wait for the sun and the rains to produce their miraculous yield. And so farmers and landowners find it convenient and lucrative to get by with temporary help rather than with full-time, year-round employees.

And so among the tomato patches of Bakersfield, California, they instantly understand Jesus’ little story; in the apple orchards of Washington, they instantly understand Jesus’ little story; near Florida’s Indian River orange groves and Michigan’s cherry orchards and Illinois strawberry patches, they instantly understand Jesus’ little story. In 1939, John Steinbeck wrote movingly about these folks in The Grapes of Wrath, one of the greatest novels ever written by an American.

And so the vintner and migrants of Jesus’ little story are among the commonest characters in our shared experience, in every land in every age. This vintner, says Jesus, goes to the town square at 6 a.m. and tells some guys he’ll pay them a denarius for a twelve-hour work day. Let’s say that a day-laborer makes about $100 a day. “Pick my grapes for twelve hours and I’ll pay you a hundred dollars,” says the vintner.

At 9 a.m. it becomes clear that the present crew will not be able to gather the entire harvest by the end of the day, so the vintner returns to the town square and hires some more blokes and tells them, “I’ll pay you what’s fair.” Either extremely trusting or extremely desperate for work, several guys take the vintner at his words and accept the contract.

At noon, it’s clear he still doesn’t have enough help so he goes back and does the same thing. “I’ll pay you what’s fair,” he tells the guys. Again, at 3 p.m., with just three hours left in the work day, he does the same thing. And again, at 5 p.m., one hour before sunset. Remarkably, there are still some guys who’ve been waiting all day and haven’t been able to find work. “I’ll pay you what’s fair,” he tells the stragglers.

And then at the end of the day, the vintner sets up a card table and folding chair and cash box among the grape vines and starts doling out the day’s wages. Famously, he starts with the stragglers, the one-hour guys who missed the heat of the day. Apparently all the vintner has in his cash box are $100 bills. He forgot to bring change, the numbskull. So he gives the one-hour workers a $100 bill.

This guy is crazy. This guy must be a lousy businessman. No vintner, no matter how expensive the vintage he will press from his grapes, can make a profit if he pays his grape-pickers $100 an hour. This is the kind of boss that drives the management consultants from McKinsey or Accenture crazy, not to mention the shareholders.

The guys who have been working for twelve hours through the heat of the day start rubbing their hands with glee. They do a swift calculation and figure that if the one-hour slackers earn $100 an hour, then the twelve-hour guys are due about $1200. But famously, of course, in this story, whether you’ve been working for twelve hours or nine or six or three or one, everybody gets what the vintner originally promised–$100, a day’s pay for a day’s work, a day’s pay for an hour’s work.

This vintner and these day laborers are familiar to us; they jump off the pages of the Bible into our daily lived experience. We encounter them every day in every land in every age, and this vintner is eccentric only in his generosity. I don’t know if it’s true around here, but in Connecticut, Home Depot parking lots are popular gathering places for these day laborers, because painters and carpenters and landscapers can go to a single place for their lumber, their dry wall, their paint, their leaf blowers, and the guys to do the work. In a good month, these day laborers can make $1400, and most of them try to send at least $300 a month back home to their families in Latin America, which is where most of them are from.[1]

But of course Jesus’ little story is not about the relative cruelty or compassion of current immigration law, or the delicate sensibilities of suburban homeowners worried about their property values, or about the relative generosity or stinginess of contractors or landscapers.

Jesus has a larger point to make, a theological point. Jesus wants to make a point about how the world works. Jesus wants to shock us with the vast unfairness of God’s grace. Jesus wants us to get the point that whether you’ve been working in the vineyard since 6:00 in the morning through the heat of the day, or lollygagging around for one hour in the cool of the evening, it’s all the same to God. Jesus wants us to get the point that whether prostitute or priest, derelict or doctor, leper or lawyer, we’re all recipients of God’s lavish largesse.

It’s a shocking little story, isn’t it? When the guys who’d been working in the vineyard for twelve hours receive exactly the same pay as those who’d worked just one hour, they “grumbled,” Jesus tells us. “You have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

It is a rational objection. I share it. “You have made them equal to us,” but they’re not equal to us; they didn’t work as hard and therefore they are less valuable to the enterprise.

No one should get their “Money for nothing and their chicks for free,” as Dire Straits put it, in the 1980’s. “We got to move these refrigerators, we got to move these color TV’s,” and “look at them yo-yo’s playing guitar on the MTV, that ain’t workin’, maybe get a blister on a finger, maybe get a blister on your thumb.” Money for nothing and chicks for free.

I don’t know about you, but I identify most closely with the guys who’ve been in the darned vineyard for twelve straight hours. I am an eldest child; I yearn to please. I am compliant and obedient. Isn’t that true of most us? We work hard five days a week, attend our kids’ Little League games or mow the lawn on the sixth, and come to church to pray on the seventh. We pay our taxes, and our church pledge. We try to be loyal citizens of the realm. And it upsets us when some bozo who’s led a dissolute existence for years and has a death bed conversion at the eleventh hour like the thief on the cross waltzes straight into the kingdom of God ahead of us.

We believe in a day’s pay for a day’s work. We don’t believe in that Communist nonsense about “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” And it bugs us when somebody gets something for nothing–the slacker who gets rich quick by picking the right lottery number; or the high school student who never opens a book for four years but then gets into Princeton because his daddy and granddaddy went there; or the guy who drops out of Harvard to start a little software company like Microsoft or a little Internet company like Facebook.

Did you know that Stephen Hawking was a lazy student in college? He estimates that he spent about 100 hours a semester studying at Oxford, or about an hour a day, and still he knows more about the universe than the rest of us combined and makes millions of dollars writing books that everybody reads but nobody understands. It’s just not fair.

We are Americans, and Americans work harder than most. We work longer hours, take fewer sick days, enjoy shorter vacations, and retire at a later age than–oh, let’s say–the residents of Athens or Madrid. A day’s pay for a day’s work; nobody should get a day’s pay for an hour’s work.

But, you see, that’s just the thing about living in America. It might be a good thing to remind ourselves that we of all people, just by virtue of being born in, or arriving at, this land of outlandish bounty, wise founders, glorious Constitution, fair laws, and God’s unwavering providence, have already received a day’s pay for an hour’s work, just by virtue of living in America.

Have you ever spent any time in the developing world? You should go with Silvi to Haiti in October to see what I mean. A Presbyterian Church in New Jersey started a private school for poor kids in Honduras, 150 kids, kindergarten through sixth grade. Public education is free in Honduras, but not school uniforms and books, and these kids were so poor they were needed at home to work for a living.

They needed an education, but as soon as these Americans started working with these kids, it became clear that they also needed a dentist, so this church started sending teams of dentists and hygienists for two weeks a year to give exams and cleanings to all 150 kids and their teachers.

My wife Kathy has been there several times, because she’s a hygienist and has a useful skill. I go too, but it’s not exactly clear what I’m supposed to be doing there–preach a sermon? In English? So I go to watch. Every time we go we meet friends there who are just as good, just as smart, just as industrious as we are, or more so, but who will never know the blessings we’ve received, just by an accident of birth, just because we live here and they live there.

It has been true all the way back to the beginning of our nation. When Giovanni di Verrazano approached the American shore in his exploration of 1524, he could smell the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out to sea. In 1609, the sailors on Henry Hudson’s Half-Moon were disarmed by the sweet fragrance of the New Jersey shore, and when they traveled further up the North, later the Hudson, River, they sailed through enormous beds of floating flowers.[2] No one had ever seen such natural abundance. It was Eden, it was Shangri-La, it was Paradise.

What have we that has not been given to us? What? Maybe in high school while your friends were chilling you were studying hours on end so that you could get into a decent school.

Maybe you worked your way through college with two jobs and four hours sleep a night.

Maybe in law school or medical school you attended class 30 hours a week and studied for 50 more.

Maybe when you were young in your career at the bank you worked a hundred hours a week and slept many nights at the office.

Maybe you’re a teacher who stays up till 1:00 every morning polishing a lesson plan that will grab the fleeting attention of your indifferent students.

Maybe with a husband working hard at his career and traveling the world you raised four kids practically as a single mother without help.

Still, even then, don’t you see? It’s all grace. What have we that has not been given to us? What?

At the heart of the universe, there is this lavish, generous, indiscriminate grace which does not notice that some of us have been working through the heat of the day for twelve hours and others have been out there in the cool of the evening for a single hour. This grace does not seem to distinguish between leper and lawyer, prostitute and priest, derelict and doctor.

The gift of life itself, sunrise and sunset, thousands of them, everyone just as magnificent as the last; someone who loves you; then a child, or children; work to do; something to give back; a friend who will stick with you no matter what; grace, always grace; in the beginning, grace; in the end, grace; all the times between, grace.

This is the love that holds you fast, holds the vast universe itself, fast, in its tender embrace. Way more than any of us deserve. A day’s pay for an hour’s work. Thanks be to God.


[1]These statistics come from two articles in The New York Times: “Day to Day, but Making a Living,” by Steve Greenhouse, April 11, 2003; and “Coming to Terms with the Men on the Corner,” by Fernanda Santos, December 17, 2006.

[2]Frederick Turner, quoted by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing (Bear & Co. 1983), p. 43.