Proper 20 (25), Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
20 September 2020
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
As the pandemic continues to effect the economy I have been counting my blessings for continuing to be employed. While many lost employment, and small business owners see their economic future threatened, I continue to work.
In the midst of having to find safe ways for us to continue to worship together and helping us continue to remain a community, even when we cannot see each other in person, I have been profoundly thankful to continue to have employment.
Perhaps in the aftermath of the loss of our son, everything else paled in comparison, and therefore it was easier to carry on. But the pandemic has shown me how fragile our situation can be and how quickly the structures we deemed stable and unchanging can be questioned. Add to that the fires along the West Coast, which – aided by global warming – become more serious each year, it becomes more apparent that what we are not nearly as much in control as we think we are, which is not to say that there is nothing we could do.
It is verse seven of today’s Gospel that made me think of how fragile things are and how fortunate I am. Verse seven tells us about when the owner of the vineyard went to the marketplace at five o’clock, near the end of the day, and finding more workers standing there, asked them why they were standing there idly; and they answered, “Because no one has hired us.”
And I thought, that could be me or you. The people standing there were not needed in the economy until the landowner came at five o’clock. In our economies there are always people who aren’t needed. And that ought to be the hardest thing to live with, not to be needed.
Of course, before the pandemic, our economy was producing jobs and our unemployment rate was low. But there were still people who were unemployed.
Maybe some of us have experienced unemployment. Think of having to support a family on 57% of your income and that only until Employment Insurance runs out. Maybe you worked in an industry that shifted its jobs elsewhere or was unable to compete with cheaper labour overseas.
And maybe you were laid off in your fifties. It is not so easy to find employment in your fifties.
Or I think of Mary and her two sons. One with Asperger’s and one with autism. I remember when she said to me that she figured her kids would always live at home. Her eldest was 14 or 15 then.
Or I think of Paul who just couldn’t hold a job, not that he didn’t want to, but it just wasn’t in him. I am not certain that I would have hired him either.
There are others I can think of. Perhaps someone with a criminal record who has trouble finding someone to give them a second chance, or people with disabilities, or people who didn’t finish high school, whatever the reason.
That is the background to the story. The people hired at five were deemed redundant until the landowner hired them.
Our parable is preceded by the story of a young man who asks about abundant, eternal life and as he asserts that he has kept the commandments, Jesus instructs him to sell all he has and give the money to the poor. Matthew ends the telling of this episode by saying, “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (19:22)
A few verses later Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you, what then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27)
The young man does not want to let go of his possessions and Peter seeks to be rewarded for having given up everything. It turns out that the two are no so different.
We expect to be rewarded for work, for meeting certain conditions, for satisfying expectations. It’s the way the wage economy works. We trade our labour for pay.
The flip side of this arrangement is that for most of us our income is limited by the kind and the amount of work we are able to do.
And so we come to the marketplace where day labourers, lowest on the economic scale, without certainty of income, seek to be hired. What the owner’s repeated trips to the marketplace to hire more workers makes clear is that, unlike our economy, in the economy of the vineyard, in the economy of God no one is expendable, everyone is needed, and everyone is valued.
That is what those hired earlier don’t understand. They don’t see the symbolism of paying everyone the same, they only see that their wages make them equal when they don’t want to be equal.
Peter asked Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you, what then will we have?”
They say, “we have worked all day, we should receive more.”
It is likely that we are familiar with the story and may have entirely spiritualized it. Yes, of course it doesn’t matter when faith finds you, God loves us all the same. We may read this story as being about death-bed conversions and about going to heaven.
And we may even think of it as a statement about the church, after all our banner in the narthex proclaims that all are welcome.
And yet, the pandemic has renewed the discussion about universal basic income, as former conservative senator Hugh Segal has advocated for for years. And while there was squabbling about amount and eligibility, there was a broad consensus that we cannot let people fall through the cracks, aside from the fact that the money people receive will flow back into the economy where it is badly needed.
We learn from the story that everyone is important and that everyone is valued, and that everyone is loved by God. But if everyone is important and valued, and loved by God, this cannot be only a spiritual reality, it cannot only be about being welcome to join the church.
I remember my internship supervisor telling me that respect is also expressed in financial terms. That was about employment relationships and negotiating salary but in the same way, when we say that all people matter, and all are valued, we cannot first say, “But we should receive more than they,” as it occurred in the parable. But we must seek to create an economy in which all people are valued and know it, too.
That God values and loves all is the promise that makes this possible.