What is Fair? Matthew 20:1-16

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
September 24, 2024

What is Fair?
Matthew 20:1-16

It was night when we arrived at the factory gates, and the only light was from the headlights of our car, and those of a truck parked on the road nearby. I remember a crowd of maybe 20-25 people – some older, many younger in their late teens or early 20’s.  They had folding chairs and ice chests, a radio, and some signs – they’d been out there for a while, camped out at the gate of the factory where they worked.  Or, where they had worked until a week before, when the factory owners had closed up shop, shutting down production and closing the plant with no warning, paying no severance.  The workers were there, camped at the gates, to protect the only resource they had left: the sewing machines and other textile equipment in the factory itself, to keep the factory owners from removing them, with the hope of leveraging the machines to negotiate severance.

The United Auto Workers expanded their strike on Friday at two of the big three automakers, in the hope of bringing more serious offers to the negotiation table.  This means that more than 18,000 workers are now on strike seeking higher wages and better benefits, a shorter window for advancement, and assurances of job security as plants shift to making electric vehicles.  They are negotiating in an effort to resist the threat of automation/AI to their jobs and livelihood.

The Writer’s Guild of America has been on strike since spring, negotiating a three-year contract with studio execs that will ensure better benefits and fair pay in a market that has totally been upended by streaming services.  Tens of thousands of people are out of work because of the strike, and production of many TV shows and movies has been halted, too.

Everyone from copy editors to auto workers to Starbucks baristas has gone on strike this year, a movement fueled by rising income inequality, and the end of pandemic protections, among other things.  People are fed up, and they’re fighting back – banding together to seek living wages, reasonable benefits, workplace protections, sick leave and family leave.  Sometimes, it’s clear cut – those workers at the gates of their factory deserved fair notice of the closure and fair severance.  But often, it’s complicated.  What is fair compensation for hard work?  Why do we value some workers more than others?  Why does a public school teacher make less than a UPS driver?

Our parable this morning is confounding, as they often are.  The kingdom of heaven sounds like a pretty unfair place, from this description.  The vineyard owner seems like he’s trying to put one over on his hardest workers.  He pays the same amount to the guys who showed up at the end of the day as the ones who’d been breaking their backs since early morning.  Does that seem fair to you?

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus told this story today, in this year of strikes, would he have told it the same way?  Would the workers who worked all day band together and bring the owner to the negotiation table, demanding just compensation for hours worked, pay based on seniority – definitely more than those guys who showed up at the end of the day?

In our capitalist world, we are conditioned to expect work to be a value exchange.  An hour of work gets an hourly wage.  People are valuable only as much as they are able to produce.  If you can’t work, then you’d better hope for disability, or unemployment, or social security benefits.  But we know that these programs are inadequate, and leave some to fall through the holes in the social safety net.  What about returning citizens who can’t find work because of their criminal record?  What about undocumented people or those awaiting legal status who can’t work because they don’t have the right papers?  Too many people these days say – not my problem.

But.  This story shows us that this is not how God operates.  God is not a capitalist.  The reign of God operates under an economy of grace.  An economy where people have enough to live on, no matter how long or how well they’ve worked.  Where workers are paid a living wage, no matter what.

Are you envious because I am generous? The owner asks. Well, in a word – yeah.

Many cities around the country have experimented over the past few years with universal basic income, including Baltimore.  Last year, Mayor Brandon Scott implemented the Young Families Success Fund, making monthly payments of $1000 to extremely low-income young parents.  The program has allowed participants to afford basics like diapers, child care, and transportation – which means they can actually find and keep a job.  Removing the stress of unpaid bills and the threat of eviction, allows participants to breathe, maybe even save money.

Dary and I were able to buy a house in part because I was given stock as a child by my dad’s parents.  I didn’t do anything to deserve it, or earn it.  I was just lucky to be born into my family of origin, and the fluke of my birth has enabled Dary and me to breathe, and to build wealth, when we sold that house and bought the one we currently live in.  It’s not fair.  It’s just the way things are.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Programs like universal basic income are one way to counteract income inequality wrought by generational wealth.

Now, you may be thinking – I’m being too literal.  Many read this parable as an allegory, seeing God as the vineyard owner and ourselves as the workers, with salvation as the payment that is given.  In this reading, God’s saving grace is lavished on everyone who shows up for it, no matter how late in the game they seek it.  We faithful few who steward the church year in and year out, putting in countless hours of service and giving of our time and resources to keep the lights on and the doors open receive the same measure of grace as those who squeak in the door at the last minute.

When we experience grace – unconditional, boundless love and belonging no matter what – when God meets us in the road and falls at our feet and says welcome home, even when we have squandered our inheritance with our own selfish and foolish ways – when God brushes the tears of shame from our cheeks and sets a place at the table for us, we feel overwhelming gratitude.  Even disbelief.  It’s why we confess our common brokenness, remember, and give thanks God’s grace poured out for us week after week here at our font.  Why tonight and tomorrow as our Jewish siblings celebrate Yom Kippur, they will name their faults and failings and remember and reclaim God’s grace.  The experience of grace is good news!

But when we watch from afar, it can be a different story.  When we with our hands to the plow look up to see God fall at the feet of someone who never showed up for work at all… when God sets the table for someone whose behavior has been shameful – it’s easy to feel resentful.    It’s why I’m grateful that this reading is paired with the story of God providing manna in the wilderness.  This helps me see that to focus on the equal payment of the workers is to miss the point.  The provision of manna redirects our attention, away from payment, toward God’s commitment to provide… in this parable, to provide work for everyone who seeks it.  The good news for us is that when God is in charge, there is enough for everyone – no matter what.

Maybe I’m overly literal.  Maybe our salvation is found in generosity – the abundant grace of God, poured out for all of us, that allows and enables us to be generous and kind with one another – to value people for who they are, not just for how long they’ve been around, or for what they contribute.  To provide a place at the table and enough for absolutely everyone.  No matter what time they show up.