Matthew 20:1-16 September 21, 2014

What a rip off! Imagine you spend all day, under the boiling sun, working in a vineyard, and someone else showed up toward the end of the workday, wouldn’t you expect to be paid more than them? Why should the latecomer, who worked but a few hours, get the same payment as you, who worked so many more hours. Who wouldn’t want to complain about that? This is not the way the world works, right? You work hard and you are compensated more. If you want to sit around and show up late to the game, well that’s your choice but don’t expect an equal benefit.

Except… it’s not how God works, and in reality it’s not how the world works either. There are many people who work extremely hard at backbreaking labour, at jobs most of us would never want, and are paid far less for it than might seem fair if work were judged on the physical effort it requires. For instance, we pay the people who care for our youngest children – mostly still women – far less than we pay investment bankers – mostly men. We might do it differently were the social value of the work formed on the basis of compensation.

How we value labour is indeed complicated, tied up in notions of class and education, gender and race. The gospel this morning reminded me of a study I read about a few months ago. It was an American study, but it would have translations in Canada as well. The study was looking at the success of immigrants from different countries in the United States – in particular how much one generation improved upon the fortunes of those who first landed in the U.S. If you looked at pure credentials, it would be natural to assume that the most successful immigrants were typically from Asian countries. The children of people arriving from places such as China, Japan and Vietnam, on average, are more likely to become doctors, and lawyers, high status professionals. Surely that made the Asian group the most successful, right? In fact, depending how you looked at it, the researcher in the study argued, they weren’t. The immigrants with the most successful children actually come from Mexico. And here’s why. They start out in a different place. An increasing number of the Chinese immigrants, particularly in the California group that was studied, were arriving with university degrees. Many of these parents had been doctors themselves. Some of them came with the means to settle well, to buy homes in good neighborhoods, to ensure good education for their children. Even those who didn’t have the means, had the social support of their community to help them navigate a new country, and in particular to provide extra tutoring and positive role models for their children. They started, in essence, higher up the ladder of success.

But Mexican families were typically arriving in the US with nothing, often without even proper documentation. They had far less education than many other immigrants, and far more limited means. They were often further disadvantaged by a negative stereotype among their new neighbors. But what has happened to the next generation? These newcomers also emphasized education for their children, many of whom become the first in their families to graduate high school. Many go on to college, if not university, further surpassing what was possible for their parents to achieve. They find good jobs, even if they didn’t have a Dr. in front of their names. (After all, medical school is expensive.) But the son or daughter of a Mexican immigrant you might encounter working in retail, for instance, has actually achieved more relatively speaking. From nothing, they made themselves something. They started lower on the ladder of success, and climbed higher.

I think that’s the lesson of our gospel – a good one for us, especially in this age of entitlement, when we are so quick to pass judgment on others as “lazy,” as taking more from the national purse than their hours of work might merit. God is reminding us to look beyond what we see on the surface, to look at the context, to understand how a person’s circumstances alter their fortune, and how much luck might have improved our own. Of course, those labourers who toiled all day worked hard. As the landowner declares- the stand-in for God – they are rewarded as promised. But the ones who arrived late may have worked just as hard in the time they had. And why were they late to the vineyard in the first place? Were they struggling to pull themselves out of family poverty? Did they have to work to pay for school or to support their siblings, so that they were always behind? Did they face drug addiction, rough family histories, difficult neighborhoods – all the elements that complicate lives and trap individuals? Had they sought work at another vineyard, only to be turned away because their clothes weren’t clean enough, or their speech wasn’t eloquent enough, or their skin wasn’t the right colour? In fact, the gospel says, when the landowner asked them why they were standing around, they told him, “because no one hired us.” The landowner tells them, “you come work for me.”

This parable then has an important message for us, particularly in a society which is becoming increasingly unequal. It matters where you start out at the beginning of the day, but not in the way those labourers assumed. It matters in terms of how we accept that all our paths are unique, a complicated combination of bad and good luck, advantage and disadvantage. And yet, in the eyes, of God – in the eyes of a just landowner – none of this matters. We are all equal in the vineyard, and our benefit – that is the understanding and acceptance we receive is the same. So it should be with us: understanding and acceptance, that is, seeing the story behind the person – also our moral imperative. It is the very definition of the grace of God. And it frees all of us, from being irrevocably judged when we stumble, from being tosses aside when we mess up due to our own actions, and from being left behind when we arrive late because life has thrown obstacles in our path that we could not control.

In fact, we don’t know the real ending of the story: what happened the next day, when there was more work to be done in the vineyard. Did those late coming labourers – given a chance and shown generosity – show up early to perhaps put in a full days work? I like to think so. God, in fact, assumes so. But even so, God continue to extend the hand, taking a chance on each one of us, over and over again.

The grace of God is not an “entitlement” offered to only those who are deserving, who get a head start in the vineyard, who start higher, and therefore climb higher, up the ladder of success. It is a gift of kindness and love to which we are all – each one of us – entitled. May we all be guided in our judgement of others by this understanding of the Grace of God.

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