In Matthew 20 Jesus tells one of those parables that starts out “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” The main characters in this parable are a landowner and laborers. The laborers are hired at different times during the day to work in the landowner’s vineyard. At the end of the day each laborer gets paid the same amount, even though they put in different hours. The message of the parable is summed up at the end: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
What first catches my attention about this parable is that all of the laborers are already in last place in the workforce. They aren’t full-time employees of this vineyard owner, but day laborers.
A typical story of a first century day laborer would be something like this: They were former landowners who had been forced into debt by heavy taxation, a poor growing season, or poor health. To get out of debt they would have sold their land to wealthy landowners, now supporting themselves by selling one of their few remaining assets – their labor. Many such laborers moved to urban centers to hire themselves out, a day at a time, to whoever needed their work. Day laborers were vulnerable to abuses and had little control over their day to day work situation. For a day laborer, the regular practice was to gather in the morning at the marketplace, the town square, and wait for someone to come and give them work for the day. If it was harvest or planting season, there was a good chance they would be needed. If it was in between these seasons, labor was in lower demand and they could wait hours or all day without anyone hiring them.
In the parable, the landowner goes out early in the morning to hire these laborers. He agrees to pay them the typical going rate for a day’s work, a denarius, which was enough to feed a large family for a day. There’s nothing extra here for opening a savings account, but the workers have little bargaining power and are satisfied to have the work and pay to keep their family fed. So they head out to the vineyard.
But the landowner isn’t done hiring. He goes out three hours later, now 9am, and sees others in the marketplace, still unemployed. He tells them also to go out and work for him. This time there is no wage agreed upon. He simply says, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” Figuring that some pay is better than none, these workers head out to join the others. The landowner goes out three more times, even at 5pm, and still there are workers to hire, and still there is work to be done.
I first got tuned in to the world of day laborers while living in Cincinnati, pastoring Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship - after seminary, before coming to Columbus.
Having grown up a Reds fan, one of the perks of our living situation was being able to ride a bus down to the stadium and catch a few games a year. The fun was multiplied by getting to introduce little Eve, then Lily, to the wonders of a live professional baseball game, including the obligatory box of overpriced cracker jacks.
Also while in Cincinnati I got connected with the Interfaith Workers Center and their Day Labor Organizing Project. Much of day labor now runs through labor halls, a third party. Businesses contract with these labor halls which serve as a sort of marketplace/town center where laborers get in line to be hired for the day.
As it turned out, one of the campaigns of the Day Labor Organizing Project was connected to the baseball stadium. Specifically, the process by which all those cracker jack boxes left behind by fans of all ages get cleaned up after games.
At the time, about 40% of those cleaning the ball park were day laborers. Or, more accurately, night laborers. During every home game a bus would deliver workers from the Central Parkway labor hall to the stadium at 10pm. If there was a rain delay or the game went into extra innings the workers waited to begin, sometimes without access to water or bathrooms. When they finished at 2-3:00 in the morning a return bus may or may not be waiting for them. It was up to the workers to find their own transportation home, or at least, somewhere besides the stadium. Previously the workers wouldn’t be on the clock until they started cleaning, meaning by the time they got to the labor hall, waited in line for their work ticket, waited for the bus, rode the bus, then waited at the stadium, they could put in three to four hours before getting any pay. The campaign by the Day Labor Organizing Project had secured their guarantee of pay starting at 10pm, a small victory.
I’m speaking in the past tense because I don’t know how this has changed over the past ten years. Plus, with the baseball season now underway during the pandemic, there are no cheering fans to leave behind their garbage. Meaning there are none of those jobs for those day laborers. I’ve never thought of a big sporting event the same way after learning about those day laborers in Cincinnati, and I’ve been thinking about them recently when I catch a highlight played in an empty stadium.
A professor at the University of Cincinnati, Colleen McTague, who did extensive field research with day laborers, called them “the most powerless people in our society.” That sounds similar to Jesus’ words of “the last,” who will be first.
Knowing this parable was coming up in our series, I made contact with a couple people in Columbus, both attorneys, to get a better sense of the day labor scene in Central Ohio. Emily Brown from the organization ABLE said they send out temporary outreach workers to labor camps around Ohio. The labor camps are part of the formal economy, licensed by the Ohio Department of Health. Growers are required to provide temporary housing for seasonal agricultural workers. Emily did mention that the housing requirements do not include running water, and that there are usually entire families, not just 25 year old young men, staying in these sites.
Patrick Higgins is with the legal aid society of Columbus and said he isn’t aware of any organizing in Columbus around day labor, currently. Even though he is able to help in cases where day laborers feel they have been cheated of some of their pay, he noted that the pay is already so little that most people don’t find it worth their while to wait for the legal system to pursue their case, so they simply move on. He did tell a story of a couple who had done clean up after a city festival in Columbus – working for a contractor who had been hired by a company who had been hired by the city. They hadn’t been paid all that was due them. Patrick was able to track down the contractor who, in order to avoid other legal fees, sent the proper amount to the legal aid office who then passed it on to this couple. Patrick noted that case by case litigation can be very discouraging and that it is time for another wave of a movement to empower workers.
Although neither Emily nor Patrick mentioned it, the rise of the gig economy does seem to be making day laborers, or even hour laborers, out of more and more people.
So what is the kingdom of heaven like? Well, it’s like this vineyard owner who has a lot of power and who we might suspect as being a rather shady character. He starts out typically enough, hiring workers early in the morning to work his vineyard. He goes out again and looks for more workers who don’t have work yet. He tells them he will pay them what is right, at which the workers probably nod in agreement, but scoff under their breath that yeah, they’ve heard that one before. And then this vineyard owner keeps going out looking for more workers. After 6:00 and 9:00, he goes out at 12:00, 3:00, 5:00. Who is still around? Who hasn’t found work yet? Come work for me. Come into my vineyard and I’ll pay you what is right. At the end of the day, when the workers are lining up for their pay there are some who have been out there all day and some who have barely broken a sweat. The only ones promised a living wage are the ones who worked the full day. Everyone else is no doubt unsure and uneasy about getting paid whatever this landowner thinks is “right,” maybe regretting they’d agreed to work without first agreeing on a wage.
And then something unexpected happens. Everyone gets a full day’s wage. Even if they didn’t work the full day, even if they were just able to work a couple hours, they get a full day’s wage. Expecting the landowner to use his power to extract as much as he can out of them for as little expense as possible, instead they find someone who pays the last the same as the first and asks that none be upset by this generosity.
Viewed from a strategic business model perspective, this might not be a good way to run a vineyard. Surely word will get out that this owner is a push-over, nobody will show up at the marketplace until late in the day, now expecting to get a full day’s wage for not much work. No work will actually get done, the vineyard will go to ruin, and the vineyard owner will go bankrupt from having no crop and too much overhead with labor costs. Sounds like a lousy way to run a business.
Or maybe there’s more going on here. Maybe we are seeing a picture of a Divine Generous Spirit, that is interested in searching the town all day to see that everyone has work to do. That goes out every morning early, looking for workers. Who’s up? who’s ready? who’s in the marketplace ready to work? That keeps going out repeatedly during the day. Who’s still here? Who’s willing to work for me? That goes out even late in the day searching and calling out for anyone who is still available to work in God’s fields. There’s still time, and there’s no penalty for showing up late. At the end of the day those looking for great rewards for their work might be disappointed. All they get is what they were promised. Their daily bread. Like mannah – not too much, not too little. Not a lot of glory, not much more than what they need to live on for that day. But enough. And everybody gets enough. Everybody who wants to work will find good fulfilling work to do.
And maybe it is a good business strategy. Maybe the generosity of this vineyard owner becomes well-known. The idea that everyone has inherent worth no matter their economic input starts catching on. People want to buy from him, or her because she has just and generous labor practices. Pretty soon demand is outpacing supply and the owner needs more land and hires more people. She builds up loyalty with her workers who now have the security of full-time employment with some benefits on the side. They’re able to not only feed their family for the day, but also able to save up a little money and become part owners in the operation. Soon they’re helping make decisions, gaining new skills, and together improving the quality of the vineyard and the whole community.
The kingdom of heaven is like this vineyard. In this great, expansive vineyard, the most important thing is not how much work you do for landowner, but the joyful fact that you are in the vineyard in the first place. I’m guessing this is a vineyard where the frequent sampling of the sweet grapes is smiled upon.
And - our work for this surprising, just, Divine Generous Spirit leads us in the direction of those for whom work is not just. God’s overflowing abundance and desire that all have enough somehow flows into our lives in such a way that we become agents of justice in our relationships, content with our enough. If we allow ourselves to get turned around and spun upside down by a God for whom the first will be last, and the last will be first.