Sharing Christ’s Love – “Equity or Fairness?”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2023
“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock he saw others standing idle in the marketplace and he said to them, “You also go to the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”
So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. Then about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”
They replied, “Because no one has hired us,” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”
When those hired about five o’clock came each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received the usual daily wage, but when they received it they grumbled against the landowner saying,
“These last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day in the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Friends, the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Some years ago, I read about one of the businesses Jimmy Buffet started – “Margaritaville.” Margaritaville is a chain of restaurants and resorts extending from Myrtle Beach to Jamaica to Las Vegas. Last year, the restaurants and resorts enjoyed over $2 billion in revenue.
Jimmy Buffet may have acted like a beach bum, but he was a hard working businessman who worked to improve his life and the life of many others. His resorts and restaurants are touted as “one of the top employers due to competitive wages, benefits packages, and the opportunity to advance one’s career. 90% of his team members say “I Love My Job.”
92% say they are proud to work for Margaritaville.”
Their website claims they have an “Upbeat & Fun Work Environment, Comprehensive Benefits Packages, Growth & Development Opportunities, Flexible Hours & Work Life Balance.”
I do not know if this is still true, but when they started the restaurants some years ago, every quarter each employee would get a bonus check in addition to their paycheck. Five percent of the profits were funneled to the employees and when the bonus came, the busboy and the janitor got the same check amount as the manager.
The five percent was split between all the employees equally; each one would get the same amount as everyone else, every quarter. The company has enjoyed great loyalty, from what I understand, and it has instilled the effort to succeed and advance in one’s career and to work hard to help the bottom line for the sake of the whole.
On the night of September 1, Jimmy Buffett passed away peacefully. As his website claims, he was “surrounded by family, friends, music, and dogs.” I wonder how many people are aware that the indomitable Jimmy Buffett provided the world not only enjoyable music for relaxing summer days, but also some ideals for running a successful, sustainable business that benefits everyone involved. (jimmybuffet.com)
In the kingdom of this world, our wages are based on the hours that we work. The reward at the end of the day is based on the time extended by the worker. Landowners and companies treat people based upon their economic value. What’s most important, it seems, in the kingdom of this world, is that the company has a profitable bottom line, the shareholders are happy, and the executives receive large bonuses.
Whether or not the surrounding community is well-fed, or has access to healthcare, or decent schools for their children to attend, well, those things often do not seem to be included on the list of strategic goals for the business elite.
Life is different in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, the wages are based NOT on the needs of the owner, but on the needs of the workers. The reward at the end of the day is NOT even based on the hours worked, but on the hours that were needed to be worked to earn bread to eat. In the Kingdom of Heaven, people are not treated based on their economic value, but are treated based upon their intrinsic value as human beings.
The all-important question in the Kingdom of Heaven is NOT “what can the company can get out of the worker?”; the question is: “what do the workers, what does the community, need in order to survive, or even thrive, so that everyone will be whole and well?”
In the kingdom of this world, we uphold what is fair – the first shall be first and the last shall be last. That’s how it is. You work the hours, you get the pay.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, everything is turned upside down. Based on the grace and generosity of the King, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
The ones with the greatest needs will be provided for first while those whose needs are less will have to wait and linger until all have been fed.
How does this work in real life? What does this look like? Jesus’ unusual statement – “the last shall be first” – recalls the very first statement that Jesus made when he began his ministry.
He was in his hometown of Nazareth, and he was reading on the Sabbath day in the synagogue. He unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:18-19)
Is good news to the poor bad news for the rich? Oftentimes, these parables of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven seem like wonderful news for those who find themselves at the back of the line in human life, but, at least sometimes, seem to be difficult news for those who find themselves towards the front of the line in human life.
Now, it should be noted that this parable has often been interpreted not in terms of worldly economics, but in terms of eternal life. The reward at the end of the day is heaven. One person may have lived their whole life in Church. They were brought up in the faith. They went to Sunday school every Sunday. They gave ten percent of their money to God’s work. They served as a leader in the Church and community all their days. And when they died, they were welcomed into heaven.
The “late arrivals”, on the other hand, were not raised in the church. They led a life, not of Christian service and leadership. They spent their whole life not walking the path of Jesus Christ and his Church, but, on their deathbed, they were found and they were saved.
Just like in the parable, the landowner comes and finds them hanging around and says, “Why have you been idle your whole life?”
“Because no one came and hired us.” And at the end of the day, they receive the same reward of heaven.
Those at the front of the economic line in life prefer the eternal life interpretation of the parable. With that interpretation, we are not forced to respond to the economic realities of today’s world.
The end result may seem unfair, but it’s heaven, afterall, and we have no control over who gets to heaven.
We do exert some measure of influence on the economic rewards in this life.
Another way that this parable has been interpreted is in terms of the disciples of Christ. Jesus was talking to his disciples in this passage, to his inner circle. It seems that at least a few of them were supposing that because they were disciples, they could expect some greater reward in the kingdom of heaven.
Just a chapter before our text in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter remarked to Jesus that he and the others have left everything to follow him. What then will we have?, asked Peter.
Just after our text for today, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and asks if her sons may be seated on his right and left hand when he comes in his kingdom.
Do you remember that bestselling book A Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren? There are many helpful aspects to that book, but the book seems to suggest that those who did good good deeds in this world would be rewarded and have a higher place in heaven. That does not seem to me to be what Jesus was saying. We cannot assume that because we have been around the longest or because we have done a lot of work in the church, or because we are ministers or elders or long term teachers or whatever, that we are more special than anybody else in God’s kingdom.
The reality is that while we are here working in the vineyard, doing the work and teaching the Sunday School, God is out there in the marketplace looking for more workers, especially those ones whom no one else will hire. The surprise, at the end of the day, is that God welcomes them on the same terms and rewards them the same as the ones who have been around for decades. The last shall be the first to enter the pearly gates.
In 1928, George Buttrick, a famous preacher, stated that this parable is not an economic tract. Jesus is not describing how to run a vineyard, but the parable is “a demand that industry shall exist for man and not man for industry”. As we watch what will happen over the next several weeks in the automotive industry, we will witness a wrestling match which will highlight the needs of the workers versus the sustainability of the corporations. The workers will cry: Pay us more fairly, so that we and our families can eat and have a future. The corporate executives will respond: If we pay you too much, there will eventually be no company to hire you.
Business owners know that you cannot pay your employees plus all of those unemployed folks standing around the marketplace a full day’s wage. Even so, there is a scriptural background for taking care of the less fortunate. There is a scriptural background for unemployment income in our nation.
There is a scriptural background for disability income for those unable to work.
There is a scriptural background for benefits available to children so that they can eat.
There is a scriptural background for corporate responsibility toward the communities in which the corporations reside.
As I have stated many times before, as you have read and heard in the news, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. For nearly my entire lifespan, the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing, and the numbers in the middle class are declining.
In many industries, the actions of the owners are self-serving. They line their own pockets with profits. They pay as little as they can for as long as they can. They take advantage of workers who have very few options in life, and pay them less than a fair wage, far less than a livable wage.
In the kingdom of this world, the landowner sometimes seems to focus only on the bottom line.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, the landowner’s primary focus is NOT on the bottom line. The landowner’s primary focus is NOT on his or her own wealth. In the kingdom of heaven, the generous landowner is concerned for the worker. The landowner is generous, NOT self-serving, but self-giving.
This particular landowner lives with the “abundance” mentality of the kingdom of heaven. There will be enough to go around. There will be enough for everyone to eat tonight.
There are enough resources available for everyone to have a warm place to sleep. Consider for a moment what happens when a natural disaster strikes. When the hurricane comes and desperate people are sitting on rooftops needing shelter and water and food, our nation has an abundance mentality.
At least for a while, for several weeks or even months, the response is: Yes, we can provide a place to sleep. Yes, we can give some money for food and necessities. Yes, we will declare this situation a “state of emergency” and we will ensure that we will do the best we can to help everyone who is in need.
In crisis, our nation steps up to the abundance mentality. There will be enough to go around; everybody who needs help can get help. The reality is that most of the time our people and our governments do not live with the abundance mentality. In the kingdom of this world, we mostly live with a “scarcity” mentality. We live with the mentality that there is not enough to go around, and I had better grab mine while I can, and guard mine against anybody taking it.
I am responsible for myself and my family. I need to take care of my own bottom line. It is not my responsibility to be worried about those idle ones in the marketplace.
Consider the values of the kingdom of the world versus the kingdom of heaven. What would Jesus say to a corporation that would lay off a twenty eight year employee while ensuring that top management receives another multi-million dollar bonus?
What would Jesus say to the business owners who are so focused on the profits that they refused to address that the majority of their employees live near the poverty line and have no affordable access to health care?
What would Jesus say to the owners of companies that are located in geographical areas with poorly funded and failing public schools?
Those who participate in the Kingdom of Heaven will not be jealous of the good fortune of others and will certainly not begrudge the generosity of God to those new in the faith. They will not be so concerned with personal needs that they have little sympathy for those around them.
Those who have one foot firmly planted in the Kingdom of Heaven will rejoice when others are blessed. They will marvel at the generosity and openness of God towards those who are undeserving, and will imitate that generosity themselves. Over time, we pray that today’s landowners and stockholders may become more like the One whom we worship, concerned not so much with personal needs or maximizing profits, but concerned also with the needs of the last and the least, especially the ones whom no one else will hire.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, we pray that those poorest of places in the world, those places with inadequate employment and corrupt governments and failing infrastructure, could one day be surprised by blessings from God.
What joy – what joy! – that could bring to those who are first in line in life, to witness that the last have been loved and blessed and made whole by a generous God. To God be the glory in God’s coming kingdom. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church