Certain self-styled Christians are fond of proclaiming very loudly and publicly that the United States is what they call a “Christian nation.” Not only is this not true—the Founding Fathers were mainly Deist or agnostic—but today’s gospel parable illustrates how far off the mark that proclamation is.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” the gospel says. Let’s hope not. Here’s why. Those laborers that the landowner is out searching for are day laborers. They’re poor, they may be unskilled, and they’re unemployed. In Jesus’s time, you would find them in the agora—the public square. The landowner went there and agreed to hire them to work in his vineyard for “the usual daily wage”—that would have been one denarius. What’s that worth? We calculate the value of Roman money by comparing its purchasing power to today’s dollar. Based on the minimum wage in this country, the denarius would be worth a bit more than forty-three dollars. That’s subsistence wages, especially for doing hard manual labor. Day laborers in this country do better than that, don’t they?
According to a comprehensive study done in 2007[i], there are approximately forty-four thousand day laborers either working day labor or looking for work on any given day in the state of California alone. The pool is comprised predominantly of Mexican migrants and eighty percent of them are undocumented. The contemporary equivalents of the ancient agora are mainly home improvement stores and gas stations or convenience stores. Likewise, the equivalents of the ancient landowners are homeowners looking for help with gardening projects and clean-ups, or residential construction sites and landscaping businesses looking for unskilled help doing often difficult or tedious work.
Here are some statistics regarding the life of day laborers in California back in 2007. I would expect that things are even more difficult for them today. Two-thirds of the day laborers queried have been off work due to on-the-job injuries. The same percentage have gone to work while sick, injured, or in pain. Many of the reported injuries were due to hazardous conditions, faulty equipment, and lack of safety gear and protections. Meanwhile, nearly half of all day laborers have experienced wage theft, either by being stiffed by the employer after working at the agreed-upon job for the agreed-upon time or they’ve been underpaid and told to “take it or leave it.” One-third have been forced to work longer than the agreed-upon time for the same wage. Another half have been denied water, food, or breaks during their workday. One-quarter of them were insulted or threatened by their employer, and one-third have experienced being abandoned at the worksite when the day was done. One out of five have experienced violence at their employers’ hands.
Would that all that abuse were the extent of it. One in ten has been arrested for looking for work or has received police citations (tickets). One-third were required to leave the hiring site by law enforcement. Local businesses also attempt to deter looking for work by harassing day laborers. One in five has been insulted or verbally harassed by them.
At first glance, the day laborer situation in California—which is better than many areas of this country—may seem to have little to do with today’s parable outside of the similarity in subject matter. However, on closer inspection, I think you’ll see that they have more in common than we may like to admit.
Obviously, the landowner in the parable is in charge of hiring and compensating the workers in his vineyard. Without allegorizing too much, if the kingdom of heaven is like the landowner, then those called to the kingdom are represented by the workers in the vineyard. It’s been suggested that the parable was formulated to address the rancor that was being felt in the earliest Christian community between the Jewish and Greek Christians. The Jewish people, after all, had borne the heat of the Torah for millennia, while the Greeks must have seemed to them like upstarts who’d come late to the knowledge of the Lord and hadn’t paid their dues. The parable contrasts the envy of the early workers toward the late ones with the generosity of the landowner.
Our discussion of this parable today reminds me of a story that you may have heard. It goes like this… The end of the world has come, and all humanity is lined up to enter eternity in two incredibly long lines. One line is made up of righteous people waiting at the gates of paradise, the other is…well…not. As they’re waiting impatiently for their turn, a murmur is spreading back from the front of the line. “Can you believe it? They’re letting those other people in, too!” Those waiting in the righteous line are appalled. “That’s not fair! I did everything I was supposed to do. I worked hard at it, and for what? So, those other people are just going to get away with everything? What about justice? What about their punishment? I’ve been cheated!” At that very moment, all the grumblers are condemned, because that was the Last Judgment.
God doesn’t ask us if we’re worthy of his love. We’re not. God doesn’t ask us if we’ve sinned and done wrong. We have. God doesn’t consider our social status, our education, our skill set, our intelligence, our race, our national origin, or whether we’ve obeyed all the laws or not. He only asks if we have loved as he has loved us. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out into the marketplace to find us. He brought us onboard; he promised us everything we’d need—if we’d only trust him. His rains fall on the just and the unjust. God doesn’t discriminate. He is generous to all and asks us in his name to show that same generosity to one another—unconditionally and without qualification like the landowner in the parable.
Our pseudo-Christian countrymen see no contradiction in claiming to follow that Christ, and yet excluding those whom they don’t approve of not only from their loving kindness and concern but also from the most basic of human considerations. And they boast of it. Don’t let them in. Build a wall. Send them back. Split up their families. Bus them out of state. Stiff them their wages. Deny them food and water. Make them suffer. If they’re hurt or die, it’s their own fault. They did it to themselves. They deserve it.
Isn’t that the worst kind of envy: refusing compassion to those who didn’t do what you did to get to where you are, and worse—taking what little remains to them away? Our migrants and day laborers—should they be punished for having been born in poverty and injustice? Is it now a crime to be poor, unschooled, unskilled, and unemployed? Do national boundaries somehow override God’s love? Is this the way of the kingdom of heaven? These people may suffer homelessness, hunger, injury, illness, and the loss of their loved ones. They may die of neglect. But all their suffering will pass someday. Yet woe to those who would deny them not only the necessities of life but also their humanity itself, and all in the name of Christ. It’s blasphemy. And trust me when I say, that is the Last Judgment.
[i] Abel Valenzuela, Jr and Nick Theodore, 2007, Searching and Working: California’s Day Laborers and Worker Centers, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, 2007, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/27p0k6tt