We know how it works in the economy of the world. You only have to think back to grade school, waiting in line on the playground to be picked for whatever teams were being formed: baseball, kickball, soccer. Where were you in line? I was pretty horrible at baseball – a sure strike out every time! As I watched the captains pit us one against another, “choose” and strategize for a winning team, it was painful: I’ll take Aaron; then I want Robin. I tried to look confident, ready to jump into action, willing to be a team player. But, sure as the sun sets in the west, I was the 5:00 pick: Okay, come on, I guess I get you! Nothing is worse than being last in the economy of the world, feeling as if you have nothing to offer and are looking in from the outside.
But, how else can it be? If the world were to be run like the owner of the vineyard, and even the guy who works an hour gets the same paycheck as the ones who worked all day long, you can’t expect that anyone would show up early, ever again. If that’s how you’re going to run your company, everyone will sit around all day watching cable. If God’s gunna let everyone into the kingdom at the 11th hour, why bother!?!
My parents, like all my friends parents, taught us kids’ good work ethics to prepare us for the economy of the world. When we were young, we got a modest allowance for chores we did around the house, and we learned that for a certain amount of work, you get a certain amount of pay. Then, when we turned 16, now we could get a job permit and really rake it in! And like all my brothers and my sister, we worked summers’ for the Kirk Christmas Tree company, shearing all sizes of pine trees, one boring bushy green thing after another, in the “scorching heat,” “bearing the burden of the day.” And the only thing that made the blisters, the sweat and exhaustion worth while, was our paycheck at the end of the week. Waiting in line, from the first to the last, we were eager to receive the pay we had coming. And we knew that for every year you worked for Kirk, you got a raise. I remember I started at $1.65/hour. Then we’d each compare and make sure we were paid right, no matter how “envious” the last new-be’s were of the first long-timers.
Everyone knows you can’t run an economy the way the vineyard owner does. Ever since Sophomore Econ 101, we’ve known that paying everybody the same is no way to make a buck. This is bad business, fuzzy math and flat-out unfair. In the real world, time plus effort equals production, and production equals pay. Those who are in the most demand, with the highest skills, are righteous ones and receive the first and greatest reward.
This week, as the President was out stumping for his Jobs Program, the 2010 Census results were released: Poverty in America has hit an all time high. Over 46 million, one in six Americans, live below the poverty line, a line which hasn’t even tried to keep up with inflation: $22,300 for a family of four. That’s not enough for one to live on in Chicago! How many millions more then, aren’t even counted among the working poor? And so, in this economy, even those “standing around idle in the marketplace” is a false indicator. I’m guessing, the economy of God is looking a lot more productive to the growing number of “the last.” Maybe we’re getting ready for the economy of God to take root and bloom?
The remarkable thing about Jesus’ parable, I think, is that the owner of the vineyard continues to cruise the spot where the day laborers gather to look for more laborers throughout the day. We don’t know why those hired at “about 5:00” weren’t hired earlier. Perhaps they did not have the needed skill set. Maybe they couldn’t speak the language, lacked a proper education or were missing a green card. Maybe they couldn’t afford the increase in gas prices and had to walk, or stayed home in morning with a sick child. Whatever the reason, they were left out.
But what seems clear is that the owner of the vineyard is eager to hire, to include everyone who is willing to work, and to treat them equally. Normally no one goes out again after the usual day break hour to hire again like this one does. Normally the owner wouldn’t go out at all, but would send the manager. But this owner goes out multiple times, and finally again at 5:00, surprised that there are still more, asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” And what they say is heart breaking, “because no one has hired us!” But this particular owner welcomes them to “go into the vineyard!”
In the economy of God then, everyone gets a job. God is passionate about including everyone. Getting us together in the same vineyard, the same play ground, the same world, is precisely what Jesus came to do, even if it cost him his life. In the economy of God, the last line-up first and the first line-up last. But then, they are rewarded equally. Perhaps the more accurate tag line to this parable would be, “the last will be first, and the first will be …equal!”
Parables tell us something about what the kingdom and realm of God is like. Not fully revealing it, as it will be when heaven and earth are united. For now, we live in the tension, in between the economy of this world and God’s economy. Jesus taught that the realm of God was dawning, beginning to peek through, in his presence and ministry and teachings. And so we look for where and how that is true every day, including how God makes it manifest in and through us, and our lives.
“The last will be first, and the first will be… equal.” We’re still a long way from that in these days. But we rejoice that God is an eager employer, and never wearies from searching us out and inviting us to the vineyard’s banqueting table, where a rich harvest of wine is served, at the feast of the kingdom and realm of heaven, where the first and the last are all equally fed the meal of salvation.