Economics and Freedom (Matthew 20:1-16)

The parable of the workers in the vineyard calls us to re-evaluate our own economy, to value people over productivity.

Let’s talk economics, old school. The Greek word oikos, which means “house” or “home” is the root word for our English word “economy.” We get it by way of the Greek oikonomia, which means “household.” This is a worthwhile connection to point out, I think, because today’s Gospel calls for a new perspective on our own economy. 

Farmworkers today are often paid by weight for what they pick. Their wages are based on their productivity. This is not a scandalous notion to most of us. We are taught that you work hard for everything you get. A farmworker here in North Carolina, the nation’s leading sweet potato producer, can expect to earn roughly 26 dollars for each ton of sweet potatoes they pick, which comes out to less than minimum wage. Small farms are often exempt from wage laws, and if the worker is undocumented, as they very often are, they have little power to argue for better pay. But I can easily chalk all of that up to market forces at play. The market values the strenuous work of picking 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes at $26. Those wages, low as they may be, draw people from other countries to come work here. It isn’t scandalous.

It should be scandalous.

If we follow our economy back through to the Greek, we might begin to think of it as a household. Economics describes the relationships by which value is assigned and distributed throughout a system. And the ancient intuition was that it worked like a household. Ephesians 2 tells us that the doors are open wide and we are members of the household of God. Each person not a stranger or an alien, but beloved of God and part of God’s household. God’s economy.

What, then, is valued in this divine economy? Look at today’s Gospel. A landowner is hiring day laborers. Perhaps you’ve seen the places where laborers gather, waiting for someone to come and hire them for the day. If no one comes, they don’t get to work, and don’t get paid. Being a day laborer is a very precarious existence.

The landowner hires some laborers early in the morning, some at 9 o’clock, some at noon, some at three, and some at 5. He really spends a lot of time bringing people to his vineyard, and he tells each group that he would pay them what is fair.

The last group is of particular interest. They have been standing idle in the marketplace all day. We might feel the urge to call them lazy, to assume that they made life choices which justify their unemployment. But the landowner asks them why they have been standing idle all day, and they say “because no one has hired us.” They have been passed over all day. The landowner hires them.

At day’s end, each group gets paid the same sum. The ones who worked from near sunrise to the end of the day get paid the same as the ones who started at 5:00. Anyone of us, had we started working early in the day, would take issue with this. We worked longer, did more work, so we deserve more money. That’s how our economy works. But not the economy of the kingdom of heaven. The grievance of those who worked all day is the grievance of any of us when we have worked hard. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

So then, where is the value assigned? It is, crucially, not assigned to the work done. A person’s worth in God’s household, God’s society, cannot be reduced to the number of grapes they harvested or the sweet potatoes they picked. 

The landowner could have paid a straight hourly wage. He could have even used the surplus of labor to drive wages down. Supply and demand do not work in favor of laborerers in the global economy. The precarity of someone’s situation, in our system, becomes a justification for paying them less. There is always the prospect of someone who will do the work for less, leaving more for profit.

God, in no uncertain terms, rejects that way of assigning value to people. Their value exists in their very existence. Your value exists in your very existence. The landowner in the story places value on the relationship between himself and those he employs. Each receives enough money to make it through the day. They are given, you might say, their daily bread, no matter what. Because that is how God’s kingdom, and God’s economy work. 

There is a lot of resistance in our time to the grace that this story models. We each like to think we are the ones who were hired early in the morning. We have earned what we have, and others are just looking for handouts. Handouts, you may notice, are villified in the mythology of America. We narrate our history as a hardscrabble people fueled by democracy and gumption. A blessed people who manifest our destiny by working exceptionally hard. “God helps those who help themselves” goes the refrain, drawn not from the Bible, but Ben Franklin. It has worked its way into our thinking so much that a local ministry to the homeless used to have a sign out front saying their ministry was “a hand up, not a handout.” God forbid we appear to make sure someone has enough to make it through the day, just because they are part of our community. All of this speaks to where we place our value, and all of it is challenged by today’s Gospel.

The takeaway, then, is that in God’s economy, we do not earn our value. We don’t have to produce work to demonstrate our worth to society. God provides God’s grace for no reason other than because God chooses to. And we envy God’s generosity. We develop our own systems of assigning value, ones that inevitably favor our own interests, and we bristle at the notion that God’s grace operates on a much simpler principle.

But there is relief to be found in this as well. The notion that your work produces your value to the world is the source of so much of our insecurity and anxiety. How much are we consumed by jealousy of someone else’s wealth or success, or fear that we will not reach the goals you have set? How often do we beat ourselves up after an unproductive day? The shame cycle within our over-achiever society is driven by our society’s demand that we prove our worth through work. And we must prove our worth in contrast to others, a dynamic that casts them not as neighbors but as competitors, people out to get the wages that we want. Our exploitative ways come from our need to prove our value. 

Grace lets you off that hook. You are valued and beloved, simply because you are. You were created by a God who does not stop loving you and caring for you. And God does the same for each and every person. We were not created to be in a rat race. We were created to be in a household.

This story is sneaky. When you get down to it, it serves the landowner’s own interest to pay everyone a day’s wage. Those who don’t have enough to feed their families will either starve or move away, and then who would harvest the grapes? As a management strategy, you could say that paying each worker a day’s wage is a way of maintaining the community in which the landowner lives. With full capitalist cynicism intact, the grace of equal pay still makes some sense. 

But that would still be a pale shadow of the kingdom of heaven, for we would not delight in our neighbor’s wellness. Our challenge today is to see that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of each of our neighbors. We are asked to meet God’s grace with our own generosity of wealth and spirit. The last will be first, and the first will be last, and all are beloved members of the economy of God.


The Kingdom of Metaphors

You can’t just speak directly about God as though you know exactly what God is. Whenever we use a word, we are appealing to a reasonably agreed-upon connection between that word and something in the world. An apple, we can all agree, is a fruit that grows on a tree. Maybe you pictured a red on and I pictured a green one when I used the word, but we were both picturing things the other we agree are apples. Apples fit in your hand. We can recognize them easily. 

Most words work like that. There is an object or action or quality in the world that we signify with a word. It’s not perfect, not a 100% solid system, but it’s the basis of communication; symbols that signify things commonly experienced. 

But when we talk about God, especially about the nature of God, our words get slippery and falter, and the signification is far less direct. Jesus is talking today about the kingdom of heaven—three words we recognize that added together signify a thing beyond our comprehension. 

The kingdom of heaven is not an object. It is not a country nearby, or even a bygone historical territory. Inasmuch as it is a kingdom, and the Greek here does translate to kingdom, it has a king. But we get lost when we try to compare God to any kings we experience in our kingdoms, and we also risk getting hung up on the masculinity of a king for whom neither male nor female are useful descriptors. God operates through an inversion of power as we know it, through compassion and weakness and hospitality. There is no reference point in our experience for the kingdom of heaven. It is an altogether foreign place. And also, it’s not a place. It’s an always inbreaking reality. Again, our words can only take us so far.

The kingdom of heaven also must involve heaven, something we think about an awful lot and know very little about. We today probably picture angels on clouds with harps, but there we are just repeating culturally pervasive imagery without much biblical basis.

The kingdom of heaven, as a term, is tremendously appealing, and also incredibly imprecise, because we don’t have an agreed-upon set of objects to anchor those words to. There aren’t words to describe the reality God is seeking to describe, because we can only use words to refer to things we know about. Jesus stands astride the gap between the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the limits of our language. So Jesus turns to metaphor, using known imagery to evoke some truth about God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Farmers hated mustard plants. They were undesirable weeds. How much mustard do you think people really needed anyway. So for all of it’s glorious shrubbiness from such a small seed, it is hardly a blessing. And yet it bursts through and offers homes for the birds, a piece of beauty if you look at it right, but not quite what you had wanted, either.

It’s like yeast, which leavened bread. Understanding that yeast are individual fungi (and bacteria too, if you’re talking wild fermentation, which we almost certainly are, is a very recent historical phenomenon. You have to have a microscope to see yeast. So for most of history, the leavening of bread and fermentation of wine and beer were processes with a great element of mystery. They were predictable, and people knew what they were doing, but I’ve read of breweries where great reverence was taken for the spirits in the place, which were responsible for the fermentation. And so again, the kingdom of heaven is not entirely understood in its substance, but by its effects. It leavens and lifts and enlivens, while remaining itself a mystery.

The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, which compels the one who found and hid it to buy the field. Again, this small part of the scene, the treasure, has the ability to transform what is around it, to raise the value of the land itself.

Or a merchant. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who sells all he has to buy one particular one. It doesn’t just expand things, it also pours all of its value into each part of itself. Each speck of the kingdom carries the full value of the kingdom, just as each part of the universe greets the full presence of God.

The kingdom is like a net that gathers fish, which are judged by the fishermen. The kingdom is comprehensive, but not uncritical. It is not passive, and while each part of it is infinitely valuable, it also radiates its influence and purifies all within it. 

In other words, the kingdom of heaven is transformation. It subjects every part of the world to its evaluation and redistribution of what is precious and sacred. It not only build up new things, but also tears down and casts out old things that cannot accomodate it. 

The disciples said that they understood, but I’m thinking they wanted to look like good students. This is a lot of metaphors stacked on top of one another, moving in different directions, with the clarity and harsh reality of judgment at the end. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand, but I feel it moving.

I may not be able to tell you exactly what the kingdom of heaven is, and I sure couldn’t give you a technical description, but there is so much potential energy in all of these metaphors, that you can almost feel the creation bursting at the seams. The seed and the yeast unlock energy in the elements around them, producing outsized results. The treasure and the pearl seem to bend reality to their contours, releasing the accumulated wealth of lifetimes to have just this one thing. The net raises the teeming life of the sea to our sight, makes it visible and tangible.

I invite you then, to try encountering the world as potential, as energy pent up and awaiting the freedom of the kingdom of heaven. It’s glorious to imagine God turning all of this inside out and upside down and revealing glories within it that we don’t even know how to dream about.  

And notice, as you see the world as potential, that the world as it is right now, looks more beautiful. If, as Paul said, the creation groans with labor pains carrying forth the new life of the kingdom of heaven, we also see a dynamism in it, and we begin to see real value that we had overlooked. Beneath the surface of life, or in the little corners where we hardly ever look, a new world is constantly surging forward. May we, following Jesus, nurture the things that are even now becoming real.