September 18, 2008

Workers’ Rights and the Kingdom of Heaven

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16)
“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.” Matthew 20:15-16

Some say that human beings are hardwired with a strong sense of what’s fair and what’s not. Maybe. But even if it’s not part of our DNA, it seems pretty clear that the resentment we feel when treated unjustly is learned early and runs deep. Ever been in a room full of toddlers when there aren’t enough toys to go around?

We don’t seem to lose that sense of personal violation and moral indignation as we get older. The toys we fight over as adults may be bigger and more sophisticated—they may even be things like careers and promotions and reputations—but we are often as petty and possessive as any preschooler in our scramble to claim what we believe is rightfully ours.

In fact, part of the narrative we internalize as we make our way through the institutions meant to educate and socialize us (schools and sports teams, for instance), is this: If you work hard you will be rewarded and you will deserve your success. (Don’t we communicate this to our kids all the time?) Current campaign speeches targeting that coveted demographic—“the middle class”—regularly exploit this maxim, the corollary of which assumes that showing up late, standing around idle, and not putting in a hard day’s work, means you must go to the back of the line. You are a burden to the rest of us and you do not deserve the same rewards that the conscientious, hard-working, early risers do.

And then there’s Jesus.

This week’s parable of the workers in the vineyard (found only in Matthew’s gospel) violates not only our sense of equity when it comes to work and fair compensation for work, but our understanding of divine justice. God, like Santa Claus, is supposed to reward our hard work and our good behavior. We’ve been nice this year, Santa-God! The naughty ones will surely get their lumps of coal.

But in the parable, the ones who worked only one hour—one hour!—got the same pay as those who labored and sweated all day long. When the settling up was done at day’s end, the dutiful ones were not amused: “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (20:12).

I think about this parable in light of immigrants I’ve gotten to know and the “problem” of undocumented workers. So much of the ever-increasing hostility toward immigrants in this country is rooted in the conviction that we were here first, we’ve been here longer, this is our vineyard. (Sounds a little like quarrelsome toddlers, doesn’t it).

The resentment toward immigrants also comes from a sense that our rights as native-born Americans are being violated—our jobs are being taken away, our resources are being diminished. Conversely, those who advocate for immigrants often speak of the rights of these refugee workers—their inherent claim on work and resources and human dignity.

While I have much more sympathy with the latter view, the emphasis on rights in both positions is misplaced. In the kingdom of God, says Jesus, we are not blessed because we have a right to such blessings, but because in God’s infinite mercy and generosity we are the undeserving recipients of an abundance we can never deplete.

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” urges the apostle Paul in this Sunday’s Epistle lesson. Surely part of such a directive is that we are to welcome everyone into the abundance that God has provided—not because they have a right to be there but because the Church, as Christ’s body, needs them to be there. That is, we can’t fully be who God intends us to be without the gift of the stranger in our midst--the stranger/immigrant/vineyard worker who reveals the unsettling truth that turns out to be good news for all of us: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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