What is Just – Rev. Kristin Schmidt

Homily Part 1: “What Is Just” Rev. Kristin, Minister

Well Happy Labor Day weekend everyone! Most years our family looks forward to a cook-out on Labor Day, or a trip to the beach. While social distancing means we won’t be able to do those things this year, we are looking forward to a lazy Monday without having to worry about getting signed in to virtual school.

But Labor Day is about more than swimming and cook-outs and sleeping in. It’s a day set aside to honor the work and sacrifices of unions and the labor movement. It’s one day every year when we’re invited to remember that things like the standard work week, overtime pay, parental leave, and workplace protections weren’t given to us by big business or the government, people risked life and limb to fight for them. 

I’m very grateful for the good work the labor movement has done. But every year when this holiday weekend rolls around I think about the people today who don’t enjoy the benefits labor worked so hard to secure. I remember the women I’ve known who have been fired when their bosses learned they were pregnant, I remember when I worked retail and sometimes didn’t get paid for my overtime work. I think of the people who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat, people who make their living on tips and driving for Uber, and the prisoners in California who fight the wildfires there every year. Labor Day seems especially poignant this year, when an unprecedented number of people are out of work while the stock market soars. This year, when the gap between the wealthy and everybody else is as big as it’s ever been, and as the rise of the “gig economy” robs more and more workers of rights, protections, and stable pay. 

There are some striking parallels between our world today and the world Jesus and his friends and followers lived in. The parable we watched during our Time for All Ages this morning lifts up some of those parallels. I think that’s one of the reasons I find myself coming back to this parable, again and again. Jesus told parables in order to help his friends and followers think critically about their world. And just as it does for us today, this parable would have raised questions about how we choose to value work, and what makes a person deserving or undeserving of work and compensation. 

Like so many passages in sacred texts, there is a traditional way of reading this story. And there is power in the traditional reading. By giving each worker the same pay regardless of how long they worked, the vineyard owner seems to affirm something in those workers beyond their labor. By paying all of them what was considered at the time a fair day’s wage, he seems to affirm something akin to our faith’s first principle. As Luther Seminary professor Dr. Matthew Skinner writes, 

In the end, it’s not about unfair payments. At the parable’s conclusion, the full-day workers don’t moan that they have been cheated. They complain instead to the landowner, “You have made them [the one-hour workers] equal to us.” It’s not the generosity or the extravagance that makes them angry. Rather, the issue is this: By dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their value, their worth. 

Our faith teaches us that our worth isn’t based on how many grapes we picked today. This way of reading this story affirms the worth and preciousness of every person apart from their ability to produce profit. It suggests that regardless of how much or little a person can work, they are of equal worth. This way of reading the parable supports the theology that the world we dream about, the reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God, starts with what people need, with what is just, and not with what labor they have to offer or some sense of their merits. 

This way of reading of this story is good news for many people. It’s good news to people who cannot work, for whatever reason. It’s good news for people dedicated to increasing the minimum wage. It’s good news to people with less privilege, people left outside of the meritocracy because they were never given opportunities to show their merits in the first place. 

As we enter into our reflection time, let’s think about this parable and our first principle. 

What would a world organized around people’s needs instead of their ability to generate profit look like? 

Reflection Question:

What would a world organized around people’s needs instead of their labor look like? 

Homily Part 2: “What is Just”

The traditional reading of our parable is compelling, but it isn’t the only way to approach it.

In the traditional reading the owner of the vineyard represents God, a loving God who generously cares for the needs of all equally, regardless of how much work they were able to do. And yet, at the end of the day, the laborers are still just day laborers, workers in a gig economy where the land stays in the possession of the rich. And the land owner stays rich, and in a position to easily exploit small differences between the workers so they remain divided. Whether two thousand years ago or today, this is the way that the rich and powerful have always made sure workers can mount no real threat to a system set up to transfer wealth from them to the rich. 

But here’s the thing. Jesus told parables as a way to try and help his friends and followers imagine the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God is like a vineyard owner” he would say. But how on earth could this story, with these troubling layers, possibly point toward the Beloved Community? As progressive Christian blogger D. Mark Davis asks, “How are we to encounter a parable that is built on a structurally unjust scenario?” 

In sacred texts, we often have to look to the passages right before and right after the one we are studying to get more information. It’s interesting that Jesus tells our parable right after another exchange you might be more familiar with. A rich man comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him he must sell all he has and give it to the poor. And the rich man goes away weeping, for he had so many possessions. 

But wait. In the first exchange the wealthy are supposed to give away everything to the poor. In the second a rich man is compared to God for being generous with his wealth. So, maybe the point is bigger than either story could convey alone. The animation of this parable we watched was wonderful, but it left out perhaps the most important sentence of the story. At the end, Jesus says “So, the last will be first and the first will be last.” I think maybe Jesus was trying to teach his friends and followers that the world we all dream about, the Beloved Community, the kingdom of God, has no place for a sense of entitlement or superiority.

Years ago in a conversation with friends I mentioned that I was supporting work to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. One of my friends was horrified, and said “But if we raise the minimum wage to $15 then a burger flipper will make the same as some EMTs.” Just like the workers in the vineyard, the problem wasn’t the amount of money itself; it wasn’t even that EMTs ought to be making way more than that in the first place. The problem was making burger flippers and EMTs economic equals that upset him. The problem was the effort to disrupt a system that does everything it can to keep the first, first and the last, last. Nevermind that there is simply no moral justification for anyone to make less than a living wage in a country with so many billionaires. 

This sense that some people are more entitled than others, that some work is more deserving of a living wage than other work, that we must earn our worth through labor or wealth, this set of ideas is everywhere. And it is this deeply rooted and deeply warped sense of entitlement that holds up a lot of structural inequality and racism in this country, just as it did in Jesus’ time and place. 

I guess that’s why so many people paid attention when professional athletes chose to withhold their labor last week to protest police brutality. It’s been interesting to observe people whose great-grandfathers led strikes to protest unfair treatment bemoan athletes today using the same strategy to protest police brutality. Our political system empowers the wealthy to use their money and power to influence politics all the time. That’s literally what lobbyists and Super PACs do. But when athletes of color refuse to play, it challenges white America’s sense of entitlement to their labor. As Abraham Kahn wrote a few days ago in an article in The Conversation, “What began with the Milwaukee Bucks in Orlando signals a new form of athlete activism not because the platform is growing or the arguments are becoming more convincing, but because it eschews the trappings of symbolic spectacle. The players are leveraging labor power to accomplish real political work.” 

If we in America on Labor Day weekend, 2020 are to take anything away from Jesus’ two thousand year old parable, I think it is this: the laborers in the vineyard had a lot more in common than they did dividing them, just as workers today do. The wealthy and powerful have always exploited small differences between workers to keep them divided, and it is the warped sense that some people are superior to others because of how much or long they work, because of how much profit they can make, because of the color of their skin or where they were or weren’t born, that keeps unfair systems in place. 

This Labor Day weekend, may we remember that no matter what messages the world might give us, no matter what our supervisors might tell us, our worth – and the worth of every human being – is not something that needs to be earned. It is inherent to our humanity. May we remember that the forces at work dividing us are not new, and they are not inevitable. May we use this holiday as an opportunity to imagine a reality based on something other than merit and reward for labor, a reality where people’s needs are met apart from their ability or inability to work. For in order for something to become reality, it must be imaginable first. And may we remember, as Adrienne Maree Brown writes that 

[we] are enough

[our] work is enough

[we] are needed

[our] work is sacred

[we] are here

And for that, let us be grateful. Amen.