Monday, September 25, 2023

The Daily Wage


Mathew 20:1-16

Proper 20 / Year A

Day laborers are an important part of the work force in biblical times and both the Law and the prophets go to great lengths to protect them.  For example, Deuteronomy 24:14-15 says this:

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.  Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.  Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Jesus is more than aware of the value of this sector of the workforce.  In Matthew 9:37-38, he draws metaphorically on it when describing the need for disciples to do the work of the Kingdom: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, so pray the Lord will send laborers out into the harvest.” 

This morning we hear Jesus tell a parable about a wealthy landowner who hires several waves of workers over the course of a day, agreeing to pay the first group the “usual daily wage” while promising to pay “whatever is right” to subsequent recruits.  At the end of the day the landowner pays the usual daily wage to those who worked the least, leading to speculation from those who worked the longest they will be paid more.  When they aren’t, they are outraged. 

Here are two small details about this parable.  First, it appears only in Matthew’s gospel.  And second, while Jesus explains to his disciples the meaning of many of his stories, this one he does not.  It is up to us to figure out how to interpret it. 

Some hold the first group of workers represent God’s chosen people.  They are the ones who have ‘worked’ the longest at being God’s witnesses in the world.  The later workers represent converts to the faith, gentiles who are now disciples.  The ‘wage’ all receive is salvation but those who have been at it the longest believe they deserve more.  I suppose this is close to the standard interpretation.

Some commentators are critical of this parable because it perpetuates a system of economic injustice, allowing the wealthy to thrive while trapping the disadvantaged in a cycle of poverty.  Why does Jesus have the landowner pay only the daily wage?  Why does the one who invited people to sell all they have, give it to the poor, and follow him, not have the landowner to do something dramatic to lift all the workers out of their destitution?  It is an interpretation which goes against what most see in this story – an overly generous landowner who goes above and beyond to take care of day laborers in his community.

My focus is on the “usual daily wage.”  Typically, it is a Roman coin called a denarius and it affords a person the ability to buy enough food to feed a family for one day.  Today we might call it a living wage.  It is the minimum amount of money a person needs to survive.  Jesus’ landowner, aware of this, continues to hire throughout the day because he knows families will go hungry if he doesn’t put people to work.  Paying “whatever is right” might seem obvious to us.  If one group works twelve hours to earn a denarius, then those who worked only one hour should receive 1/12 of a denarius.  Right?  But Jesus’ landowner knows this pittance will not be enough to feed a family of four.  The one-hour worker needs the usual daily wage just as the twelve-hour workers do. 

When Jesus’ followers ask him to teach them how to pray, he gives us great insight into how he himself approaches living.  What does it say to you his prayer includes “Give us this day our daily bread”?  It says to me Jesus did not always know where his next meal is coming from, but he trusts God does.  It says to me he lives one day at a time and in his experience God provides enough for today’s needs. 

I am grateful I don’t have to live hand to mouth.  When I see a person at the grocery store checking out the cost of an item to see if she can afford it or not, I am made deeply aware of how blessed I am.  Daily bread is not something I have to worry about.  But there is plenty else I need to get through this day.  God knows what it is.  God cares about it.  And God provides.

I know some of you have a lot on your plate (and I am not talking about food).  Health problems, family dynamics, career concerns, disappointments, emotional scars… I could go on and on.  I think this morning’s parable tells us God is not going to make these things simply go away.  But God is going to give us everything we need to carry our load for today.   

Today we remember God’s favor is not about who earns what or who deserves the most.  It is about what you need today in order to live faithfully and fruitfully.  I count on it and you can too!