Leveraging Privilege: The Workers in the Vineyard

Stories are powerful business. Clarence Jordan, one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity said once, “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.” The best thing and the worst thing about a story is that it doesn’t tell us what to think. The story Jesus tells about the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew is one of those stories that we can read in different ways.

Parable of the Workers: an overview

Here’s the story: a land owner goes out to hire people to work the land. He hires people early in the morning, then again at nine, then again at noon, and when he notices at five that workers are still waiting for employment, he hires the rest late in the day. The workers he hires early in the morning agreed to work for one denarius. At the end of the day, the workers -- no matter what time they started -- all earn one denarius. When the early morning workers see this, they complain saying that they deserve more than those who only worked an hour or even half a day. The landowner says he wants to pay everyone a fair wage and since the money is his, it is his to give out as he sees fit. He asks them, “are you envious because I’m generous?”

The interpretation we might have heard before is that God’s grace falls on everyone regardless of their merit. A person who has squandered their life on selfishness and yet at the end sees the error of their ways is just as deserving as the person who has dedicated their life to noble causes. Grace is freely given and cannot be earned.  

We can also look at this story as a lesson on economic justice: the needs of the workers are given priority by the landowner, even over his own needs. Generosity trumps greed for the betterment of everyone. A commentary of this parable I read says, “After letting our imaginations dwell in the surprising generosity of this parable and of God, we can no longer look at that parking lot filled with farmworkers who are paid unjustly and who are viewed as disposable, and rest easy.”

God’s Abundance vs. Man’s Scarcity

I’d like to look at this parable from the perspective of the disgruntled workers and the story of Humanity’s grip on power. The perceived injustice from their point of view is just that, a perception that they are owed something more. They are grasping for what they believe is rightfully theirs. 

And yet, Jesus is teaching us what the divine economy really is. It is living in God’s abundance rather than in human scarcity. To live in abundance is to live in generosity and justice – to make sure that everyone has access to the things that you value. To live in scarcity is to withhold and to hoard. And what we as humans withhold and hoard more than anything else is our privilege. But, when we live into God’s abundance, we give up the rules of privilege entirely. Privilege becomes something we leverage for the sake of a “beloved community” which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  described as, “a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate.”

Stories of Today: Who Suffers?

When we talk about curriculum in schools that teach the fullness of American history which includes the history and contributions of Black and Indigenous people of color, we are talking about abundance. But when white parents get up at Board of Education meetings and scream about “Critical Race Theory '' and the fear of their children “feeling badly about themselves,” isn’t this a form of hoarding and withholding? The belief is “my child’s right to feel comfortable is more important than your child’s right to be seen.” What feeds that sense of privilege? 

In 2021, nine­teen states enacted thirty-four laws restrict­ing access to voting – far and away the most in any year in at least the past decade. Missouri was one of the first states to try and pass strict ID requirements fifteen years ago and was one of the states passing the suppressive law in 2021. We know these laws tend to impact people of color for a variety of reasons whether it be access to nearby polling places, limited flexible work hours, transportation, or other access issues. We also know that these laws limit voting power to those whose access to basic requirements like social security numbers, government issued IDs and other necessities to move within the system are challenging to obtain. Everyone has an equal right to vote. What feeds that sense that some are entitled to less?  

When did equality start meaning less for me? 

We’ve seen time and time again over the last several years whether it’s mask mandates or gun laws, the debates over balancing freedoms with public safety.  A friend said to me today, “eventually our freedoms are going to kill us.” Like the vineyard workers, when we grasp for things we feel are rightfully ours to the detriment of our neighbor, we are not living in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  

Pastor Matt has talked about the sin of White Supremacy from the pulpit. In this parable, I think Jesus is talking about it as well. This is what feeds our sense of entitlement? This is what feeds our sense that our needs are more important than our neighbors’?  

This is not somebody else’s sin. This is OUR sin. We have all felt entitled to things. We have all felt resentment towards someone that got something we wanted or angered that someone got something we felt they didn’t earn. But in God’s economy, there is no privilege.

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