Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend that someone is casting a play, and you are invited to take a role.
The play is called “The Parable of the Laborers” and you have your choice of roles: A laborer who comes early in the day; a laborer who comes mid-day; or a laborer who starts work late in the day, at at the eleventh hour. Which of these roles do you feel drawn to?
I suspect that most of us can relate immediately, even viscerally, to the role of laborer — be it early bird or latecomer. And I further imagine that our response to this role may happen on more than one level.
On the spiritual level, for example, some may feel that they have come to faith, come to God’s service, late in the day…late in their lives. Oh, those squandered years. Can we ever make up for them? Will God truly reward us as if we had come bright and early?
Or perhaps we look back at a life lived faithfully, never wandering from the path of piety, service, and devotion — and in the unlikely event that we may have strayed, immediately confessing and seeking reconciliation and forgiveness. Is that you?
Or, on a more concrete level, this tale may strike us as one of economics.
Perhaps you feel you’ve worked long and hard for all you have; you tithe and are responsible with your finances. But surely someone who is a spendthrift, a debtor, a slacker — where’s the justice in that person receiving the same recompense? Or you may be thinking of your professional accomplishments — the long hard years you put into your education and training and a successful career. You don’t claim to be rich, but comfortable. You’re paid pretty well, and why not? You deserve it!
In the story we’ve heard today, the grumbling among the first laborers is triggered not so much by what they received — after all, it was the agreed-upon wage of one denarius — as by what the others received. Ah, the familiar story of the tenth commandment! What you have is better than what I have. What undergirds this covetousness is the belief that in this life there is fair and unfair, right? Certainly “That’s not fair” or “No fair!” are among the earliest, most heartfelt phrases of childhood — to be repeated pretty much throughout life.
So here I must make a confession: one of my secret heroes (now no longer a secret) is Judge Judy. If you don’t know her, Judy Sheindlin is a 75-year-old retired Manhattan family court judge whose daily television program is now in its twentieth season. Each episode is introduced with the dramatic announcement: The people are real — the cases are real — the judgments are final!
Judge Judy has an audience of about ten million people. Why this popularity? Here’s what Slate has to say:
…Viewers don’t seem to want moral conundrums or technical wrinkles. They love Sheindlin’s show because she offers them a fantasy of how they’d like the justice system to operate—swiftly, and without procedural mishaps or uppity lawyers. They get to see wrongdoers publicly humiliated by a strong authority figure. There is no uncertainty after Sheindlin renders her verdict and bounds off the bench, and there certainly are no lengthy appeals. One of Judge Judy’s signature moves is to refer litigants to their written contract, if they have one. She does this by holding up a piece of paper and indicating its four corners: “These are the boundaries of your contract. If it’s not in here, it doesn’t exist.”
I wonder how Judge Judy might handle the situation of the laborers and their employer. There was no written contract; there was a verbal agreement for “a denarius a day” with the first group; for “whatever is right” with the mid-day groups; and nothing mentioned with the final group. They didn’t ask about pay — perhaps they were just grateful for the work.
But this is a parable, and not courtroom tv or even real life. In the absence of Judge Judy, it could be argued that the treatment of the laborers — all the laborers — is fair: Each one receives the same wage, so has the same economic benefit. Likewise it could be argued that the treatment is unfair: shouldn’t those who work longer and (we suppose) harder receive more wages? Fair or unfair, the decision is the householder’s, who says to one of the disgruntled workers: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong… I choose to give to this last [laborer] as I gave to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
What belongs to me: Here I suggest that an allegorical reading of the parable shows that the householder is speaking not only of the wages, the denarii, handed to the workers, but also the workers themselves. If we are going to interpret the householder as God, and the workers as — well, as us — it becomes clear that the boundaries of this contract are God’s alone to determine.
Here’s why. The agreement between the householder and the laborers is based on another earlier agreement, proclaimed by prophet after prophet for centuries: The people are God’s, and God is the people’s. This the message of “the law and the prophets”; it is delivered by Moses, Hosea, Joel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Isaiah; we hear it in the psalms and in the words of Paul and John and Mary and Jesus himself: “All mine are thine, and thine are mine.”
There is a fundamental reciprocity in this relationship — based less on the strictures of possession, and more on the openness of mutuality. Less on law, and more on love. Think: “We’re in this together.”
I wonder if it is possible to think about this parable, and the role you may have chosen for yourself in our imaginary play, in a new way. To set aside the scales of fair / unfair and apply a new standard: that of wholeness.
Here, perhaps surprisingly, I go back to Judge Judy, who often refers to making one of the parties “whole.” I’m not a lawyer, so my understanding of this may be a bit simplistic, but I believe in this context “to make whole” refers to doing whatever is needed to make restitution, or to return the aggrieved person back to a condition where as best as possible, they haven’t lost anything. Or, compensating a party for a loss sustained.
Certainly that is what God desires for us: wholeness. “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” And that wholeness comes about not through casting an envious eye on what others have, or building new barns to protect what we have. We seek wholeness in each fragment of the broken body of Jesus, in each drop of his blood, shed not for us alone but for many. “Drink this, all of you.” We seek wholeness in “the good works [God] has prepared for us to walk in.”
If you seek to be made whole — if you are looking for the four corners of the unwritten contract between God and God’s creatures — Look no further than the cross, a document inscribed on God’s own flesh and sealed with God’s own blood. On which hangs the hope of the world.
Now here’s a twist to the conclusion of this imaginary play we are cast in. Rather than quickly pocketing our own denarius, or looking to see how much another laborer was paid, let’s go to the householder and say, “All done here, boss. What next?”