Our Work and Wages

Reflection on the readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“’Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’  He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’”

Imagine being hired by God to labor in his vineyard.  Standing around all morning, maybe all day, kicking the dust of the market square, hoping some small odd jobs come along that you might buy your daily bread.  Then, the call.  You answer.  You’ve been hired.  You’ve received your vocation, and not just any vocation—a vocation to serve God.  This would seem at first glance to be a dream job, but is it?

Every Christian is called by the Christ in a real, essential way.  We are invited and given the freedom and responsibility to answer and work to build God’s Kingdom.  It is a great privilege to work for the Lord, but it is dangerous and difficult labor.  Indeed, a Christian vocation cannot be answered and lived without an eye to the cross, which we must take up in order to follow Jesus as disciples.  So, why do it?

The usual daily wage?

A usual daily wage does not inspire enthusiasm or performance.  Usual wages inspire the usual effort.  So why tell this parable to his disciples when Jesus is trying to inspire the risky work of building his Kingdom?  The great thing about the parables is that our minds begin to wander and look for the deeper level and meaning of Jesus as he spoke to his disciples, as he speaks to us today.  So, think about the wage rate more.  The usual daily wage in his time was a denarius, enough to buy bread with some left over.  So, God gives us that which we need and even more.  God is reliable, consistent, and does not play favorites.  He is a just boss.

Isaiah 55 and Psalm 145 even show God, the just boss, invites us to call out to God when we are in crisis, when we need more.  We call on God so frequently.  I dare say that most of our time praying, or at least mine, is a series of entreaties and calling out to God.  I’ve becoming increasingly careful in asking for specificities.  As Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”  I’m often surprised, disappointed, or confused by God’s response to my prayers.  Indeed, I know that God fulfills his covenant and cares for God’s people, but I still question the means of this fulfillment.  So too the full-day workers in the vineyard, hired by the owner and paid the “just” wage.

However, when we consider that we are dealing with God (Well, I suppose we can never “deal” with God!), let’s remember that quantities and finite figures go out the window.  God works infinitely.  You cannot receive more or less of God’s infinite love, goodness, and care.  You just receive it infinitely. So when full-day laborers, the life-long loyal Christian men and women, grumble and complain that God loves and pays the late-come laborer, the deathbed convert, as much as them, the answer is an emphatic “YES!”  God generously offers us God’s infinite presence and providence in this earthly life until we share the fullness of that communion with God in the life to come.  It cannot be divided, compared, traded.  God’s infinite love is the daily wage for doing God’s work.  This should inspire infinite effort.

In addition to the timeless message of responding to God’s call, this week’s readings seem to be timelier than ever for another reason.  The United States and many other countries throughout the world are faced with millions “standing idle in the marketplace.”  Officially the August 2011 U.S. unemployment rate stands at 9.1%, not including those who have been unemployed long-term and dropped out of the market, nor those who are under-employed, taking any job to make ends meet.  The unemployed are both blue-collar and white-collar workers, college-educated and those with no high school diploma.  This current crisis touches us all.  Worse, last week’s edition of The Economist notes, “Globalisation and technological innovation are bringing about long-term changes in the world economy that are altering the structure of the labour market.  As a result, unemployment is likely to remain high in the rich economies even as it falls in the poor ones” (http://www.economist.com/node/21528433).  How do we promote and stand with those marginalized and stripped of the dignity of meaningful labor when pundits and experts are so pessimistic?

Though not an economist, Pope John Paul II reflected on Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, and calling upon the wealth of the Church and its tradition, he wrote:

. . . Rerum Novarum points the way to just reforms that can restore dignity to work as the free activity of man.  These reforms imply that society and the State will both assume responsibility, especially for protecting the worker from the nightmare of unemployment.  Historically, this has happened in two converging ways: either through economic policies aimed at ensuring balanced growth and full employment, or through unemployment insurance and re-training programmes capable of ensuring a smooth transition of workers from crisis sectors to those in expansion (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html).

It is the responsibility of a Christian to advocate for balanced growth across all sectors of the economy.  The United States may hold significant comparative advantage in finance and high-tech industries, but its people and labor force are more diverse, with varied talents in industries increasingly outsourced to cut cost and raise profits.  Profit must not supersede full employment as a goal of our economic policies.  Also, the extension of unemployment insurance, coupled with well-funded training and educational opportunities, will not only rescue many workers in “obsolete” fields from permanent unemployment, it will build a stronger work force for decades to come.

Whether for decades or a day, the readings this week call us to the Lord’s work.  It is a daunting task, and it is clear from those last paid, grumbling over their wages, that the work in the Lord’s vineyard is hard.  However, we should be grateful for the promise of his just wage at the end of our labors, and grateful for the opportunity and the dignity to work.  It is a gift, a grace.  Thank God we have it.  No . . . really.  Thank God for work.

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