A Minimum Wage?
Welcome home to St. Dunstan’s for a new season of worship, learning, and serving God! From old-timers to newcomers, we are glad you are gathered here today. Make it a habit!
We pause to remember and pray for our neighbors in the Caribbean and Florida who are reeling from Hurricane Irma at this moment. And we can’t forget the Texans and Louisianians trying to put their lives back together after Harvey. Here’s an opportunity for us who are safe to be extra generous in giving.
Now. Do your remember your first real job? I’ll bet you do. What was the hourly wage you received at your first job? I remember well: when I was in 8th grade, I worked after school in a printer’s shop for $1.25 per hour. It was a low wage even then, but I liked earning my own money. I saved up and bought my first 10 speed bicycle. Of course, I didn’t have to pay for food, clothing, and shelter on that wage. Now I can’t imagine trying to support even a small family on …
Our scriptures today give us two different perspectives on working and wages. The Hebrew scripture tells the story of the First Passover – the great act of God that freed the Hebrews from bondage – slavery - in Egypt. Enslavement, whether in ancient Egypt or early America, means working for no wages – zero. God responded against this, with plagues becoming more and more awful until Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go. That liberation from oppression, called Passover, became the touchstone of the Jewish faith – the key referent.
Then we have a parable from Jesus – one of the most controversial ones, in my experience. A vineyard owner went out to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He hired some at 9 a.m., some more at noon, more at 3 p.m. and finally the last at 5 p.m. He promised the first hired one denarius – the usual daily wage for a laborer or a soldier. Scholars tell us this wage was roughly the minimum required to support a household at subsistence level. Others, hired later, were promised “whatever is right.” That sounds like it provides license for miserliness by the owner! But in this case, no.
In the evening, at quitting time, the owner paid all the same – one denarius, a day’s wages.
The first hired got exactly what was agreed upon. And they grumbled like crazy, because others who worked less got the same pay. We don’t know why those others weren’t hired earlier in the day. But we do know that if they didn’t bring home a day’s pay, their families probably wouldn’t have any supper – people were that poor.
We understand their frustration – it seems unfair to those who worked all day “in the scorching heat.” But they got all that they expected. And those who worked part-time (though we assume they wanted full time work) were able to feed their families.
So let’s consider the owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable. He fascinates me. First, I’ve always had a secret desire to be a vineyard owner. We have friends in France who have one, and it’s idyllic. I think of the Dennis Quaid character in “The Parent Trap.” Gorgeous Napa Valley spread. And think of the wine! All you want; no driving home!
So the vineyard owner was fortunate, very fortunate indeed. He had plenty. And what’s great is, he knew it. I infer from the story that he was a man of gratitude, and probably lots of wine-induced joy! He was running a business, yes; but he seemed to care about the workers as people. He didn’t put maximizing profits first. He was, in a word, generous.
I think we can learn from this guy. We here are more like vineyard owners than day-laborers. We have enough, and then some. We can, as a rule, afford to be generous. And I believe that is Jesus’ teaching for us. Enjoy the life you are given! Be filled with gratitude at the beauty and abundance and joy that come your way! And then find ways to be generous, to help others find some of that same abundance and joy.
In five words, easy to remember, Jesus said:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
As we come off of Labor Day into a new Fall season, and consider the meaning and value of work, we are hosting a community forum tomorrow night here at St. Dunstan’s, on the issue of the $15 minimum wage proposal before the Montgomery County Council. We’ll have councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich here to argue all sides of this issue, plus time to discuss and ask questions. Please come, and bring a neighbor.
In 1200 BCE, God showed the Hebrews that God would walk with them, out of bondage in Egypt into a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey. In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus invites us to consider the value of human labor, from the lowliest job to the loftiest. In the language of economics, Jesus invites us to consider the relationship between labor and capital, not in abstract, impersonal terms, but in the most personal human terms of a man hoping for work, and a family hoping for supper. God invites us to a life filled with gratitude, and to be generous in all that we do. Let us go forth, and love our neighbors. AMEN.