- A Tough One for Us
This parable from Jesus (Matthew 20:1-15) is hard for us to follow and accept, for some of us maybe even impossible. We have called it the “parable of the eleventh hour workers,” but that name misleads us into the later Christian preoccupation with getting people saved and into heaven without caring much about earth and God’s love for the world. The parable is not about deathbed confessions or efforts to slip through the pearly gates at the last minute before they close the person out. The issue is here and now, but how can we — who have so much of wealth, comfort, and insurance and who without much thought accept competition as the right and proper driving force of human life and necessary engine of progress — possibly grasp the meaning of this parable?
Now wait a minute! Wealth? I have wealth? Since when? I turn from the computer screen before which I’m typing this draft to look out my study window at our backyard on the three tenths of an acre we own. Our home is off-handedly called a starter house which sounds funny because it is the first my wife and I have owned and the one into which we moved after we both had retired. The house is also the first we’ve occupied that included central air conditioning as well as the modern marvel of central heating we’ve never lived without. We each have a car. I could go on, but I hope the reader gets the point. Yes, by any measure against most people who live today or have ever lived, we are quite wealthy, even though by this society’s standards, we are not.
In worship services, we pray, too often casually by rote, “Give us this day our daily bread,” or in some versions of Luke’s gospel, “our bread for tomorrow” not realizing that petition is the urgent prayer of the day laborer. He goes each morning to the market hoping to be hired and so to trade a hard day’s work for a denarius, a coin worth enough for him to purchase one day’s bread and oil for his family. Just enough. If he is not hired, no bread for tomorrow. Please, God, grant me a solid day’s work in the hot sun so my family may eat. Bread, just bread. Maybe sometimes a fish, if I can get one, maybe two small ones.
How can we enter the world of the long-ago day laborer? But is he or she a specter of the long-ago and far way? Go the parking lot of, say, a Home Depot some morning early, and you may just see them: the day laborers hoping to be hired. Sometimes they work construction, sometimes they pick produce for our veggie trays or crudités.
The urgent prayer of the day laborer is the background music for Jesus’ parable of the generous landowner and the resentful workers. The story unfolds simply enough. The landowner needs day laborers to harvest his crops and so goes to the market to hire them. A bumper crop requires the landowner to keep returning to the market to seek more workers. The final time he goes leaves only one hour before sundown for those hired last to work, but he needs them. The parable’s cutting edge comes when he pays all the laborers, starting with those last hired to whom he gives a denarius, the day’s wage. Seeing his generosity, those who worked in his fields all day expect more money, but they too receive only the agreed upon amount, a denarius each, no more. Here comes the resentment.
Their expectation of extra pay, cut off by the experience of being handed only a denarius, triggers shame affect because they have been denied the extra money they expected, believe they deserve, and still desire. Soon disappointment gives way to the components needed for resentment: anger and contempt. The disappointing experience translates to them as unfair. They feel cheated. They deserve more. Or the latecomers deserve less. But how would the hunger next day of the latecomers’ families benefit the disappointed all-day workers and their families?
I suspect this parable offended people even among Jesus’ original listeners, unless they had experienced the fear and desperation of not being hired and the shame of returning home with no denarius. Imagine the relief and even joy of those who stood around almost all day, hoping desperately for some work and some small payment, maybe even just the chance of making enough of an impression to get hired the next day. But this employer cares about them and so provides for their families. So, he asks the ones grumbling why they resent his generosity which, from the viewpoint of their resentment, they see as stinginess.
The politics of resentment succeeds by redirecting anger and contempt onto the vulnerable — the immigrants and undocumented workers, the women who have taken men’s jobs, the outsiders brought in to do the promised temporary jobs while locals remain unemployed and watch their old way of life crushed under the weight of development, the others who (like the last hired workers) are desperate for their daily bread — or the elites seen as looking down their noses at the “ordinary people” who are told by those seeking to capitalize on their resentment that they are the real Americans. With the proper encouragement from a demagogue, the resentful are easily manipulated.
Then-president Donald Trump remarked that one good thing about COVID-19 was that he no longer had to shake hands with “disgusting people.” In accidental and clueless honesty, he spoke his contempt for the very people who supported him, voted for him, and screamed their resentments at his rallies. Hillary Clinton foolishly and obnoxiously referred to Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” But Trump was the seasoned con artist, and his slip into uncharacteristic honesty seems to have cost him nothing.
Resentment is complex. The fire lit by disappointment and fear bursts into the flames of anger increasing into rage, and contempt intensifies into hatred. Resentment drives people to fight for revenge and pride even if their fighting burns their lives and even the nation’s life to the ground. The antidotes to resentment are sympathy and compassion. Can the all-day workers sympathize with and feel for the desperation and fear of the overlooked day laborers willing to work in seeming futility for only a single hour’s pay?
We are so marinated in our notions of the fairness and rightness of competition and judgments of the comparative worth and relative deserving of people that we cannot easily appreciate this parable, let alone make the jump from recognizing the employer’s generosity and compassion to appreciating God’s compassion for the fearful, the desperate, the disappointed, the shamed, and, yes, the undeserving. But there it is, and what we do with it is up to us.