While in seminary, I brought in some extra income by working with the maintenance crew at the seminary. I learned all sorts of interesting things: how to run a backhoe, how to thread pipe, how to test for a gas leak, how to epoxy a basement floor, how to rebuild a Sloan flush valve, and how to stretch your breaks for as long as possible without getting in trouble. Part of stretching your breaks was learning how to make trips to the store last. Always drive the speed limit. Stop to pick up donuts for the rest of the crew. Be very specific about which stores you will go to. On trips to the Home Depot, I also learned a theological lesson about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
Day laborers were a big thing in the DC metro area. There were spots all around town where (usually) young Latino men would congregate waiting for work. One popular spot was near an apartment complex on Route 7. As the day went on, the crowd would dwindle, but like in the parable, there were some who, desperate for any work to feed themselves and their families, would wait all day, hoping to get hired. In the parking lot of the Home Depot, it was a whole different story. Here the competition was fierce. Men who were ready, willing, and able to work would all but open your van door and jump in. If you had an open bed on your pickup, the situation was made even more interesting. These men were dying to work, and by stopping at the stop sign in the parking lot, you were inviting them to join your crew.
As I think about the parable of the laborers, I can’t help but think of those guys and how much they wanted/needed to work. I wonder what the end of the day might have been like if the situation Jesus described took place. Would some have grumbled that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day? Sure, that’s human nature. Is it the prerogative of the landowner to pay whatever he chooses? Absolutely, the landowner is allowed to do whatever she or he pleases. Is is wise to operate that way? The Invisible-Hand-Capitalist in me says no way. This system would mean that the next day, nobody will be in the parking lot looking for work until 5pm.
Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting an economic model in this parable, which is where the theological lesson comes in. The Kingdom-of-God-Theologian in my says that this is a brilliant model upon which to build God’s reign. Sure, there are some who might wait until the eleventh hour to come on board, but for so many of us, the sheer delight of working alongside God as the Kingdom is being unveiled is worth more than any day’s wage. Maybe it wasn’t that the men in the Home Depot lot needed the money so much as they found delight in being useful. To take our part in the building of something larger than ourselves can be a source of true joy. Each morning, God invites us to take join in the work of building the Kingdom. The payment, eternal life, is good, but the satisfaction that comes from the work itself, is inestimable.