Homily – September 18th, 2011
EQUAL PAY Matthew 20: 1-16 September 17/18, 2011
In 1951 thirteen Topeka, Kansas, residents filed a legal case. The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of permitting separate elementary schools for black and for white students.
The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. His daughter Linda attended the third grade. The NAACP recruited Brown and a dozen others. They were to try enrolling their children in a neighborhood white school; when these parents met rejection on the basis of color, the lawyers had their case.
By 1954 the case reached the United States Supreme Court; this court declared that segregation harms black students; segregation is thus unconstitutional. The Court wrote this: “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Schools across the nation had to treat all equally.
In today’s gospel, the employer agrees to pay a denarius as a wage. That is the basic agreement. All workers must receive the same wage, regardless of how many hours the individuals may have worked. In the court case, all children must receive the same education. Our compassionate God has created us all needing an equal education.
I remember visiting Jerusalem some years ago. There was a street on which Palestinian men gathered and waited to be hired. They would work as day laborers. An Israeli driver would pull up and a number of young men would gather around the car, and the driver would pick one or two or three men, then drive off to the farm or to the construction site. The gospel account speaks of a similar arrangement for day laborers.
A denarius represents the standard wage, something like a good minimum wage. Both laborers and employer readily agreed on this amount. The gospel employer goes in the morning at 9:00 a.m., and then again at noon, and again at three p.m. The last group would be hired about 5:00 p.m., about an hour before the sun set. Yet all of these laborers receive the same wage, one denarius. Thus all can bring a day’s groceries to their wives and children. The last laborer called receives a wage that equals the wage of those who were first hired. Although no one was cheated of his denarius, some had worked long hours, and so they reasonably expected a bonus. In fact, they received only the wage to which they had that morning agreed. The Lord draws the parable’s point. God rewards good service, whether they worked all day or only for an hour.
The United States must see to it that all persons of whatever race or creed receive equal opportunity in education and in labor. The parable grants equal wage to all. We must imagine that these men could feed their families on one denarius, but without that the family would go hungry. The parable insists that laborers ought not curtail God’s generosity. The Lord rewards the good efforts of all.
At our own passing to judgment before God, position and influence, rank and importance will lose their power to impress. Before the heavenly court, earthly gradations of rank suffer a reverse. God embraces all who cling to Him, all of whatever age, of whatever rank, of whatever station. The parable suggests at least an equality of reward for all in His kingdom.
The parable further implies. Jesus hears the Pharisees complain that He dined with the reprobate, with toll-takers, with those known as sinners.
In this parable, perhaps we complain that we witness bare-faced injustice. Indeed, ought not those who have borne the heat of the day and have labored for twelve hours receive more than those who have worked just one hour? Our sense of justice screams for these complainers.
Yet the workers hired first did truly agree for the standard wage, one denarius. Their complaint only comes when these first workers see the last hired receiving the same standard wage. What of our sense of fairness?
The vineyard owner realizes that the recently hired, were they to get only an hour’s wage, would have little to take to their families. The pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. The owner pays a full day’s wage for the sake of the worker’s family. Here we recognize a large-hearted vineyard owner who feels for the needy. The vineyard owner does not follow our sense of fairness.
This parable illustrates God dealing with us mercifully, not according to our pitiful merit, but generously, after the fashion of a magnanimous, whole-hearted person.
A further point. Jesus, by so characterizing God, proclaims that He, too, lives as does God the Father. If God embraces the lowly and the needy, then Jesus involves Himself with the reprobates and the castaways. God gives all an equal and unmerited wage; Jesus acts according to the ways of His heavenly Father.
Isaiah in today’s first reading declares a similar recognition that God employs a different measure. 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. (Isaiah 55: 8-9)
This is our God. We profess the non-worldly way of the Lord.
Scripture testifies repeatedly that God’s ways differ. Thus Israel, and not some other tribe, has first received the Incarnate Word. Also, Jesus sets forth the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That reverses human thinking. His having commerce with reprobates reverses human judgment.
God’s ways befit only a merciful and loving God. Amen.