Among the Vines

The laborers whom the owner of the vineyard hires at increasingly late hours of the day are waiting around in the marketplace because no one has hired them. In other words, they are ready to work, hoping to work…

If some are ready and willing to work but cannot get hired, then should they go hungry, or be viewed as moral or social failures?

[Ray, Darby Kathleen, Working, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, pp. 53-54]

Looking at how work shapes our lives as individuals, family members, and part of the larger world, Ray explores Jesus’ parable about the workers in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Rather than going with the usual focal point (the same pay for everyone, regardless of how much work they did), she looks at the story in light of employment and unemployment. All the workers wanted to work, hoped that their sweat and toil would put food on their tables and a sense of accomplishment in their hearts. Ray points out that work is a gift here, not an inconvenience or an entitlement. To be able to work, to provide for needs of self and others, isn’t a curse or a necessary evil. It is a way to give something to the world through our own efforts.

Then she asks the hard question: if willingness to work is no guarantee of getting work, is it fair to consider the employed as somehow morally ahead of the unemployed? In times when work that provides a living wage is anything but guaranteed, it’s a good question.

I can’t say I’ve thought much about it. I haven’t really considered employment a measuring stick of morality or worth. But I know how hard it is on people who can’t find enough work, who feel more like burdens than blessings. The unemployed are a diverse bunch: the middle-aged, middle management exec downsized, the mother of toddlers not hired because it might cause “reliability” issues, the teen with no work history trying to get into any position for any number of hours.  They just need someone to give them a break, to give them a chance.

In the parable, the workers get that chance. The late comers and the ones who worked the whole day long receive a living wage. Going home, each worker brings enough coin to buy that daily loaf of bread. Perhaps that’s the point Ray is making: everyone deserves that daily loaf of bread. Everyone deserves the chance to earn a living. No one should take for granted the blessing of work, and no one should begrudge others their bread.

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