Monday, January 16, 2012

What's Fair

You wake up early, before the sun begins to rise.  The air is cold, and you’d like nothing better than to stay in bed.  But, there are small ones depending on you to bring home food.  Yesterday, nothing.  Perhaps today will go better. 

You reach out to touch your wife’s arm.  I'm leaving. She turns and looks at you, hope and concern clearly visible on her worn face.  What will today bring?

You head off to the marketplace where landowners from the farms and vineyards in the area come to seek help.  Some men have already gathered, more join you as the sun creeps up.  There is little talking as you try to keep warm, ignoring the gnawing hunger, and fear.
At last someone comes.  You recognize him.  He owns a vineyard close by.  Eyes glance at you, keep going.  You.  And you, you, and you.  I’ll pay you each a denarius.
You know you can do the work, but you are not chosen.  Perhaps others will come needing help.  So you stay, along with many others.  Many hours later, the landowner returns.  All of you waiting jump up.  Perhaps this time you will be chosen.  But no.  Once again others are selected.  Come with me, and I’ll pay you what’s fair.
Once more, twice more, the man returns.  Once more, twice more, hope flames briefly, burning out again.
Nearly the end of the day.  Who’s that over there?  The landowner has come back, even though there are few hours left.  Why have you been standing around here all day? 
The question hangs in the air.  Why?  What else is there to do?  Going home before the sun sets means admitting failure.  Time enough for that when you step through your door and watch your wife’s face fall.  Worse is when she takes a quick breath and puts on a bright smile.
Why?  The man asks again.  You shrug.  No one’s hired us. 

Better come on then and work in my vineyard.  You know it won’t be much, but at least you won’t go home with empty hands.  You follow, grateful to finally be doing something more than standing. 

The day ends quickly.  The landowner and his foreman approach.  Pay the men, beginning with those hired last.   When it’s your turn, you step forward, wondering how small the pay will be for such a brief time.  The foreman presses payment into your hand. 

But… there must be a mistake.  You look up, the question on your face.  A slight nod, and you are dismissed.  No explanation, but no mistake, either.  The full day’s pay is yours.

The others notice what you were paid.  An excited murmuring starts.  If a few hours earned a denarius, what will their pay be?  But, something is wrong.  The next group, hired hours before you, receives the same pay.  And the next, and the next, and the next, all the way to those hired at the beginning of the day.
It’s not fair, they shout.  Anger contorts their faces.  It’s not fair.  The voices around you grow louder.  We were out sweating in the heat of the day.  We deserve more.  You made us equal to them.  The last is spit out with contempt. 

You are part of ‘them’.  Part of the ones who were passed over again and again.  Surely there must be something lacking, something lesser about you that no one chose to employ you. 
Equal pay says you are valued equally and this is intolerable to those who were more easily employed.  Equal means they don’t deserve any more than you do.  Unthinkable.
Friends.  The landowner speaks.  Friends, I’m not being unfair to you.  I paid you what I said I would.  Take your pay and go.  I can pay however I choose.  Or, are you envious because I am generous? 

The question stops the shouting but goes unanswered.  Still angry, the workers begin to leave, small clusters muttering and shaking their heads. 

You are left standing there, clutching your pay.  If you had been in their place, how would you have felt?  It’s not fair, they had shouted. No, it’s not. 
It’s not fair that there was not enough work.  It’s not fair that the time and place in which you were born meant little chance of finding work sufficient to feed yourself and your family.  What is the fair price for a day of standing, hopes lifted and dashed over and over again? 
"Six days you shall labor but the seventh day shall be a day of rest."  How does that work for someone who stands day after day waiting for even an hour of work?  The work cannot always be found.  Does the lack of daily work lessen the need for daily bread for one’s family?
The landowner gave you a full day’s pay.  The landowner treated you as if your work mattered.  As if you mattered.  A whole day’s pay means that for another day, your family will survive.  You treated us as equals, the men had shouted. 
The men were right.  The landowner had treated you as an equal.  As if your family’s need for food was as important as those hired earlier.  For a moment, you feel something new.  A sense of worth you’ve not had before. 
How long will it last?  You don’t know.  Tomorrow is another day.  Today, though, today you will feed your family.  You turn, and head for home.
(Based on Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20)

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