A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 24, 2017 (Proper 20A)
One of the insidious foundations of Apartheid in South Africa was the system of racial classification. There were three official races and the government took great care in classifying people as white, black, or colored. The first two are pretty self-explanatory but “colored” was a catch-all grouping which included people of mixed race. Under Apartheid, race was everything — it determined where you could live, who you could marry, the types of jobs you could hold. The system wasn’t built on principles of common humanity but on difference and division.
There were actually government bureaucrats whose entire job was to determine people’s races in order to make sure they were put into the “correct” racial bucket. They primarily looked at things like skin color and facial features but the most infamous racial assessment was known as the pencil test. The group of us that went on the parish trip to South Africa in February learned about this while touring the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. And I still haven’t been able to shake the blatant disregard for humanity.
This humiliating test decreed that if a person could hold a pencil in their hair while shaking their head, they could not be classified as white. Literally, people had to stand in front of a panel of white government officials and shake their heads with a pencil stuck in their hair. Of course these tests were so imprecise and absurd that members of the same extended family were sometimes placed in different racial groups.
But beyond the inherent shame and degradation of this system, the architects of Apartheid used these racial classifications to pit the races against one another. The whole premise was to create inequalities among the races to keep them fighting with one another rather than uniting against the minority whites, who held all the power and enforced the system with utter brutality.
I have been reflecting upon this, not just because of the current state of race relations in America, but also in light of this morning’s gospel passage. Here it’s not about race, as far as we know, but about power and privilege. The owner of the vineyard had all the power and wealth and status while the laborers were left to fight over the inadequate resources left over by the elites.
At least that’s one way of looking at this parable. The traditional interpretation is that God is the owner of the vineyard, the laborers who came early were the Jews and the ones who came later were the Gentiles. Inherent in this message is that it doesn’t matter at what point you come to Jesus; as long as you eventually do, you will be rewarded. I’ve preached on this text out of this framework, highlighting the amazing grace of God’s love. And that’s a safe enough interpretation; no one’s going to argue with a preacher highlighting the limitless capacity of God’s grace.
But, as with all the parables, there are different meanings and levels of interpretation and messages. And I’ve been thinking about the owner of the vineyard from another perspective; viewing his actions through the lens of how it impacted the laborers in the story.
At one level, the owner of the vineyard is being generous — paying everyone the same wage no matter how long they worked out in the field, when the norm would have been to pay them proportionally based on how much work they had put in. That’s the fair way to do it. But it’s his money; he can do whatever he wants with it. Isn’t that one of the joys of being wealthy? You can do whatever you want with your money. If you want to build Neverland Ranch on your property complete with your own petting zoo and ferris wheel, who’s to stop you?
But at another level, by paying the laborers the same amount regardless of the hours they worked, the owner is sowing discord among them. His actions are dividing them and pitting them against one another and causing jealousy and anger. Can you imagine the walk back into town at the end of the day? The words that must have been exchanged? The violence that may have ensued?
Again, race may not have played any part in this but I think there are some parallels between what the government in South Africa tried to accomplish by sowing distrust among the races and what the owner tried to do in pitting the laborers against one another. In focusing on their own financial inequalities, they were being distracted from the broader inequality of the system.
And that’s one of the privileges of power. At the end of the day, the owner can just go back to his large, comfortable estate, put his feet up, light a cigar, and enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. Why should he give any of this a second thought? Why should we? Seeing this from our own place of privilege, these laborers all got paid for an honest day’s work. Some received more than they should have. The story should be about the johnny-come-latelies being exceedingly grateful for receiving more than their usual share and for even having the opportunity to work.
But Jesus is always flipping things around and upending our pre-conceived notions and so I want you to see things from a different perspective, perhaps through a filter that is not your regular lens. To be challenged and changed and transformed.
Which is why I want you to think hard about the workers in this story. These day laborers, regardless of how long they worked out in the master’s fields, were only earning enough to get through another day. They still had to return to their humble homes — if they even had homes — and try to feed their families. They were all-too-familiar with food scarcity and the anxiety of simply trying to survive. These workers comprised the invisible under-belly of the ancient economy in a way that mirrors our own modern society.
And so we must ask ourselves, in what ways do our own actions and choices mirror the owner of the vineyard? We may well take satisfaction in our efforts to help those in need — we may even post about it on Facebook — but is it to make ourselves feel better about our own wealth and privilege or is it to make a difference in the lives of others. Are we simply perpetuating a system that benefits us at the expense of the poor? Do the people who make the things we buy or grow the food we eat have any share in the hope we proclaim on Sunday morning? We pray that the hope of the poor shall not be taken away but are we contributing to doing just that?
These are hard questions. Questions many of us would rather avoid than answer honestly, for fear of what we might discover. But Jesus keeps bringing these questions up again and again and holding a mirror up to our actions. It’s what he does. But he doesn’t condemn us when we fall short, as we inevitably do, but rather he keeps speaking the words and trusting that we will listen and change and grow ever closer to the very heart of God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017