“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1-16
“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10
“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” – James 2:26
There are two types of teaching interwoven throughout the Bible, and the New Testament in particular. The first type of teachings, often referred to as theology, are lessons we learn about what to believe or how to understand God, ourselves, and the world around us. This type of teaching is often marked by sayings like “For the Kingdom of heaven is like…” and more often than not use non-literal language such as metaphor and allegory. It is difficult to find descriptive and accurate language to describe heavenly things, to which our own world is but a shadowy reflection. The second type of teaching is ethical teaching which tells us what to do and how to behave. These may come in general terms – such as “Do not lie” (Commandment #9) or in very specific terms (such as the purification rites in Leviticus), but these ethical teachings all use the literal language of imperative and instruction. While these two types of teaching are distinct in their forms, they are rarely found very far from each other in the Scriptures. Theology without ethics is simply a clever way of viewing things without any particular consequence on real life. Ethics without theology is an unjustified, arbitrary list of rules. One informs the other as we move back and forth between them.
Work is an underappreciated countermelody throughout the themes Scripture. Typically, we preach and teach about unconditional love, forgiveness, temptation and sin, and when planning out the budget: giving… but it is not all that often that we hear sermons about work. This is unfortunate because it has been a long time since the issue of work has been as influential in our lives as it is today. Amidst an economic recession, continuing layoffs, business foreclosures, and consequent unemployment – coupled with rising insurance, health, food, and gas prices, we live in turbulent and trying times. Politicians go back and forth between trying to provide federal assistance to help the unemployed and underemployed with a higher cost of living and freeing up the corporate tax burden in hopes that they will raise the overall economy with their profits and provide more employment again. It is a heated debate from both sides.
Many side with Paul, who told the Christians of Thessolanike, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Many had lost the hope that Christ would return and began taking advantage of the generosity of those around them. The theology backing up Paul’s ethical command to them was to remember that Christ could come back at any minute and we want to caught doing well rather than being idle. He tells them along the lines of a very old adage – old even when the Philosopher Plato was teaching: “Mind your own business.” While we have taken that saying and warped it to mean, “stay out of my personal space”, it was originally used as a reminder that keeping your nose to the grindstone kept you out of trouble while idle hands were the mark of busybodies, gossips, and those who lived dishonorably and unproductively. To Plato, and to Paul, work was a responsibility of all people and a means of living a life of honor.
Others however, look to passages like the above from James. While it at first looks like James sides with Paul here, he writes in the context of seeing those in need and not helping them. James reminds the Jewish Christians that caring for the poor, for those whose needs are not met, is a primary work of Christians. In other words, if we work 50 hours a week at a job as a responsible person while neglecting the needs of the poor we pass on the street every day, makes us no better than the poor man who refuses to work and wants to live off what he can beg from others… it’s just another side of the same coin. Work from God’s perspective means more than putting in your hours so you can pay your bills – as important as that may be.
Jesus often used work in his descriptions of the Kingdom of God and in the passage from Matthew 20, I think Jesus speaks to both sides of this debate. He tells a story of a farmer who goes to the market to find farmhands during harvest season. He arrives at dawn and hires a crew of workers for a day’s wage. After three hours though, he decides he needs more help so he returns to the market at gets a few more recruits. Throughout the day, he returns and adds more workers to the crew, even up until the last hour of work and then, at the end of the day he has his servants pay the workers, starting from the last hired and ending with the first. Surprisingly though, the farmer pays his workers all the same wage, even though the first worker worked perhaps 10 hours more than the last one. When they question the farmer, as to why they were not paid more, he tells them that it is his money and he can do with it whatever he wants to… that if he wants to be generous with his money, he has every right to and that they should “mind their own business” (ironic, considering this is the crew that spent the day working instead of being idle in the marketplace). They, like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, are indignant that their brothers who did not do the work and put in the time, should be treated the same as them.
Here then may be the moral to the story. Work is a gift. We don’t get to heaven by putting in a certain number of hours or by serving a certain amount of people. We will however look back with regret on time squandered away if we live our lives idly and selfishly. A life lived simply for self loses purpose and meaning quickly, whether we have a job or not. There are also types of work that may not provide a paycheck, but are more important in the Kingdom of God, than those jobs that do, and as Christians, we need to be sure we are not neglecting them. Certainly we should encourage those who are down and out to find gainful employment, and perhaps help them in that process ourselves, but to ignore them in their time of need is to be lazy in the things of God, neglecting the love of neighbor. What of our witness? We often wonder why so many people think that you get to heaven by being “good enough”, but what kind of Jesus do we show them when we look down upon them for not working. Certainly, we do no one any favors when we allow them to take advantage of generosity without the encouragement to pass on that generosity to others, but we cannot let a few bad apples prevent us from continuing to bear fruit ourselves. We don’t need to be judges of fairness, because God is not as interested in giving us what we deserve (thankfully), but rather what He desires us to have and what we need, and what is the value of five, ten, or even several hundred dollars compared with the value of a soul – a lost child returned to their Heavenly Father. That is our real job here: Bringing home our lost brothers and sisters. Whenever we let our earthly work, or lack thereof, prevent us from living out the true work we have been called into – we have missed the mark.