Last night we started a new 4 week series looking at some of the Parables of Jesus. The Rev. Kelli Hitchman Craig, Associate Pastor at Auburn United Methodist Church started things off right. Here’s what she shared…
What is fair? What is equal? What is justice?
I want to tell you a story. So sit back, get comfortable, close your eyes, do whatever you have to do to relax.
Early in the day, when the sun was bright, but not yet hot, a contractor leaves his house. He packs his lunch, refills his obviously eco-friendly coffee cup and water bottle, and because I’m telling the story, puts on sunscreen, kisses his wife, and walks out the front door of his perfectly modest craftsman style home. He climbs in, what I imagine to be, a large, unfortunately gas guzzling truck, and sets off for the day. Off he goes to a local job site.
Because this is where I am in my life, I picture this contractor heading to an old house in the heart of the local community that needs just a little sprucing up. But this old house is truly a gem. She has a stunning, though rotting, wrap around front porch. A classic, but rusting tin roof. And ornate, but in disrepair, woodwork up around the roofline. Of course, you can expect that the crawl-space is filled with plumbing that needs to be repaired; the yard is at least thigh high in overgrown grasses and pricker vines; the exterior paint is cracked and chipping; the shutters hang onto their hinges with barely even a nail. But the inside, the inside is where the real charm is. Though the cabinets are falling off the walls and lined with dust and dead bugs, there is one of those long, timeless, porcelain farmhouse sinks in the kitchen. And because this house is old but sturdy, each main room has a fireplace that long outdates the central air system that also desperately needs attention. The floors, though they are scratched and scuffed, are original wood-- and something about that well worn wood feels like home ever before the repairs begin. The bedrooms, unfortunately, have brown carpet, which must be ripped out immediately no thanks to the previous owners’ pet. The backyard, though unruly and wild, shines. It’s lush with every kind of weed, tree, and grass species you could think of. And although it looks like a mess now, something tells that old contractor that underneath the overgrown ruffage is rich soil. The type of soil that brings forth every type of fruit, vegetable, and flower when given just a little bit of love and attention.
To any other average Joe or Josephine, this house is a lost cause… But to our contractor, it’s heaven.
So off to the job site he goes! But first, he remembers the two workers that he hired from a job posting board the previous week-- so he heads over to his office to pick up the workers in order to carpool over to the house. He pulls up to the office, unlocks his passenger doors, and a man and a woman hop inside. After politely declining the contractor’s offer to share his coffee, the three craftsmen are on their way. So they get to their job site, that gorgeous old house, and the three set off to do their work-- one specializing on those old pipes, one diagnosing whatever weed had taken over the side yard, and the contractor beginning to scrape the cracked paint off the old wooden siding. But nine o’clock in the morning rolls around and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is more than a 3 person job. The woman working on the pipes is covered in sludge from a pipe that burst under the house; the yard man is up to his kneecaps in fire ant bites; and the contractor has a cramp in his left arm from scraping paint for 2 hours with not even so much as a water break.
So, at 9:15 the contractor says to his workers, stay here, hydrate-- I’ll be right back!
The contractor heads to Home Depot for some paint stripper, ant killer, and PVC pipe joints, and as luck would have it, he found something ever better. On his way out the door, with his home improvement goodies in a reusable bag (but of course), the contractor notices a few people hanging around the entirely-over-my-pay-grade-and-also-super-scary part of the the home improvement store: the lumber section. He approaches them and asks, “is there any chance, any chance, that you fellows might be able to work with me for a day? I pay well for a day’s work!”
The men answer, “oh yes! We just immigrated here with our wives and have children to support! No one else is willing to let us in their homes. Thank you for hiring us! Truly, we appreciate the work!”
So off the contractor plus the three men go to return to the old house. Once they arrive at the house, the men disperse; one going to the backyard, one going inside, one climbing up on the roof, and the contractor to hand out his goodies to the remaining two. And after what feels like no time at at all, alas, it’s lunch time! But after several hours on the worksite, all of the workers are hot, hungry, and thirsty. So, sensing their fatigue, the contractor drags the cooler out of the bed of his truck, opens it, and shares enough sandwiches, fruit, carrot sticks, popsicles, and gatorade for everyone to eat, enjoy, and have seconds!
But, as the workers ate, the contractor got the sneaking feeling that his five helpers might need a little assistance to tackle the day’s to-do list, so off he goes again, only this time, he’s headed to the sporting goods store for some of those nifty little cooling towels and some Nalgene water bottles for his workers. So again, the contractor collects his goodies, bags them in a reusable bag, and heads back to his truck. He hops in, adjusts the radio, checks in on his wife, and pulls out of the parking lots to return to the job site. But while waiting at a red light, he notices a cluster of men in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. So, naturally, he pulls in, hops out, and asks if they are looking for work or have any home improvement skills, and in return for their help, he promises a fair wage. To his luck-- the contractor learns that they’re recent college grads with not much to do but hang around. The job market isn’t all that their professors once cracked it up to be, so here are these college educated folk, just waiting for work. As it turns out, this group of young people had been bouncing between friends’ couches and cars since the day they graduated. Apparently, once you graduate, your scholarship money and guaranteed university housing disappears in a snap. So they agree and all climb in the truck and head back to the job site. The 4 men head inside to begin the fun work-- they start to rip up the carpet, tear out the cabinets, and assess the electric situation in the house. The nine workers are getting along famously.
The job site is a place of joy, and even just in a day’s work, there are signs of progress in and around that old house.
But it’s 3PM now, and the sun is hot. The workers continue on without complaint or frustration, and this pleases the contractor so. So as a reward, the contractor sneaks off the job site when nobody was looking to go Happy Hour at Sonic… Because nothing is more rewarding on a hot day than a cold half-off Limeade, am I right? After ordering and collecting all TEN of his various limeades, the contractor turned around to head back to the house to surprise his wonderful workers. Well, the contractor is heading back to the house, when, what do you know, his gas light turns on. So our favorite dedicated contractor whips into the nearest gas station and begins to fill up, when can you believe it-- he notices a small group of people standing around the gas station. Five of them! Of course, he approaches them, asking how their day is going, while trying to figure out why such seemingly normal looking people are loitering around a gas station this late in the day! After all, it’s too late to be out of school, and too early to be out of work-- who are these people?
The 5 men explain, “oh thank you, kind sir. You are a blessing! We were just laid off from our previous jobs with a construction company last month. To be honest, we were laid off for complicated reasons. One had recently divorced; one had a sick child; one’s partner was killed last year; one was battling chronic depression; and the last was evicted from his home. The men explain that after some hardships in their recent past, all five of them found themselves with a substance abuse problem, and were promptly fire from the jobs.
But you know how this story goes by now… the contractor offers work plus a fair wage, the five men accept, hop in the truck, and off they go back to the house!
Once back at the house, the five men split up, taking different areas of the house. Two head out back to start carving out an organic garden; one gets to work repairing, shoring up, and re-attaching the shutters to the front; one works inside with the floor and sheet rocking crew; and the last one works alongside the contractor looking into some computer investing and online banking questions. All is well on the job site; all are hydrated; all are happy to be working alongside such an amazing, and yes, rather strange, group of people. But it’s 5PM now-- it’s the end of the work day, and his people expect to be paid... only, one problem… he didn’t originally anticipate needing to pay 14 people-- just the original two. So the contractor found himself to be a little short on cash.
Not to fret, the bank is just down the street, so the contractor hops in his car, heads downtown, and pulls into his community bank. He pulls up to the drive thru teller and requests the enough cash to pay the remaining workers-- when he stops mid sentence, and drives around the building. Out of the corner of his eye, what does the contractor see but six people standing near the bank. Judging by their disheveled appearances, the contractor made the probably correct assumption that they were homeless, preparing to set up camp for the night under the safe awning of the bank drive thru.
You know how this goes…
He approaches, offers work and a fair wage, they happily agree, so the contractor scoops them up, swings back through the drive through teller lane, and heads back to the house to introduce the last six workers to the rest of the gang.
They arrive at the house, and just as soon as the six newest workers find a job to begin, the contractor catches the attention of the group, calls them in, and thanks them for a day well done! With the help of the 20 workers the house looked amazingly good for just one day’s labor… the shutters were straightened; lawn mowed; flower beds spruced and weeded; plumbing tightened; electrical work tested; rotten floorboards ripped up; a vegetable garden started; wooden siding stripped, cleaned, and primed for new paint; the kitchen gutted and cleaned out; and many other improvements!
But now the group was gathered together and it was time to be paid. So, reaching into the driver side door of the truck, the contractor pulled out a stack of large bills, dividing them evenly among the 20 day laborers. He paid first the workers who arrived last-- giving them each 3 bills. Next, he turned to the group he found at the gas station-- giving each of them 3 bills. Again, he turn to the next group-- 3 bills each. Then to the next group-- 3 bills each And finally, the two he hired first, giving them both 3 bills each.
Upon seeing this unfold before their eyes, the earlier day workers were enraged! How could they earn the same wage as a group of dingy bums their boss had picked up outside of a bank? Was this contractor for real? Surely, he had lost his mind. In no way was this fair.
Expressing their disapproval not only with their faces, the original 2 workers turned to the contractor, accusing him, “are you serious? How can this be? We’ve been working all day, and yet, you’ve paid us the same! You have made a mockery of all the work we have done and fine skill that you hired us for!”
With compassion in his eyes, the contractor responded, “I’m sorry you feel that way. My heart is grieved that you are upset, but I promised to each of you a fair wage, and a fair wage is what you have each received.” And again the contractor looked into the eyes of his workers and said, “be careful, my friends, who you deem worthy of a day’s wage. My generosity is not like yours. What you have called unworthy, I have claimed as good.”
And each went on their way.
So-- answer me this: What do you hear? What do you see? What could it mean?
Maybe you hear a story about a people who work their whole lives, working and sweating all day every day, only to get rewarded the same amount as the person who happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Perhaps you hear a story about the people of God-- about the generations of Israel-- Adam, Moses, and Abraham-- and then the story of the church, who, in the grand scheme of time, is pretty late to the game for this whole God of Israel thing. Or is it a simple story about a group of people not pulling their weight but privilege alone gets them paid?
Maybe you hear a story about grace-- about one who lives right their whole lives, only to be faced with the hard truth that even those who have loved Jesus far less for far shorter are also children of the most high God. Or maybe to you it’s a story that unmasks something much scarier-- a truth about not just our culture and society, but about the very way we use language to speak of God.
Maybe this story reveals to you something about the way we approach the Divine with suppositions and structures of winner vs loser; superior vs inferior; insider and outsider; high and low; honored vs shamed; us vs them.
But maybe in all of this you simply came back to the words of Jesus-- to the prayer of Jesus: to give us this day our daily bread and forgive us of our trespasses… because it’s much easier to pray our own prayer of: give me this day my daily bread and forgive those around me who do wrong.
Or perhaps you’re not even sure where to begin to know what to think because you’re still unsure which character you are in the story.
Wherever you are, God is there too, so never stop asking: What is fair? What is equal? What is justice? … and be prepared to be surprised at how God answers.
Let us pray:
God of us all-- These parables are puzzling, but so is your grace. So forgive us when we try to back your stories into a corner-- when we refuse to let your holy stories speak for themselves, teaching us who you are and how you love. So when faith gets confusing and scripture feels like a puzzle instead of a map, grant within us a desire, not for answers, but for insatiable curiosity, because we trust that wherever you lead us, you lead us into deeper relationship with You and your world. This is our prayer, oh God, in the name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, Amen.