September 21, 2014
A favorite movie of mine is “A League of Their Own,” which tells the fictionalized account of the Women’s Baseball League. The women’s baseball league was started in response to World War II. Every able-bodied man of proper age was doing his patriotic duty and serving in the military. Ball players were no exception. For the first time, it seemed as though baseball would be on hold indefinitely; at least until the war was won and the boys came marching home. While I’m sure that providing America with its favorite pastime and supporting the war effort was motivated by patriotism on the part of the team owners, I imagine that they didn’t want to lose the profits from the game either. So if Rosie could be a riveter, why couldn’t Betty be a ballplayer?
Rosie the Riveter is an enduring icon from that time, but the truth is that women who went to work in the factories were not necessarily welcomed with open arms by the men who still worked there. As the movie depicts, women were not a welcome sight on the ball field either. The idea was denounced by men and women alike. Because they were women, and the fear was that traditional femininity was at stake, they had to endure things that no male ballplayer would ever have to put up with. I’m not talking about harassment. I’m talking about charm lessons, chaperones – even though some of the women were married with children, uniforms that were cute and skimpy enough to catch men’s eyes, but covered enough that they wouldn’t be seen as obscene. Either way, they were impractical for playing ball. A catch phrase heard in the movie was, “dirt in the skirt,” meaning slide into base, no matter what. They were mocked by spectators at the games, and told repeatedly that girls can’t play ball. But the women endured. The ones who tried out for the league and made the cut played hard and they played well. Eventually the idea of women’s baseball began to be accepted and appreciated, even if it was done begrudgingly by some.
But it was still women playing a man’s game. A critical moment in the movie came when Ira Lowenstein, the marketing man who made the idea of women’s baseball take shape and find acceptance, was told by Walter Harvey, the main team owner, that the leagues were going to be dismantled after that season was over. The allies were winning the war. It wouldn’t go on much longer. The boys would be coming home and coming back to baseball.
Lowenstein makes an impassioned plea for the league to continue. The women worked so hard. They would play a double-header one day, drive all night on a bus to the next town, and play again the next. They played with broken fingers and bruised bodies. This is what it’s going to be like when the war is over, isn’t it, Lowenstein tells Harvey. Women were told it was their patriotic duty to leave the kitchen and go into the factory. Now they have to leave the factory and go back to the kitchen. In response, Harvey says, you want the boys who are coming home from war to go into the kitchen?!
After all, what is implicit and explicit in our culture is that the first shall be first.
This idea of the first shall be first isn’t new to us, to the western world, or to the people living in this century or the last. It is a cherished belief that seems to have been held by cultures and societies throughout history. It was certainly the ideal in Jesus’ time. That’s why what he says about the least and last is so ultimately offensive. And I think this parable, unique to Matthew’s gospel, is perhaps the most offensive of them all.
A landowner goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers for his vineyard. This would not have been an unfamiliar example to the people hearing Jesus tell this story. In reality the landowner himself would not have done the hiring. That would have been left up to his manager. But it was not uncommon for laborers to gather in a central place in the market and wait to be hired for work. As Jesus tells it, the landowner gets there early and hires workers. They agree on a day’s wage, and the workers go to the vineyard. At nine am, more workers are still needed. So the landowner returns to the market and hires more laborers who are still waiting. This happens again at noon, and at three, and at five.
It’s often assumed by people interpreting this passage that the laborers who were hired at five were lazy. They must have overslept and gotten there late. But there is nothing in the text to indicate that this is true. They just weren’t hired in the first few rounds. At five when they landowner sees them standing in the marketplace, he asks why were they standing there all day. “Because no one has hired us.” I suspect that they had families to feed same as the others who were hired before them. They needed work, so they waited as long as they had to. The landowner gives them that work. They go to the vineyard and join the other workers. The end of the work day rolls around and the landowner instructs his manager to pay them all the agreed upon day’s wage, beginning with those hired last. The people hired first thing see the last getting the same wage they were supposed to get. So they automatically assume that they will get more. After all, they were first. They’ve worked the longest. Shouldn’t they get more?
But all of them, those who were hired first thing, those who were hired midday, and those who were hired last, all are paid the same. And those who were hired first were not happy about it. They bring their complaints to the owner. We have worked all day long in the scorching heat. We’ve carried a full day’s burden. But these people who only worked an hour get the same wage that we do? The landowner doesn’t seem to understand their complaint. He tells one of them who was complaining, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” The ones who had been there all day were not cheated of their wages. The wages that they agreed to are the wages they got. It’s the landowner’s choice that those who were hired last would be paid the same. It’s his money. It’s his choice. Then he says what I think is the key sentence in this parable, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Are you envious because I am generous?
When I preached on this passage three years ago, I told you a story from one of the scholars I used as a resource. I’m going to tell it to you again. This pastor/scholar spoke about a woman in a church he once served. This woman was faithful in her commitment to the church and in her study of scripture. She always read ahead in the lectionary to see what passages would be preached on. But whenever the lectionary rolled around to this parable, she wouldn’t come to church. She didn’t want to hear it. It made her furious. It made her so angry because to her it just wasn’t fair. I think the people who heard Jesus tell this parable didn’t think it was fair. I imagine it made them pretty mad as well. I think, if we’re really honest, that it angers us too. If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we don’t think it’s fair either.
But somewhere in our human thinking and reasoning, we have confused fairness with justice. I don’t think they’re synonyms – at least not as we find justice to be defined in scripture. Fairness is about our demand to get what’s ours. That’s mine, not yours. I worked here all day, I should be paid more. That’s fair. But justice is about what’s right. I think justice, real justice, God’s justice, stems from love, from compassion, from a desire to see all, even the least, cared and provided for. Doing justice for the least of these wasn’t about giving them whatever was left over. It was about putting them first, caring for them in their weakness, because we who are stronger are able to and required to and should want to. It’s not about being fair. It’s about being just. William Sloan Coffin wrote about it this way, “When we are intent on being, rather than on having, we are happier. And when we are intent on being, we don’t take away from other people’s being – in fact, we enhance it. But when we are intent on having, we create have-nots – and invariably lie about the connection.”
I think what drives us in our need for fairness is fear. If someone else has something, it might take something away from me. We are envious of other people’s good fortune. We are envious of the generosity shown to others; not because it hurts us, but because we are afraid that it will. The people who were hired first were not cheated. They were not harmed. Their jobs weren’t taken away and given to those hired last. They were all paid what was promised. Maybe it’s not fair that those hired last were paid the same, but it was just. It was generous.
Are we envious of that kind of generosity?
The Reverend Tom Long, who in my eyes is kind of a rock star of preachers, told a story once about a City Council meeting he attended when he lived in Atlanta. The neighborhood where he lived was a nice one; perhaps not wealthy, but well off. But there was a proposal before the council to construct low-income housing in that well off neighborhood. That would mean that people in a far lower income bracket would be moving in, and the fear was that undesirable elements would come with them.
So interested parties on both sides of the issue had gathered to put in their two cents for the council’s consideration. A woman stood up to speak. She was a single mother. If the housing went through, she would be eligible to take advantage of it. She told the council and all those gathered there that having this housing would give her and her children stability and security. Her children would have the opportunity to attend better schools, and get an education that would help them rise out of poverty. She pleaded with the council members to make this housing happen, so she would have a real chance at bettering her life and the lives of her kids.
After she was through speaking, a resident of the neighborhood spoke. He looked at the woman and said, “I earned my right to live in this neighborhood. I earned mine. You earn yours.” Long said that at first he was right with the guy. “Yeah! That’s right. I earned mine.” But then he remembered the One to whom he belonged. He remembered the One who said that the first shall be last and the last first. He remembered the One who showed grace and mercy, even when – especially when – it wasn’t fair. This wasn’t an issue of fairness. It was an issue of justice.
In this parable that I dread preaching and many of us dread hearing, Jesus isn’t speaking about fairness. He is speaking about justice. He is speaking about generosity. What complicates this is that this isn’t just any old parable. It is another one of those pesky kingdom parables. The kingdom of heaven is like … The kingdom of heaven is not a place of special privilege, where a few get more because they somehow believe they deserve it. The kingdom of heaven is a just kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is about living in a state of being where we aren’t as worried about fairness as we are about living with compassion and love. The kingdom of heaven is a generous kingdom. Are we envious because God is generous? After all, God has been abundantly generous to us. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.