taking the words of Jesus seriously

EDITORS NOTE: Since May of 2013, the Forward Together Moral Movement, led by Rev. William J. Barber II and other faith and justice leaders, has challenged the North Carolina state government to turn from extremist policies and partisan entrenchment to work for the good of the whole. On Wednesday of this week, faith leaders from 11 states announced that they would join the Movement for a Moral Week of Action, which begins today with Jericho Marches around state capitol buildings from the Deep South to Wisconsin.

For each day of the Moral Week of Action, RLC will run a prayer and meditation from one of the faith leaders in the Moral Movement. As people around the country march with workers today, Rodney Sadler of Union Presbyterian Seminary offers this reflection.

Holy One, we greet you this morning with hope in our hearts–hope that those who labor tirelessly will have their work respected and their rights protected. Hope that those who seek to find a job–to find a purpose for their lives–will be given the dignity of work. Hope that those who have been forced to depend on others can sometime soon support themselves. Be with us on this day begun in hope, and may that hope be manifest in new opportunity so that those who have done without will soon have their needs met. 

My friend Herb is a 57-year-old African-American man with a youthful face, a hearty smile and an able mind. He has worked hard since the time he was 16 years old. For two decades he worked for the IRS, and subsequently he worked as a manager at Home Depot. But Herb has been unemployed now for more than a year and a half, and it’s breaking his heart. Look in his once vibrant eyes, and you see the solemn gaze of a defeated man. Herb has never been a slacker. He has always held at least two jobs. But he now represents the face of the unemployed in America.

Herb is not lazy. Herb hasn’t refused to work. Herb, like so many others in America, can’t find a job because there are no jobs.

The parable of the wealthy landowner from Matt 20:1-16 is a simile that begins stating that “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who goes out early to hire day laborers.” First, he goes out at 9am and hires laborers; then he goes at noon, then at 3pm, then at 5pm to hire more people. When he sees people “standing around” he says to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” To which they respond, “Because no one has hired us.” Afterward, he sends them all to work in his vineyard. 

This is a parable about God. It presents God as one who offers an inclusive welcome, bringing all people to “labor in the vineyard” or to “receive eternal life” on the same basis. It’s an important Gospel message, but I want us to focus on the medium–i.e. the social reality Jesus uses to show us what God is like. Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a full employment society and God to a “Job Creator” who desires full employment. 

In this regard, the parable presents an ideal to which we all can strive, for in this story we see that: 

  • God wants all able workers to experience the dignity of and opportunity to work. 
  • God offers each worker the same amount, establishing an egalitarian system of wealth distribution among the workers. 
  • God provides to each worker a “denarius, ” the amount equal to what a worker and her/ his family would need daily to survive in that society. 

Thus, though not the overall message of this text, we can discern from the medium that the Kingdom of God is like a system where able workers can work for an equal, fair and living wage. Jesus has in this simile subtly idealized the notion of full employment and just wages by saying, “That is what God is like!” 

We stand today, however, at a time when the promise of the American Dream is threatened unlike in other eras. We live in a time when social mobility is at risk. Despite your desire to work, to get an education, to strive for the American Dream, if you are born poor you will probably die poor! We live in a time when poor people are described as though they are lazy, unethical, unmotivated, unworthy and unwilling to improve their situation. We live in a time when we have made it a crime to be poor and a moral deficiency to be unemployed. But this is not our Creator’s ideal; this is not what our God is like. 

Dr. King reminds us that “Every [human being] is a child of God made in God’s image and therefore deserves to be respected as such.” In this regard, we need to offer every human being a job, so that God’s image is respected, so that all people receive deserved dignity, so that all people experience the opportunity that God would have for each of us, for “that is what God is like!” 

Holy One, grant us the will to ensure that everybody who wants a job has a job because the dignity of work is a human right. Grant all of your children the ability to work for a living wage to sustain themselves, their family and their community. May every reflection of You be given every opportunity to survive and to thrive. May your will be done, and may we be agents of your will in this world! It is in your name that we pray, Amen!

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