"The wage at the end of the day" - Matthew 20:1-16
“The wage at the end of the day.”
Somewhere in the top drawer of my dresser I have a few small Roman coins. The denarius was the “silver penny” of the Roman Empire. It gets two or three mentions in the New Testament. I have a couple of those. Mine have ragged edges. The ones which have come down to us frequently have edges trimmed or clipped or chipped off quite intentionally. The clippings could be melted down and over a lifetime, money could be stretched a bit. And, as per our Gospel reading this morning, a denarius – trimmed or untrimmed – was apparently the daily wage for a labourer working in the fields. The story in this morning’s Gospel is a simple controversy. Those hired to start work at 9 or even 7 in the morning are paid the same as those hired at 3 or 5 in the afternoon because the landowner has agreed to a daily wage and has not specified starting times. The earlier arrivals grumble. The landowner claims that a daily wage was agreed on with all, and that a daily wage is a daily wage and, after all, isn’t it his money? He can give it to whomever he pleases.
I was involved once in a Union drive at a large clothing manufacturer in Montreal in the nineties and helped once to organize a strike on a foreign registered ship in the Port of Montreal which hadn’t seen wages paid in six months but I have also sat on the management side of the table opposite representatives of one of Quebec’s more pugnacious trades unions. I can tell you that the landowner’s argument in the Parable would be, at best, controversial. The one who pays here believes he can pay in an arbitrary fashion – according to whim, and that’s not on. It’s not adequate – the word referring to something which is “made equal” – not equal to the person standing next to you but equal to the work done. A “day’s wage” as a single unit of compensation is a one-size-fits-all approach. What is missing is a scale of compensation which takes account of hours worked. Simply being present in the field isn’t enough.
Adequacy. Great word, adequacy. What do we make of it?
You would be unhappy were your life partner to tell all his or her friends that you are an “adequate” spouse. You might hope to be more than that. To have your professional review at work conclude that you were an adequate employee would be, at best I suppose, a relief - you could have been judged a execrable employee - but still you wouldn’t be cracking out the bottle of Prosecco. An essay handed back with the words “Adequate” scrawled along the top in red pencil? Would it please you? A book entitled “the pursuit of adequacy” will not sell as well as one entitled “the pursuit of excellence”. In the post Hegelian understanding of the world aren’t things supposed to get somewhat better anyway – generation after generation – simply because stuff happens? Falls apart and then puts itself together just a bit better? Evolution is one factor and the reason we are not all sitting in a swamp this morning catching flies with our tongues. The general upswing of our slowly improving biology is matched by the tweaks we make in our technology. The hand loom becomes the mechanical loom becomes the steam driven loom. Our boat moves upstream – of course it does - slowly.
However, don’t we put a certain stock in those key moments when something is invented which changes the whole picture, or when our opponents are defeated and taken away in chains? We might know the year when that special book was written by that very clever person and those words were put down on paper for the first time. We are enraptured perhaps by stories of individuals who prevail – by the Titans of Excellence. History is peppered with stories of excellent men and women. History tends to curate the stories of a greater abundance of men, I suppose – many of them on horseback. Who thrust and parry. Who innovate. Who discover. Who bend the world to their wills. We might like to be one of them. If we discover on our sixtieth birthday that we haven’t become one of them we might hope our children could be one of them.
The Light at Lunchtime group has spent several weeks reading through chunks of the Book of Proverbs. We ended this process on Thursday by reading the final chapter – Proverbs 31 – most of which consists of a section with the editorial heading “A virtuous wife who can find her” or in another version “An excellent wife, who can find?” which outlined the daily life of this powerhouse of a woman who runs her household, directs her servants, maintains the economic unit of the cottage industry, who buys and sells tracts of land in the family name, who cooks, weaves her own fabric, makes garments and is, at the end of the chapter, deserving of the unalloyed praise of her family. Quote
Of the husband in Proverbs 31 it says merely that he is well known in town and sits at the city gate with the Elders. The heading could just as easily have been. “An inadequate husband who is he married to”.
Virtue – Merit – Excellence. They are self evidently things to be yearned for and things to be accordingly rewarded. No? And so this parable with its one-wage-for-all stance should sit uncomfortably with us. As he so often does, Jesus expects this parable to itch us a little. He wants us to say “Hold on a moment”.
Let’s give a small “shout out” to adequacy, shall we? In government. In family life. In the life of business or institutions. We live in a world where democratic institutions of government are failing – where the unique relationship between a voting population, the interests of an economic elite and the conventions and institutions which facilitate democratic choice but which hold the excesses of populism in check have become friable. We’re in a packet of trouble here in the West. You know it. I know it.
We know families which are riven by strife, between spouses, between parents and children, between siblings for want of adequate accountability, adequately instructive conversation, adequate caregiving.
We know organizations and companies which fail or provoke scandal because of a lack of adequate transparency and governance on the part of the Board of Directors or adequate honesty on the part of the Officers.
Ordinary, commonplace things – duties, conventions and rituals - known for quite a long time can simply be discarded these days. It's remarkably how easily its lost or put aside. Bits of the puzzle which make the picture comprehensible end up behind the cushions on the couch. You are observers of the entire process. You worry that it might happen. You see it suggested or bruited about. You see it happening. You realize that it’s happened. You regret it having happened. You say I told you so. But still some quite simple convention of relationship, of honesty, of accountability goes by the wayside with very little that we think we can do about it. Forget your book on Excellence. Please write us the Big Book of Adequacy. It's what we’re missing quite a lot of. It’s what we fail for want of.
Last week my colleague Fr Bob - a school chaplain from Houston, Texas - put together a Zoom call for the old gang associated with the Montreal Diocesan Theological College. There we were – folks who hadn’t seen much of each other in 30 years – people between the age of say 58 and 80. It included not only students but some of our mentors as well who are still alive. Many of them had much less hair on the top of their heads than I have, I might add, although many of them were a bit trimmer than me. A few of them have had a difficult rows to hoe and some of them have done quite well for themselves. There are a couple of bishops among our number – an archdeacon or two. Some are pensioned off and some are still in the fields. Some are bitter about what has happened to them and around them. Some of the very astute among them now quite happily need to write things down and you’d see them putting pen to paper so that they wouldn’t forget.
Some have changed their stripes quite dramatically over the years - some are more less who they were in the early eighties. Silver pennies all – who have been clipped and trimmed by the vagaries of time and, frankly, who were not all dealt the same hand of cards – who have not all had the same starting line, did not marry the same people, were more or less capable of bearing the challenges which were unevenly sent their way. We might have imagined that our branches would bear much more fruit with much less effort than we have needed to bring to bear. We hope we have provided an adequate response to the call of the Gospel in the places we have served and with the tools at our disposal. In spite of the high hopes of our youth we have come out at the end of the day remarkably ordinary.
Fifteen or sixteen years ago I buried an extraordinary woman. It was actually the Bishop of Edinburgh who officiated at the service but I was the Rector of the parish, she was my colleague and I preached. This lady had been orphaned as a child and subsequently raised by an uncle and aunt who preferred their own children over her. She was pulled out of school at 14 and sent to work at a candy shop in Edinburgh where she languished for two or three years until she decided to enrol as a student nurse at the Deaconess Hospital in that city. She finished her training and went to South Africa in the nineteen fifties where she worked for pretty well the entirety of her working life as nurse/midwife – as I remember, somewhere in the region of Grahamstown. She delivered several generations of children and worked innovatively in women’s health and children’s nutrition and, latterly, in the training and supervision of the next generation of nurse/midwives. She returned to Scotland infrequently during her working life. At sixty-five she retired and came home. A lifelong Anglican of catholic sensibilities she was ordained as one of the first Deacons in the Scottish Church and subsequently a priest. When I arrived in Penicuik and West Linton she, now in her mid eighties, was one of the non-stipendiary clergy of the parish. She occupied a huge chunk of ministry in this two point charge – and when she died she left a huge hole in the ministry of the church. I could only daydream about retaining the same professional usefulness at that age. She was laid low suddenly by an abdominal aneurysm of some sort and when I arrived at the hospital to see her that afternoon she was conscious but had already asked the doctor whether she would survive this and had been told in a kindly fashion but unequivocally that she would almost certainly not.
I believe that when she was told that she would not survive this illness - she put her head back on the pillow and said to herself
that she’d had enough.
There was sadness. I sensed it that afternoon when we spoke. There was solemnity. The bishop told me that when she said ‘goodbye’ to him the next day when he came to visit she said it with a great sense of occasion and finality. You see,
she’d had enough.
What does that mean? Not that she had no strength to fight it – but that had you asked her if she’d had her portion, if she’d had occasion to love and be loved, to apply herself to the world around her, to fill her generation and to meet Christ in the midst of the world’s people she’d have said ‘yes’. It was sufficient. It was adequate.
She’d had enough.
She was to be buried at Rosebank Cemetery on Pilrig Street near the 200 soldiers on their way to the front lines in the First World War who died in the Gretna Train Disaster, in the same graveyard as her grandfather and great grandfather and in the company of saints and rascals from two centuries of Scottish history. I remember the gravediggers – Council employees in yellow coats – who could be seen hiding behind trees puffing on their cigarettes until we’d gone. It was just one more burial to them.
Notwithstanding the uniqueness of the woman and our feelings for her at the time, and even though there are remarkable stories that can be told about her, what Bishop Brian said in his prayer at the Commendation as he stood at the foot of her coffin were right out of the book and referred simply to the one wage which we all receive for our participation in the Grace which God has granted to us in Christ. I will and would say the same words for each of you here this morning should the occasion arise
Into your hands, O merciful Saviour, we commend your servant, (and here I will speak your first name). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming…..
His sheep. The ones he redeemed, the ones he gathered in. We await the verdict - in the hope that it is this: "Well done, good and faithful servant" - here's your dime. This is for an adequate day's work. I pay you the same as I pay her – whose life you do not know and whose experience you cannot share. I call them to me when I call them - at whatever stage in their lives and at whatever hour of the day. There is only one place to be – in the midst of life or at its end - at home with me. One God, one baptism, one Church and one common destiny in the grace of God.