Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine?

The summer after I graduated from high school in New Orleans in 1980, I worked for a temp company called Manpower. One of my assignments was to work with Colonial Molasses at the plant where they shipped low-grade molasses to be used for cattle feed (as I recall). I was one of the workers who, after a million-gallon tank of molasses was drained onto a railroad car, would go into the tank with rubber boots on and squeegee the last two inches of thick, syrupy stuff into the drains. It was about 130 degrees in those tanks, so we had to do it in 5-minute shifts, after which we would stumble out of the hatch into the comparably cool 110 degree New Orleans summer weather. I developed a strong motivation to go to college while doing this job.

Another temp job that Manpower sent me to was with AMF Tuboscope, which tested oil drilling pipe for structural soundness. We would spend most of the day rolling pipe into and out of the testing area. Luckily, this was mostly under a large awning in the shade.

The hours at AMF Tuboscope were 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. I remember distinctly one day being let off work at about 10 a.m. I brought my Manpower time-card into the supervisor’s office; he smiled slightly and wrote “8 hours.” I took his smile to mean, “It’s not your fault we don’t have a full day’s work for you today. You’re a temp worker trying to earn a living. Receive this as a gift.” That’s the way I took it, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. I was just happy for his generosity.

I wonder how the full-time AMF Tuboscope workers would have felt had they found out. They had to stay the full 8 hours to get their day’s wage. Would they have been happy with his generosity to me?

Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), about which I am preaching this week, tells of a generous landowner who does for the workers hired later in the day what the AMF supervisor did for me. But the full-time workers hired early in the morning don’t see it as a generous gesture for someone else. They see it as unfair treatment of them.

This initiates a dialogue which is at the heart of the parable and which gives us a glimpse into the radical grace of the Kingdom. The landowner pays the first-hired workers the agreed upon wage, and the last-hired workers with largesse. Does that make his treatment of the first workers unfair? In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) the elder son has been treated fairly but not generously. He only begins to resent this when he sees how generously the Father treats his younger brother.

It seems to me that Jesus is pointing us to a heart and a mindset that can “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15) without comparing our fortune to theirs and without being insecure about the Master’s care for us. This is difficult because in our small-heartedness (the New Testament calls this “flesh”) we base so much of our inner self-worth and outer satisfaction on how we compare with others.

In the Kingdom of God “the last,” those who typically don’t get many breaks in life, are treated especially generously. Will God’s “firsts” resent this? That’s the drama of the parable, and part of the Kingdom drama in our lives. Stop comparing. Be grateful.


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