That’s what happened the time my grandfather took a day job shoveling out a railroad car during the Depression. At that time, you didn’t know when the next job might present itself, so you took a job when offered, and you were grateful for the chance to earn something, when the next guy might get nothing. So he took the job shoveling out the railroad car. He spent a hard day shoveling salt. And by the end of the day, when they dished out the day’s wage? Well, instead of feeding the family, it had to go to buying him a new pair of boots to replace the ones the salt had ruined.
That sort of deal didn’t end with the New Deal. It’s just as prevalent here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some call it ‘Working in Retail’. Some call it ‘The Sharing Economy.’ Others call it On-Demand Staffing or 'Flexible Staffing Practices'. Full Availability is a system where it seems the employer has all the rights to organize the employee’s time. It is not uncommon in retail – and increasingly, in other sectors – to receive your schedule shortly before the week begins, and to be notified that you are “on call” in case of an unexpected surge in customers, expected to report on as little as two hours’ notice. All of this for the extravagant wage of $7.25 to $10 an hour.
Of course, with your employer’s needs as your central organizing principle, you have precious little energy to devote to organizing anything else: child care, or a search for a better job, or your fellow employees. It goes beyond paycheck-to-paycheck and ends up being more like hand-to-mouth.
It is like a day in which the owner of the store kept going back to the on-call list. The starting shift came in, turned on the lights, fired up the cash registers, and began to work. At 9 am, he made his first round of calls: “Come in. I have work for you today.” Again at noon. "I have work."
By three, he had to call the temp agency (you would think that whoever did the labor forecasting might be out of a job by now). And again at five, to the folks who were convinced the call would never come. There was hardly anyone left…nobody qualified, nobody with a good employment history…one of them (according to rumor) was sleeping in her car because she couldn’t find a landlord willing to rent to her, with her bad credit history and no local references -- and she’d had to beg someone, anyone to take her number down, just in case. The others rolled their eyes in exasperation every time one of these newbies asked for help.
It was a long day, but finally, thank God, they were done. They stood there, tired eyes and tired feet, and waited. This was not the kind of establishment that did an auto-deposit of your payroll check. Eventually, the manager came out, and counted out from the day’s proceeds.
“Seventy-two fifty,” he said to the ones who started at five. “Not sure if I’ll need you tomorrow, but I’ve got your phone.” They left, hanging on to the money for dear life, at least one of them trying to figure out if it could stretch far enough for a night at the Econolodge, a few gallons of gas and a sandwich at Kwik Trip.
“Seventy-two fifty,” he said to the ones who started at three, as the ones who started at noon leaned over to hear. “Keep that phone charged; any no-shows and I’ll bump you off my list.” They grumbled, but they took it.
Noon and nine am both received seventy-two fifty – at which point the individuals who had opened the store would have clutched their grandmother’s pearls, if they hadn’t already hocked them to pay the mortgage. Instead, they stood with their jaws hanging as the owner counted out seventy-two fifty to them as well.
When they made noises of rebellion, the owner said, “Take your stuff and go. I have the right to employ who I choose. I have the right to pay what the market will bear. Now get out.” And he crossed them off his list for good.
It had better not be like that! Where is the Kingdom? Where is God? What I hear in this parable is a business owner who’s more interested in keeping the upper hand, and perhaps most interested in his bottom line. I hear a story with no moral center.
The business owner is a snot. Let’s just say it right up front. If he's a rotten egg, the workers are not much better. Too chicken to stand up to him, too worn out or desperate. The middle ranks would rather maintain the illusion of sustainability: at least I’ve got a job – I don’t want to stick my nose out. The closing shift was grateful to have been called at all; a night with a roof over their heads was a victory. And the opening shift – well, we see what talking back gets you – a kick down the curb. Another month running down the savings account and they’ll be the ones trolling worn-out motels for weekly rates.
I don’t think this is anything like the Kingdom of God. We could try to take this parable as God-is-generous-in-some-weirdo-ways. But there is no way I can twist this parable to make it tell a tale of justice and of grace. In the Parable of the Landowner Who Went Out Early, I think Jesus is instead holding up a mirror for us. Sometimes, a story is told not because it represents the way things ought to be, but because it is a revealing portrayal of the way things actually are. (Not every business owner in the Gospels is intended to represent God. Sometimes – to turn a Freudian phrase – a landowner is just a landowner.)
Maybe Jesus wants the crowds who hear this parable to get riled up and head off to their neighborhood protest to make their voices heard. There’s a place for faith-based activism, and if that’s where you hear God’s call, well, you will need to make some decisions about what to do with your time, in this peculiar era in Wisconsin’s history.
Perhaps this parable's deepest meaning isn't about economic health or about worker’s rights, though. While we’re evaluating our governor’s presidential chances, the relative economic health of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and whether palm trees are going to sprout up at the Capitol again, there are still some folks out there who feel awfully alone. And neither is that a feature of the Kingdom of God.
What if we choose, as people of faith, to take this as a parable about hospitality?
Because I wonder about the five o’clock folks. I wonder what that gal’s going to do when the Econolodge kicks her out. And whether three o’clock can make arrangements to get her kids home safe after school so she can show up for work. I wonder what’s going to happen when nine o’clock runs out of 401(k) to dip into, and what’s going to happen to the community when the employer down the street also decides this is a viable business model. I wonder who’s going to be left to offer emergency assistance when the middle has been hollowed out.
I wonder if money is a red herring, when we ought to be looking at power. Yes, there is power to being at the decision-making tables. And money too often buys a seat there. But I wonder if the greater power rests in living the Gospel truth that none of us are expendable, surplus human resources; in refusing to allow our common humanity to be peeled off, benefit by benefit, employer by employer, demographic by demographic, until we are left standing alone.
Perhaps Jesus is showing us that God's economics are based on hospitality, instead of productivity.
In that case, to what shall I compare the Kingdom of Heaven? It is like a day in which everyone who needs a job, gets one. Or, better: it is like a day in which the workers stop fighting among themselves for the scraps. Or, even better: it is like the world-changing day in which we all take responsibility for one another.
Our sermons for the season of Lent (the weeks leading up to Easter) are based on the parables of Jesus from the Gospel According to Matthew. If you'd like to read the original, go to Matthew 20:1-15.