God's Moral Economy: Showing up for grace (A sermon by Eva Dalzell, Wash U '19)
(Below is the word Eva preached on Sunday night. If you'd like to read the Scriptures on which she preached, you can find them here: Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 20:1-16.)
I’d like to start by blaming capitalism for why this gospel is always tough for me to work through.
It’s the same instinct that causes me to make immediate value judgements on other people’s majors, post-college plans, and career goals. Honestly, it’s the same instinct that made me breathe a sigh of relief when my major advisor told me that there was a demand for high school Latin teachers.
It’s harmful and exhausting, this judgement, these calculations of who deserves what, this moral economy. And it’s so pervasive. I’m friends with a lot of humanities students— English majors, theater nerds, Classics kids— and we spend so much time justifying our choices to ourselves. The Atlantic runs an article on why the tech world wants humanities majors. I talk about SAT scores and law school acceptance rates before I talk about love, about empathy, about zooming out as far as you can to see your own place in history, and then zooming back in to a spot two and a half thousand years ago where someone with your exact fears spoke your pain so accurately and eloquently that it’s hard to believe that they weren’t in your head this whole time.
I love that. But I don’t talk about it enough. Instead, I justify, I rationalize, I spend way too much time envying Pre-Med and business school students, because either they’re better at suppressing their real love in favor of a practical, lucrative career choice, or their love is something practical and lucrative. Neither of these options seems fair. This productivity-based value system pits all of us against each other and ourselves, and makes it really, really hard to interpret this reading.
It’s easy to see the thread throughout— God provides what is necessary. In the desert, an abundance of quails; for the laborer, a full day’s wage. I don’t know enough about biblical economics to make a point about minimum wage for your average vineyard-worker. I’m not sure that’s the point, so for the sake of argument, let’s assume that one denarius is enough.
And so each of the workers gets enough. Some worked longer, yes. To those workers who have been in the field since dawn, this seems unfair— not because they aren’t getting paid more, but because the latecomers aren’t getting paid less.
But this is the kingdom of heaven— when we are hungry, and tired, and complaining, we will be given food. When we work, doing however much we can for as long as we are able, we will be compensated. And when we are alone, when Jesus has been exalted and is no longer right there, leading by example, we have been told what to do.
We, the laborers, should not begrudge other people their fair pay, even if we think we’ve been working for it longer. Odds are, the landowner just saw us first. The other guys showed up to work, just like we did. What’s important is that we’re all here in this field, trying to understand the work that God has set out for us to do, and doing it to the best of our ability.
Like I said, that’s easy enough to believe in a theoretical sense. In practice, entrenched in our productivity-based moral economy, it’s a lot harder. I’m sure I’m not the only one who instinctively cringes at this reading, who wants to insist that the workers who got hired first get paid more. They’ve been out there longer, they’ve harvested more, they deserve to get paid more. In an allegorical sense, where we’re talking about the kingdom of heaven and not a vineyard, and God’s love and salvation and not denarii, this is fine. When trying to bring it into daily life, where everything and every person and every hour of every kind of work has a set value, it trips me up every time.
But there is a point where our value system reaches a limit, and that’s where Jesus is trying to pull us. Because, sure, maybe there are days when we are in the first or second wave of people God hires, and we’ve been working harder or longer than anyone else, and we feel like we’re not being rewarded enough. Maybe. But much more often, I think there are days for all of us when we’re the last ones to answer the call, when we question whether we’re been doing enough, when we try to calculate what we deserve based on the impact we’ve had, and come up far short of a day’s wage.
I think there is a better moral economy. One that starts with grace, and ends with showing up to do the work you can. Or maybe it starts with showing up, and ends with grace. And we can let ourselves step back and see how broken our system is, we can let ourselves feel how much it’s hurting us, we can accept the reward that we’ve been promised, even if we don’t think we’ve earned it. And if we can do that, then maybe it’ll be easier tomorrow to get up, get back into the field, and keep doing the work God has given us.