Marketplace Economics

Matthew 20:1-16

Today (September 18, 2011) Fr. Brad Karelius gave his last 10:15 sermon at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah, Santa Ana, California, where he was called as Rector 30 years ago. He leaves a legacy of community engagement through Hands Together: A Center for Children, with its many forms of ministry to the working poor, disadvantaged, and homeless of our inner-city neighborhood, as well as many other undertakings. His legacy is also a spiritually, intellectually, and artistically vibrant parish, eager to learn and grow, eager to give of its time, talent and resources, diverse and embracing, charged with a sense of mission and struggle. It is a beacon of hope and commitment amidst the surrounding culture of cynicism, avarice, and apathy.

The day is warm and summery, with the low afternoon sun of autumn. It reminds us of why we love southern California, though for the Messiah family an elegiac note pervades the quiet air.

Fr. Brad’s sermon speaks to the problems of work, wealth, economy, and justice. It cuts to the heart of the current political debates and the pathos of inequality that has flared up in so many around us.

In the parable of the vineyard, workers are hired “in the marketplace” early in the morning and promised a fair wage for a day of work. Late in the afternoon the owner returns to the marketplace to enlist a second group, then later a third, and so on. At the end of the day, despite the protests of the first group, all are paid an equal wage. The owner replies, the vineyard and the pay are mine, shall I not do with them as I please?

How contrary to the usual, assumed implications of “ownership”! Ownership is indeed the linchpin of inequality, and radical doctrines of enforced equality seek to abolish it. (“Enforced equality” is a logical contradiction: as “enforced,” it implies a larger, containing inequality. This illogic is pregnant with the tragedies of modern history.) If I own something and you don’t, or if I own more than you, that is our pairwise inequality, so to speak. The tendency of inequality in normal economic life is to propagate itself; one who has more than others elevates this circumstance into a positive good, an absolute good, and uses his wealth to create new inequalities among those in his hire.

That is the challenge of the tea-party activists, who call for the “fairness” of unequal reward. Those who work harder and longer, risk more and invent more, deserve their wealth. Fair enough, so far as it goes. See Elizabeth Warren’s comments.

But does this logic apply equally over the economic spectrum? Do we apply the criteria of the “free” market in the lowest range, where survival itself, or basic human dignity, is in question? Can we galvanize the poorest into self-sufficiency by getting tough with them, taking away the last vestige of support, suspending them over the abyss, like “sinners in the hands of an angry God?” I can’t help thinking that the imagination of economic conservatism is informed by Jonathan Edward’s Puritan severity.

How we will miss the great ability of Fr. Brad to invert our normal perspective and give a sense of God’s world and God’s perspective! Rather than a competitive world (that of conservative or so-called “marketplace” economics, dominated by a struggle for survival) in which workers struggle against one another for the attention of a remote, indifferent master, we have the Master who seeks and values the service of every one.

But when we move outside of [our egocentric point of view], we walk in a strange world of strange values and perceptions and we immediately want to reject what we see. But let’s try to walk out of our natural selves into God’s world and be with the first hired and try to see things the way God sees them.

From the Lord of the Vineyard’s point of view, what really matters is not what you get for pay but that you even showed up to work in the vineyard. The real problem is those who hang around the marketplace doing nothing. Hanging around in the marketplace, you do not see God’s deep desire to harvest a new human reality. You stand around waiting. But this Lord of the Vineyard will have none of this. The owner visits the marketplace many times during the day, impatiently seeking workers, and sends everyone off to the vineyard. What is most important is showing up in the vineyard for the work.

Once you arrive in the vineyard, you are in the owner’s domain. The rules change out here, because of who the owner is and what the owner is about. The work itself is the reward. The joy is in the contribution, the ecstasy of joining with the Lord of the Vineyard in creation of a new world.

[...]

A woman at a Bible study workshop many years ago helped me understand this parable from a whole other angle. She was a single mother raising three children alone after her husband deserted them. She had little education and few marketable skills. Day after day she stood in line at the employment office, hoping against hope for a job.

As she read the parable, she remarked that the ones standing idle all day long in the marketplace were not lazy. They would gladly work if anyone would hire them. But they were always left behind because they were old, infirm and unskilled, unable to work as hard as the more robust. They were like her and the people who thronged to the unemployment lines these days, she said.

As she reflected on the ending of the parable, she observed that if the landowner had given the laborers that were hired last anything other than one day’s wage, what good would that do? How would they feed their children? Sure, she admitted, the first hired had worked all day in the hot sun, but they also had the satisfaction of knowing all day long that at the end of the day they would be able to feed their family.

Justice, in God’s reign, she proposed, is about everyone being able to eat at the end of the day, no matter what each one’s capacity to work. God’s justice cannot be earned and does not depend on how much you work.

(Fr. Brad Karelius, Sermon, Episcopal Church of the Messiah, Santa Ana, California, September 18, 2011; Proper 20A.)

Here is an insight we must learn from the poor. The rich do not know it. The true reward of any work is to know that one’s family will eat at the end of the day. Those who worked the longer day were indeed rewarded at a higher level, as they were secure all day in the knowledge of their payment. Those hired later spent most of the day in fear and anxiety. This understanding of the parable comes naturally to those familiar with constant, gnawing uncertainty. It is like the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That is a prayer of the poor. For the rich, it is just a formality, a ritual.

For the rich, the notion of “reward” has a completely different connotation. To some extent it is having “good things,” having the freedom to do and create and act, etc. Again, fair enough. It is wonderful that artists and skilled artisans have patronage, and that good causes can find generous donors. Heaven knows, Messiah’s projects have often benefited from the generosity of those who can afford to give abundantly.

At some levels, however, it begins to look like a pathology. We hear the argument that executive positions in large firms have to be compensated in the millions in order to attract talent. Is it just about more and shinier toys, the gratification of outsided egos? The same argument is made for executive positions in higher education and non-profit organizations. Is there nothing in the work itself that will draw talented, visionary people? Or is it, in the terms Fr. Brad so often used, an addiction, an irrational, compulsive, self-destructive attachment to wealth and status, both of individuals and of entire societies?

Ayn Rand, who is the intellectual godmother of modern conservatism, attempted in her fiction to dramatize the situation of the truly creative individual coming to grips with his or her own absolute independence. Here is her description of this crisis in the life of a successful and innovative industrialist:

[Henry Rearden] saw an evening when he sat slumped across his desk in that office. It was late and his staff had left; so he could lie there alone, unwitnessed. He was tired. It was as if he had run a race against his own body, and all the exhaustion of years, which he had refused to acknowledge, had caught him at once and flattened him against the desk top. He felt nothing, except the desire not to move. He did not have the strength to feel—not even to suffer. He had burned everything there was to burn within him; he had scattered so many sparks to start so many things—and he wondered whether someone could give him now the spark he needed, now when he felt unable ever to rise again. He asked himself who had started him and kept him going. Then he raised his head. Slowly, with the greatest effort of his life, he made his body rise until he was able to sit upright with only one hand pressed to the desk and a trembling arm to support him. He never asked that question again. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, New York: Penguin, 1957, pp. 30-31.)

The resolution of Rearden’s crisis is to know that he himself is the source of his own creative energy, that the strong, autonomous self is an absolute origin. It is a defining moment for Rand’s philosophy, and the ego-fantasy of countless successful professionals with beautiful cars and houses. But the pathos is drippingly false. This protagonist is a wealthy businessman, living in a mansion, whose family (which he thinks of with contemptuous detachment) will never know hunger. It is a moment of fatigue and discouragement, tricked out as revelation. He’ll get a good night’s sleep, have a workout and a healthy breakfast, and you can bet those sparks will fly again.

(Disclaimer: I have not finished reading Atlas Shrugged. It is possible that my interpretation of this passage misses something as a result.)

We have a choice of narratives, and a choice of whose plight we consider to be central. Is it the powerful in their quest for absolute vindication of the self, or the poor in their daily struggle to survive with dignity? If the latter, we have many stories in which the role of perseverance, ingenuity, fortitude, and self-reliance is as great as for any capitalist.

In the multi-faceted narrative of Jesus, the poor are central. “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). That was the choice Fr. Brad strove with us to make. May we have grace to continue in his way.

Categories: Lectionary

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