Fruitful Labor

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20
September 24th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

What does it mean to fruitfully labor for the kingdom of heaven?

The dictionary defines the word labor along three primary trajectories.

Labor: an “expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsory.”

This definition of labor can range from the tasks that make up a person’s job to the more tedious and forced toil of prisoners serving out a sentence.

Another definition concerns economics.

Labor is what produces the items and presents the goods and services that are then purchased by consumers, and organized labor is an entity that looks out for the rights and wages of workers in such a system.

A third definition of labor is the physical process of giving birth…something that is both an “expenditure of physical and mental effort” and serves to produce one of the most precious “products” known to humanity…a child.

I share these definitions with you today because labor is at the center of our Gospel parable, as well as the readings from Exodus and Philippians.

At stake is the role labor plays in our lives, as well as the interplay between divine providence and human production.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is one of the more difficult ones Jesus tells, especially because he likens the kingdom of heaven to the scene he describes.

“In which ways, Jesus?” we might ask as we struggle with our own conceptions of fairness and with the unbridled generosity of the landowner.

Is this a tale designed to shake up our ideas of what is just and right when it comes to honest work for honest pay?

Or is it perhaps a story about the way grace works in the hands of our God?

Is it an extended allegory about salvation history and parity between Jews and Gentiles, between those who first received the covenant, and those who have been grafted into it generations later?

At some level all these interpretations are in play.

This past Wednesday we had our first monthly Bibles and Beer gathering across the street at Flann Obrien’s, and spent about an hour reading and rereading this parable and discussing its themes.

We also found ourselves wondering: Why weren’t the idle ones hired sooner?

Was it because they were lazy of perhaps because they were least able to work and therefore the least hirable?

What purpose did paying the last first accomplish—was it to somehow punish those who had worked all day, or to allow them to witness the joy on the faces of those last hires who would now have enough to feed their families, despite being hired so late in the day?

The more I wrestle with this parable, the more I see it participating in the larger biblical theme of God’s sufficient daily provision, and the ways in which we struggle to come to terms with it.

Think back to the first “days” of creation in Genesis and the abundant sufficiency of the garden of Eden.

God provides the creation with all it needs to thrive, and the first humans have the responsibility for being stewards of that gift…a form of work to be sure, but not the kind of labor and toil that arises once they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

It is notable that two of the definitions for labor, that I mentioned previously, surface once we humans reject the provision of God in favor of a sort of misguided self-determination (believing the serpent’s lie that it will make us like God and eating of the forbidden fruit).

That choice drives a wedge between Adam and Eve (they blame each other as a result) and a wedge between them and God, which results in painful consequences for all parties.

For Eve, the generative aspect of child bearing will henceforth be accompanied by birth pangs (labor) and Adam’s stewardship work in the the garden is exchanged for toil in tilling the soil outside.

“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

From the beginning, collaborative work is something that is part and parcel of the paradise known as Eden, while pain and toil based labor is viewed as a consequence of the Fall.

The Exodus reading today is directly related to this theme, and serves as another reminder of God’s provision and desire to collaborate with those he has released from forced labor and slavery in Egypt.

Though they continue to grumble in the wilderness, God supplies the hungry congregation enough bread and meat for each day, provided they go out and gather it daily.

Hoarding is not possible in this scenario, as the good gift of manna turns into worms and becomes unusable when people try to amass it beyond the Sabbath day.

The kind of labor God asks of us is collaborative, a daily endeavor, and not designed to further encourage us to believe a lie about being separate and independent from one another or from God.

This is an important backdrop to the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel and also helps establish what the daily wage is in the kingdom of heaven.

The daily wage is life (symbolized by bread, manna, money, labor), and God’s desire is for us all to receive it and live.

We are called to labor for such life daily, and, as much as we are able, find ways of sharing the generosity of God with others.

Paul calls this “fruitful labor” in his letter to the Philippians, saying that, as long as he is on the earth, his work to build up the body of Christ is a source of joy that leads to a place of mutual abundance.

It is not toil to him, although in many ways the labor is hard and dangerous, but rather a daily pursuit that gives him life, meaning, and peace.

Not unlike giving birth to a child and investing in that child’s nurture over a lifetime.

So much of our reading of the parable of the laborers in the vineyards hinges on whether we view work as an obligation or as a gift…whether we see our labor as participating in the pattern of gathering our daily bread or as toil that would be better avoided.

And our views on that get complicated by all the brokenness surrounding labor in a world of global economies, vast wealth gaps between haves and have-nots, generational debt slavery, and necessary, but joyless labor.

The kind of labor that God blesses and which makes up the fabric of the kingdom of heaven is fundamentally about relationship—a reminder that creation is intended to be a collaborative effort infused with unstoppable grace and generosity.

It isn’t exploitative, nor is it mindless.

Labor produces fruit, and new bonds of affection and community if it is shared.

Sadly, the gifts of shared labor tend to fade when great disparity exists, or when our efforts are seen as merely perfunctory toil.

This is true in the contemporary work arena, and even more so when we consider the labor in which we are involved as followers of Christ.

Building up the body…the church…is indeed challenging work, but, as Paul knew, it is labor that leads to life and joy.

How do you see yourself participating in this labor, dear brothers and sisters, especially in this vineyard of God’s called St. Paul’s Within the Walls?

I read a New York Times op-ed piece this week by David Brooks which explored two competing visions of human development.

Brooks contrasted Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with a model he calls The Four Kinds of Happiness.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, a person moves up a ladder of satisfying physical needs, safety needs, economic needs, love and belonging needs, self-esteem needs, to finally reach the ultimate goal of personal autonomy and self-actualization.

In the Four Kinds of Happiness model, the basest level of happiness is material pleasure (having nice things), the next is found in personal achievements and successes, the third is happiness that comes from giving back to others, and the highest level of happiness is, quote, “moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.”

Brooks claims that Maslow’s model is failed and should be “put away” because it moves from the community and the collective to its pinnacle in the individual, and following such a model wreaks havoc on a society.

If my happiness is dependent upon me becoming less and less concerned with you and more and more invested in my own transcendence, then I will need to privilege my own gain over yours.

In such a model getting paid the same for doing more work is nonsensical and maddening.

But in the Four Kinds of Happiness model, which sounds a lot more like the kind of joy Paul is referencing in his letter, my happiness is dependent upon moving beyond the borders of my own self into the realm of shared experience and destiny.

In such a model, labor and work lead to greater bonds of community, rather than simple individualistic gain and elevation.

I’d argue that our labor on behalf of God’s kingdom, and consequently the labor is which we engage to gather our “daily bread” bring more joy and satisfaction when oriented toward such principles.

Then our labor can produce the true and lasting fruits of moral joy and unconditional love, where peace and happiness are found.

Each time we choose to embrace the reality of God’s never-ending generosity and provision and live according to the collaborative ethics of the kingdom, we build up the bonds that were fractured in Eden, and we begin to experience more and more of the kingdom of heaven here and now.

That is our daily bread as fellow laborers in God’s vineyard, life…and life in abundance.

Fruitful labor… that leads to ultimate joy.

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