Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
A household inventory may be used for the purposes of home owner’s insurance or for a will. In the novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, there is an inventory of the Grimke household of Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1800’s. Each item enumerated includes a figure; a monetary value. The harpsichord is listed with a value of $29. Two Brussels carpets and a cover are valued at $180. Then, on the last page, there is a list of additional goods and chattel. Lucy, 20 years old, Lady’s Maid, is valued at $400. Tomfry, 51 years old, Butler and Gentleman’s servant, is valued at $600. [Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings, pp 110-111]
This kind of valuing of human life is abhorrent to us. And yet, we place economic value on human life all of the time. All the factory workers in developing countries that have plenty of people who need to work are paid little because they are not considered to be worth much. They can be easily replaced and there is little competition for sources of labor. There are other individuals in our world paid millions upon millions each and every year. These figures are more than wage indicators. They are numbers that indicate how people are valued. We routinely value people according to their economic productivity. Just think of the question, “What’s he worth?” We may be thinking about a professional athlete or a corporate mogul or an entertainer. And we are referring to financial assets. But those numbers also become intertwined with our sense of the value of the actual person.
If you want to see this at work, go to a place where there are a lot of low income people. Visit the health department or the social security office or the Salvation Army community services office. The conditions of the facility and the treatment of the clients speak volumes. Low income, low economic productivity translates to low worth as a human being. Then think of how we fawn over rich, successful, powerful, prestigious people. High income is associated with high worth as a human being. We may not buy and sell people any more, but we still make associations between economics and the value of human life.
This morning we listened to a parable that is told around an economic situation. A parable is a story that is intended to convey multiple meanings and to speak on differing levels. Scholars have much to say about this parable. In this story, there can be seen a message about those in the early Christian communities of the first century. Some of the people were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jews had long awaited. Others who became part of the Christian community were Gentiles who had never been Jews. They were essentially pagans who became associated with the Christian community. There was some tension between these groups. Does Matthew include this story to show that Jews, like the early workers, and Gentiles, like the late workers, all receive the same salvation in the end? This could be one way to understand the story. Some see in this story an economic critique: An expose of the wealthy landowners who have taken the land from the peasants, creating an unemployed under class. A story of the elites and the expendables and the economic injustice of the day which leaves the wealthy landowners free to do as they please. We could see in this story a justification of economic disparity and affirmation of the rich who appear to be generous. And that line, “Am I not allowed to do what I want with what is mine?” This sounds like the declaration of a good democracy-loving capitalist. There are many messages to be found in this story and that is the intention of a parable. To speak many truths.
To me, there is one thing that is inescapable about this story. The workers are all paid the same amount. Given our proclivity then and now for equating economic productivity with a person’s value, this story seems to indicate that all are of the same value. Hardworking and able-bodied hired early in the day. Older, sick, disabled people left to last and hired late in the day. Those in the middle. All paid the same. Of the same value as a human life in the divine economy. In God’s design, persons are not valued for their economic productivity or lack thereof. Each life is of equal value. Certainly people have differing capabilities and skills and are not the same by any means. But they have the same value because they are a human being created in the divine image.
Today we live in a time of economic upheaval. There’s a movement for an increased minimum wage. Fast food workers are agitating for a living wage. The wealth gap in the US is a growing problem contributing to greater societal instability. Are CEOs really worth 354 times the average worker? [“Pay gap more like a canyon,” Roberto Ferdman, Tampa Bay Times 9/26/14] The wealth gap world wide fuels violence and terrorism and social and political unrest. Underlying many of these economic issues is the connection between economic productivity and the value of a life. People who are underpaid feel undervalued and second class. People at the top financially have a sense of privilege and entitlement. And this situation is becoming more and more
I was asked by someone in the congregation to address the issues that are facing us in our day. What is a Christian response to ISIS and the Islamist threat? To globalization? To school resegregation? To the economic system and its inequities? What is a Christian foreign policy? How do we put our beliefs into practice relative to the issues of our time?
Underpinning all of this, the foundation, the bottom line presupposition for our approach to social issues, economic problems, and security concerns, is the core message of this parable that we have discussed. The parable tells an equalizing story which points to the equal worth of each and every person. That is the heart of the realm of God, the commonwealth of heaven, the divine intention for creation. Each and every person, each and every life, of fundamentally equal value. Each beloved; each precious. To function as individuals, as citizens, as a community from that fundamental commitment is transforming.
Imagine thinking about a social problem and speculating about a response with the bottom line that each and every life is of equal value. If that is the bottom line, then all students are going to have the opportunity to learn and grow provided for them by the school system. The situation at home for the child cannot be controlled by society, but what the school system offers will be fair and just treatment of each and every student. In thinking about foreign policy, if the bottom line is the fundamental equality of value of each and every human life, then the picture of the world today would be quite different. US foreign policy begins with the assumption that the lives of US citizens are worth more than the lives of people of other nations, and there is a pecking order among those other nations. With a commitment to the wellbeing of each and every person, foreign policy would be much more oriented toward empowering other countries and cultivating self determination, helping them achieve their hopes and dreams, and creating a community of equals among nations and peoples. Instead, we not only protect US interests but promote and privilege US interests worldwide over the interests of other peoples with a heavy handed attitude of superiority and this creates enemies that we then have to defend ourselves from. The assumption is that these other people are not as important or as valuable as people of the US and US interests.
The world, our society, the community around us, does not embrace the egalitarianism of the gospel. All around us, one person in a situation is treated one way, and a different person in a similar situation is treated another way. This has been a glaring message in the episodes involving police brutality against blacks. I had a black friend tell me, “A black life is not considered of equal value to a white life in this country.” A so-called Christian country could never tolerate that because that is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith.
The parable with the scenario of equal pay sends a strong message of equality in terms of the value and worth of a life. To put that message at the core of our ethics, our economics, our policies, our personal and international relationships, would be a drastic change that would transform reality as we know it. And this is what Christianity should be about, in a fundamental way, in the world. This message is radical. It is offensive. It is faithful. And it is true to Jesus.
In the book, Enrique’s Journey, author Sonia Nazario tells of a young man who leaves Honduras to come to the US to find his mother who is here illegally trying to make money to support her children in Honduras. The book tackles the issues around immigration as well as the story of one youngster and his perilous trek to the North. The journey involves taking buses and trains, walking and hiding. There is law enforcement to evade. There are thieves and bandits who prey on the migrants. The authorities abuse and extort and rob the migrants. There is constant threat not just from the elements and the moving trains, but from the people along the way.
But at some points on the journey the people help the migrants. There are people who take the migrants in offering food, first aid, and medical treatment. The kindness and generosity of some is as stunning as the violence and abuse of others. They hear the train coming and race to the tracks to throw bundles of food and clothes to the migrants on the trains. These are people who live on $2-3 a day. Whose existence is constantly in peril. Who themselves are barely hanging on in the face of debilitating poverty. Nazario tells us, “Families throw sweaters, tortillas, bread, and plastic bottles filled with lemonade. A baker, his hands coated with flour, throws his extra loaves. A seamstress throws bags filled with sandwiches. A teen ager throws bananas. A carpenter throws bean burritos. A store owner throws animal crackers, day-old pastries, and half-liter bottles of water. People who have watched migrants fall off the train from exhaustion bring plastic jugs filled with Coca-Cola or coffee. . . Migrants who haven’t eaten in days in days sob when they are handed a bundle of food. . . As the procession of migrants has grown, so has the determination to help.” [Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey, pp. 105, 107] This is what happens in certain areas particularly in the state of Veracruz.
When the people who offer help were questioned about their generosity, they were humble:
“If I have one tortilla, I give half away. I know God will give me more.”
“I don’t like to feel that I have eaten and they haven’t.”
“It feels good to give something that they need so badly.”
“I figure when I die, I can’t take anything with me. So why not give?”
“What if someday something bad happens to us? Maybe someone will
extend a hand to us.”
“God says, when I saw you naked, I clothed you. When I saw you hungry, I gave you food. That is what God teaches.” [pp. 105-107]
This last perspective refers to the story of the last judgment which is in the gospel of Matthew just a few chapters after the parable that we heard this morning. In the story we are told that whatever you do for “the least of these” you are doing for Jesus. The people along the migrant route that help others do so in large measure because the bishop and the local priests encourage the generosity as an act of faith. One church has organized teams that defend the migrants from the police. Church member Gloria Sanchez Romero says, “They aren’t animals. They are human beings. You’d never want to be treated that way.” [p. 112] That is the heart of their goodness and generosity. The belief, based on their Christian faith, that each and every life is precious to God. That all people are equally loved and valued in the eyes of God.
These people are treating the migrants like human beings. Like people. To honor our own humanity, to respect the sacredness of life, involves treating others as human beings as well. Of equal value and worth as ourselves, as one another, and as Jesus.
Yes, people are different. We have differing skills, abilities, talents, and interests. These differences are reflected in the monetary economy and translate into varying value and pay. While those differences are important and understandable from an economic perspective, for a Christian, there is still the bottom line that each and every person is precious, cherished, beloved, and sacred in the divine economy, in the eyes of God, in the fundamental reality of creation.
What can we say for a Christian approach to foreign policy and social issues? Every life of equal value. Every life valued as our faith tradition teaches that God values the life. Every life valued as Jesus valued the lives of those he encountered. Every life valued as your own.
In The Invention of Wings, the inventory of the Grimke household that is found by a slave, Handful, aka Hetty. When she sees that her mother has the highest monetary value of the women slaves, she is proud. And she, Handful, is second only to her mother. She marvels at this. Later in the day, she reflects: “Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledged people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was.
“After a while, I went down to the cellar. When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said, ‘Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.’” [p. 112]
That, my friends, is the scandal of the gospel. Each and every person is of incalculable value in God’s economy. And the Christian path involves living out that truth. Trusting that equality. Banking on that value. Taking that risk. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.