In the mid 1970s, I spent two years as a student at the Ecole Biblique in East Jerusalem. Early each morning, I crossed the road from my home at the Chaldean Patriarchate to the grounds of the Ecole. I used to see the Palestinian day labourers lined up beside their vehicles and waiting for employment.
In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, they were living through hard times. In the morning, they were chatty and cheerful. Those who found work no doubt remained cheerful: they had the means to support their families and could find some meaning in their lives.
Those still waiting for work at midday or later were dejected and shamed, not least by the prospect of returning home without their daily bread. Those who were hired found honour in the society and the means to sustain themselves and their families. Those who missed out on work suffered hunger, indignity and a sense of powerlessness.
Confronted by this spectacle day after day, I began to understand the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.
In Matthew’s parable, those who have worked all day grumble because the underemployed are made ‘equal’ to them. They are in fact equal as persons.
Jesus makes it clear that people’s worth is not to be measured in terms of their capacity for economic production. Those who cannot find work and those who cannot work because of sickness or disability or visa restrictions know something of the experience of the Palestinian workers.
Their needs are no less urgent than the needs of those who have productive and well paid employment. Social security benefits might address their basic material needs but are less than effective in addressing the underlying issues of human dignity.
Parables yield meaning differently in different contexts. The debilitating effects of ‘envy’ or the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the landowner may be issues in certain contexts. Others may have questions about ‘generosity’ offered from a base of power over against equal access to the world’s resources.
In the face of climate change, many of those who used to be ‘first’ in economic terms now find themselves with huge debts. They may not be quite as desperate as the Palestinian day labourers. They nonetheless find themselves ‘waiting in line’ as never before. There’s an invitation in today’s story for us all to live in ways that promote quality of life for every one of earth’s inhabitants.