Is Work a Four Letter Word?

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Scripture Reading:

Deuteronomy 24:14-15 14You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

Matthew 20:1-16 1"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Sermon: “Is Work a Four Letter Word?”

Labor day weekend: the last stand of summer before we start that headlong dash toward Christmas. For many of us, it is an extra day off, a treasured long weekend. But in the world of labor relations, there is a complex history behind the origins of this day. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland agreed to this national holiday as a political compromise to smooth over his disastrous response to the famous Pullman strike. So in the background of this relaxing weekend is the shadow of labor with all of its issues of fairness and worker justice.

The Interfaith Worker Justice organization here in Massachusetts works to keep the awareness of labor and worker justice before us and to hold up the sacredness of work. So when our Social Action Team agreed to devote our August communion offering to their organization and I agreed to address labor issues in my sermon today, two stories about work came immediately to mind. One is a fairy tale, and the other a Biblical parable.

When our daughter Keziah was small, we used to love to listen to the recorded stories of Margaret Read MacDonald. One of our favorite stories was “The Little Old Woman Who Hated Housework.” It was the story of a woman who would complain bitterly about her work as she went about the drudgery of repeated household chores. As she made her bed, she began to complain “Oh work, work, work how I hate it, hate it, hate it!” As soon as those words were out of her mouth there came a knock at the door and a voice called out. “Your luck as come! Open the door! Let me in and you’ll work no more!” She opens the door to find a little fairy lady who pushes the woman aside, barges in, and begins to make the bed. With each chore: making the bed, sweeping, doing the dishes, and knitting the process of complaining and being rescued by a fairy lady who comes to do the chores repeats itself over and over. The woman is thrilled to be relieved of her duties. Before she knows it, her house is full of fairy ladies doing her housework. When their work is done, an unexpected twist of events occurs. The fairies change places with each other, undo all of the work that has been done, and begin to work all over again. Soon the woman runs screaming from the house to find the Wise Woman in the village to help her figure out how to rid her house of the OCD fairy ladies.

The Wise Woman says “You didn't invite the fairy ladies in, did you?”

“Um, well,” the woman said.

“You weren’t complaining were you,” the Wise Woman asks.

“Maybe a little,” the woman replies.

The Wise Woman then gives her the complicated instructions about how to trick the fairy ladies into leaving. In the end, angry, ousted fairies are demanding to be let back in, but the woman has a new relationship with work. When tempted to complain about it, she remembers to be grateful for the gift of work. The transformation of the woman’s attitude toward work seems to be the moral of the story. Instead of viewing work as a “four letter word,” something vile and obscene to be tolerated at best, work is welcomed as a gift.

But there is so much that the story doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t really tell us why she hates to work. Maybe the old woman hates work because it is not meaningful, or she doesn’t get paid for it. Maybe her dislike of the work is because she is all alone in the world now, and once upon a time she did these things as an act of love for those who have since died or gone elsewhere. Unrequited work becomes an expression of grief or loneliness. Or perhaps the old woman resents work because the world doesn’t value what she does, considering her work mere drudgery that is beneath them. Or maybe she hates the fact that she got laid off, can’t find paying work anywhere, and just fills her days with housework to keep the terrifying anxiety that she might lose her home at bay. Or maybe the old woman is just plain tired and wants to rest for a change. At the end of the story she trades in resentment for gratitude, but at the very least, the story hints that her attitudes about work are complicated and her complaints multilayered.

The second story about work involves a complaint of a different kind and it comes from Matthew’s gospel lesson today. The manager of a vineyard goes to the town square where day laborers wait to be hired. He hires some men to work in the vineyard for the going daily rate. One translation suggests the pay is $1.00 a day. The manager returns to the town square throughout the day at 9, 12, 3, and 5 o’clock to hire more workers at a fair wage. At the end of the day, the workers who started work at 5:00 are paid the same rate as those who started in the early morning and worked all day. The early workers are indignant and complain that they are not treated fairly. The story tells us only that the late workers are still hanging out at the town square because no one has hired them. In an unexpected reversal the storyteller shifts the focus from the issue of fairness in worker compensation to the generosity of the vineyard owner.

The gaps in the biblical story give us room to fill in the details with our imagination. The Interfaith Worker Justice organization challenges us to remember the sacredness of work and of workers, and to explore the complex layers around peoples attitudes toward and experience of work. Their advocacy for worker justice helps all of us move beyond seeing work as a four letter word to a place where work is valued and workers are supported in receiving a fair wage for their work. Currently, they are working on justice for janitors, advocating for fairness in the negotiation of an upcoming contract for janitors.

And as I’ve been reading narratives from local janitors who are sharing their stories as a part of the labor negotiations, I find myself overlaying their stories onto the biblical narrative. When the vineyard manager comes back to the town square and wonders why the laborers are still there, maybe they are like Maria, who moved to this country in 2000 to escape violence in her country of Columbia. Perhaps she wasn’t in the town square to be hired to work in the vineyard because she was working at her second job, trying to make enough money to pay for the housing for multiple family members. Her janitor job isn’t full time so she has to work a second job. Having a contract for a full time janitor job would help provide the job stability needed to earn enough money to get by in this country. Or the vineyard manager might hear the story of Jose, who has worked at Post Office Square as a janitor for 7 years, but can’t get full time hours or qualify for the health insurance connected to a full time job. He too works a second job, and both jobs together mean that he only gets four hours of sleep a night. If he had a contract for full time work with insurance he might have time to study English, a life long dream of his.

Or perhaps the vineyard manager would find Ana, a single mother of two girls who is coming to the vineyard later in the day because she was tending a sick child, unable to get medical care she can afford. The day workers in the vineyard are at the mercy of the manager who might offer them work all or part of a day, or they may be at the mercy of their own life circumstances as they try to cobble together enough work to make ends meet. Work may become a four-letter word for people when it is absent or in short supply, or when the working conditions are unjust or unfair. And as today’s passage from Deuteronomy suggests, there often have to be external reminders to treat workers fairly and to keep their needs and circumstances in mind when dealing with workers. Deuteronomy’s admonition to pay the day workers on time because they need the money to survive may seem like a no-brainer, but the fact that this is spelled out so clearly suggests that not everyone get this. Fairness may not come naturally to some, especially to those in positions of power and privilege.

Even more than the fair labor practices spelled out in Deuteronomy, the parable of the workers in the vineyard goes beyond fairness into generosity towards workers. The surprising end to the gospel story is that the generosity of the Vineyard owner far exceeds everyone’s expectations. The ones who only work for a few hours don’t expect to be paid for a day, and the ones who work all day don’t expect others to get more than they do. When it comes to work, it seems that God values work in ways that we don’t. God sees the bigger picture, rewarding the workers for their work in the vineyard but perhaps also taking into account a more expansive narrative of the day workers that values them for things that the facts of their story don’t report: like learning to speak a language in a new culture, or the second jobs or caring for family members, or other circumstances they may be struggling with.

The parable challenges us to be more generous than is expected, in advocating for fairness for the janitors or for the rights of all workers to be compensated fairly with a living wage and health care coverage. It challenges us to see beyond the surface, as God does. Because workers do a lot more than the tasks spelled out in their job descriptions.

In a TED talk by Barry Schwartz on “Using our Practical Wisdom” Schwartz uses janitors as an example of how practical wisdom is something that is not always related to the specifics of a job description. Schwartz talks about hospital janitors in his TED talk. The job description of a hospital janitor contains things one expects: mop the floors, re-stock the cabinets, sweep, empty the trash, an unsurprising list. Schwartz points out that there is not a single thing on the list that involves another human being. He says “a janitors job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital. But when psychologists interviewed hospital janitors to get a sense of what they their jobs are like they heard about Mike, who stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones was out of his bed, getting a little exercise trying to build up his strength, walking the halls. Or Charlene who said she ignored her supervisors directive to vacuum the family waiting room because there were some family members of a patient who had been keeping vigil day and night and who at that moment happened to be taking a nap. Or Luke, who washed the floor twice in the room of a comatose young man because the father of the patient, who had been keeping vigil for six months did not see Luke wash the floor the first time and was angry that it hadn’t been done. Schwartz says that janitors like this think that kindness, care, and empathy are an essential part of their job, and yet their job description doesn’t contain a single word about other human beings.” (Barry Schwartz, Ted Talk, February 2009)

There is so much more going on beneath the surface of these two stories of the old woman who hated housework and the parable of the vineyard workers. There is so much more going on beneath the stories of all workers everywhere today. Especially when it comes to the issues of work, fairness, people’s attitudes toward work, and how the work of others is valued. The sacredness of work and the worker is affirmed by God’s generosity to the vineyard laborers. And God’s generosity is a watermark, a challenge to us to speak up for workers when they may not be able to speak for themselves, and to stand with them when they cry out for justice. AMEN



  • Pastor Meg Hess