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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Our food, our neighbors

Laborers in the vineyard today

Here we are at the end of summer. For the past three months, many of us began lazy days with a cold breakfast, maybe cereal with milk. The blueberries peeking through the cornflakes in September probably were grown in New Jersey or Michigan. As early as April, they likely came from North Carolina; in June, from Washington or Oregon; and in July and August, from Indiana.

My pint of antioxidant rich blueberries cost about $4. And it probably was harvested by children.

Children are short — just the right height to spot and pluck out the gorgeous dark berries. Their hands are small enough to reach between branches and not suffer too many abrasions. And when 8-year-olds are properly trained, they are nimble and quick. The more buckets they help their parents pick, the more money the family earns. They are paid not by the hour but by volume. 

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 19:28–20:16), a landowner negotiates wages with local fruit pickers who seek the work of harvesting his crop. He hires them. Throughout the day he continues his search, hiring more workers at 9 a.m., more at noon, and more again at 3 p.m. and even at 5 p.m. When the harvest is finished, he pays everyone the same amount.

“Hey!” assert disgruntled fruit harvesters who spent the entire day in the vineyard. “We sweated all day for you and they didn’t. How come they get paid the same? They didn’t earn it!

Underlying their complaint is the essential message: This isn’t fair!

The early workers’ problem is not that they were cheated out of the amount they negotiated. Their protest is that latecomers should have received less.

Everyone belongs

In the context of the first century when Jesus told this parable, mention of a vine or vineyard was understood to be a reference to God’s people. When Jesus invites the “last” to enter the vineyard, he is welcoming everyone to enter the kingdom, including poor people excluded from participating in the life of the community. Because everyone belongs. 

The parable challenges our assumptions that human dignity and worth are based on a system of merit or what we do. While we may assume that what we earn is owed to us, that it’s ours because we did it, the larger truth is that God did it — on the cross. Just so, Jesus’ message is quite clear: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matthew 20:14-15). God decides who is included. God invites all into the kingdom and treats all equally. 

U.S. labor laws don’t protect migrant agricultural workers, whether they are children or adults. If we purchase our blueberries at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Meijer or other grocery corporations, we support — perhaps inadvertently — a food system subsidized through immigrant labor. Our grocery chains are doing what we ask them to do: deliver the best products at the lowest prices.


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September issue

SEPTEMBER issue:

Reinventing Sunday school

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