After the Civil War, the U.S. government sent significant parts of the Army out West to put an end to the stubborn resistance of the Apache people and Comanche people, Ute and Navajo, Sioux, Yakima, Nez Perce.
My story begins with the Dakota, the Dakota Sioux. The U.S. Army conquered them in a brutal war in the 1860s.
Not long after that in a poor rural part of Sweden, my great-great-grandfather, a young man at the time, encountered a representative of an American railroad company. They were recruiting workers to come over to America and build the railroad across what we now call the Dakotas. In return the workers got some pay, they got to stay in the country, and because of the Homestead Act, they got a plot of good farmland that was theirs to build a livelihood with.
My great-great-grandfather was not going to pass that up. He signed up and before he went he proposed to my great-grandmother and said “I’ll send word and some money when I’m established in America and you can come over and we’ll start a life together.”
And that’s what what happened.
The way the story’s been passed down in my family, the workers were laying track across the plains and their boss would stake out plots and divvy them up to the men as they made their way west. After they were done, they came back and settled on those plots.
When I looked into the history of this I found that the railroad company and the U.S. government were very clear that they wanted Nordic blood to populate this area they had just conquered from the Dakota Sioux people. They believed that northern Europeans were racially superior. They aggressively recruited people like my great-great-grandparents.
This is not my interpretation of history. This is the stated intent, clear in the words and the actions of the people with this power at the time.
Irish railroad workers didn’t get a plot of land after they were done laying track. The Chinese railroad workers didn’t get a plot of land. The freed African-American workers, the Mexican workers, they got deals that kept them in indentured servitude. My great-great-grandfather happened to be a poor young man from Sweden, so he got a plot of land and an easy road to citizenship.
Now, my ancestors were modest, honest, faithful people who worked hard and worked smart. I owe everything to them, and to my grandparents, and parents, who are modest, honest, faithful people who have worked hard and smart. They deserve to have our work meet our needs and allow us to lead fulfilling lives … but so does everybody else. And all the virtues I can claim for my family (and that may not be the full honest-to-God truth, right?), that doesn’t take away from the fact that we were offered an advantage from the start that we didn’t do anything to earn. It wasn’t fair. Racism cut our way.
Some folks were given a bigger advantage than we were, sure. But most folks have been given quite a disadvantage to start out with.
I’m comfortable being real about that.
So when I see these days day laborers lined up early in the morning waiting for a contractor or a rancher to come hire them, I see mostly recent immigrants, often from Mexico or Central America, and I think, “My great-grandfather was in that line, you could say. But he was picked out early – generations ago – and he was given a job that meant that he didn’t have to come back to that line the next day and be unsure about whether he’ll be able to earn again the daily bread for his family.”
Now, when I see these day laborers lined up early in the morning, the other thing I need to think about is what Jesus said about the Realm of Heaven. He said that if you want to understand the Realm of Heaven, think of a gathering of day laborers out early in the morning needing to get work to earn bread to fill the empty bellies of their families.
A boss from the wine industry comes by to hire workers for his fields that day.
Drew Bledsoe of Doubleback vineyards comes by and makes his first round draft picks. (You know, I once made a promise I would never use football in a sermon to illustrate something, but, well, I guess I have that to confess now). But, really, the boss coming by to hire day labors is like making draft picks. They pick out the young strong looking guys first. And folks who are older or not so healthy-looking, they’re left waiting and hoping to get some work for the day.
So Jesus tells the story of a boss coming first thing in the morning and hiring a good crew of day laborers to work the vineyard. He hires them for the regular days wage, which is enough for daily bread, but not a lot.
Now, any decent intelligent farm manager knows the work that needs to be done and the number of people it takes to do it and the budget they have to pay the labor, so he goes out and hires that number of workers for the day.
So in Jesus’ story when the landowner comes back to the market-place where day laborers gather to hire more workers, that’s our first signal that something is amiss here with this landowner. The Kingdom of Heaven is starting to look different from business as usual.
This landowner is hiring anybody and everybody he can find. As the day goes by and he keeps coming back to hire more and more workers, we start to think that he’s giving them work because they are looking for work.
He even comes back at the very end of the work day to see who’s still waiting for work.
“Why are you standing here idle all day?” He asks them.
Now remember that throughout the day we have the rounds of draft picks. So the folks left without work at the end of the day are the least desirable candidates who have been beaten out round after round. The bosses coming by through the day picking and choosing have been discriminating. They’ve been picking out folks who look like they can work the best … or picking out folks who they prefer for some other reason – “I like where you come from, I don’t like where you come from, I want Nordic blood, I don’t want Samaritans and Mexicans,” and so on. Meanwhile the folks who lose our are left still needing work, wanting to work, and are worrying all day about the hungry bellies at home.
“Why are you standing here idle all day?” We can imagine all the different accusations – they’re lazy, they’re parasites, they’ve got bad genetics, they’re not healthy and that’s probably their fault.
The answer from the workers, though, is simple and and honest:
“We are here because no one has hired us.”
So he hires them, for just an hour’s work. He doesn’t care about the reasons someone else had found them undesirable. He doesn’t even seem to need more workers. He just cares that they want to work.These workers are ready and eager. That’s enough. That’s what the Realm of Heaven is like.
And there’s more:
Then when the day is done, the boss lines up everyone according to when he hired them. And he pays them each a full day’s wage. Enough for daily bread. Enough to fill the empty stomachs of their families for another day.
The workers who were hired first thing in the morning – our first round draft picks – are furious. They won the first round picks, and they’ve been working hard all day, only to get just as much as the last round picks who worked only an hour.
The landowner replies: you’ve received what you and I agreed to. It’s a fair wage, enough for your families daily bread. It should be no concern of yours if I’m generous with others who are also willing to work and who also need their daily bread.
Such is the Realm of Heaven.
Grace is a scandal.
Grace cuts through our entitlement – that we ought to get more than others. Grace cuts through our resentment of others who get more or get the same or get anything at all, when we have deemed that they don’t deserve to share in the bounty.
Grace cuts us all down to size and then lifts us all up together. When we sincerely dedicate our lives and our work to God all of a sudden the playing field is level, it’s a circle, it doesn’t matter when we’ve come to dedicate our lives and our work to God, it doesn’t matter if we’ve been working this land for generations, or if we’ve just arrived and have been hired to work for a season or today, we all belong in the realm of God’s grace.
Now, the way this parable is usually preached makes it out to be just about heavenly things, about what happens to us after we die. But Jesus has always had this way of marrying heaven and earth. He is a child of humanity and the son of God. And his teaching about the Realm of Heaven is always textured with the grit of earth.
Grace is the gift from God of our eternal souls, that’s true. And, yet, and the same time, grace is also the gift from God of our daily bread.
The more we are able to enjoy the scandal of how generous God is with these gifts, the more we are able to commit that scandal ourselves in sharing that generosity of this good land and good work with any who arrive ready and eager.