This time of harvest, and the end of harvest is a time for labor, for long hours and hard work for those who work the harvest workers.
Work, labor: whether your work or labor is tied to a literal harvest or not, work is a central part of our human lives on this earth. Whatever your work, whatever your harvest and harvest times, whether it’s paid work or unpaid work, honored or unrecognized, you most likely have done a whole lot of it.
So, what does it mean to labor as followers of Jesus, by the lights of the Realm of God?
It may be unsettling to even ask that question. Because if we take even a glimpse of a God’s eye view of things, if we see our work from the view of eternity, we’re gonna have to get real humble about things.
Because, “What does the worker even really gain from all their efforts?” – that’s how book of Ecclesiastes puts it (Ecclesiastes 3:9)
Anything we labor to make build may last for a little while – maybe a moment, a season– more than even a lifetime or more, if we’re lucky – but whatever it is, it is sure to one day crumble and fall.
We work and work to feed human appetites that are never satisfied.
We are constantly fixing and mending, sweeping and scrubbing to reverse the forces of an entropy that ultimately will overtake us all.
The book of Ecclesiastes calls this “vanity.” The Hebrew word is literally, “mere vapor,” “fleeting breath.” Impermanence. Emptiness. Nothing abides long enough to be fixed on.
But the wisdom of Ecclesiastes does not teach despair.
What does the worker gain from their efforts? I have seen the task God has given humanity to keep us occupied. God has made everything suited to its time. Also, God has given human beings an awareness of eternity; but in such a way that they can’t fully comprehend, from beginning to end, the things God does. I know that there is nothing better for them to do than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live. Still, the fact that everyone can eat and drink and enjoy the good that results from all their work, is a gift of God. I know that whatever God does will last forever; there is nothing to add or subtract from it. God has done it so that people will stand in awe before God. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-14)
With that awe and wonder before the God, when we work we can find satisfaction, a deep fulfillment in what is possible through our work. When we work in such a way that we are freed to be in the moment with our craft, we can find the realm of Heaven in the bread we knead, we can find eternity in the sweep of our broom, we can find an abiding goodness, an inherent value to whatever it is we bring into being through our work that we offer to others.
There is a prayer in the electric tempo of a kitchen at full clip through the lunch rush.
There is a prayer in the song through the fields when the workers are in full swing.
There is a prayer in the cant and call of the construction site.
There is a prayer in the ringing tiredness of our bodies and mind at rest after a good day’s work with something good to show for it.
That is enough.
Any attachment to riches only leads to unending anxiety, and strife, and violence. When we work for the sake of status, for the sake of wealth, for the sake of power, for the sake of some kind of enduring accomplishment, only suffering results. (Ecclesiastes 5:10-12)
The most satisfying work is beyond the prejudices of human economy. It often isn’t even paid, as a mother will tell you.
But … before we get too carried away here, let’s be honest.
Yes, at its best, work, of any kind, can be fulfilling.
But when it’s bad, it’s a grind.
And at its worst – work kills us, while someone else gets rich.
That brings us to the next theme when it comes to looking at labor by the lights of God’s realm, and that is Justice:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. (James 5:1-8 )
If we approach labor by the lights of the Realm of God, we must care for a just treatment of workers and their work.
This is a huge theme in the bible: in the laws of Moses, in the Prophets, and with Jesus and the early Christians.
Our God is a God who hears the cries of those who have been enslaved or indentured, exploited, and abused.
And time and time again, in biblical times, and in our present time and society, these cries are so often the cries of those who are immigrants – for one who is an immigrant is uniquely vulnerable to the predatory forces of greed. This is why Jesus and the Prophets are always lifting up how we treat “the foreigner” as the litmus test of how we will fare before God’s judgment.
One who exploits anyone, the foreigner, the child, the the laborer, is in fact playing God, which is the worst form of idolatry – the petty tyrant of the boss who uses his power to take for himself more than he needs while leaving his workers destitute and desperate is committing a terrible idolatry.
He does not have faith in God, who does provide enough for everyone.
He does not have fear for God, who will make those riches rot and that pride deflate.
We all leave this world empty handed.
And it is empty handed that we arrive at the gates of the next.
If it is God’s welcome that we meet there, that welcome comes to us by grace, not by whatever merit or esteem we think we earn through our work or our status.
It is only by mercy we are worthy, so it is with mercy that we should treat each other. This is humbling for all of us, no matter our class position.
This brings us to Jesus’ famous parable about those who work the harvest:
Jesus said, ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
And 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?”
They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”
He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
When 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.”
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “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.”
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (Matthew 20:1-16)
The last will be first and the first will be last. The Realm of God overturns our human sense of value or worth.
Oh, there are all sorts of subtle ways we compare our value and worth against others and think that this is true in God’s eyes. A lot of it is in how we judge the value of our work against others, whether it’s our paid work or our moral work, works that show off our goodness or expose our wretchedness. Works that prove we deserve more than others, or that they say proves we deserve less.
So much time and energy and strife is wasted over this obsessing and fretting and fighting out of pride, insecurity, resentment.
But by the light of God’s Realm, this is all vanity, mere vapor, fleeting breath, emptiness.
In the view of eternity, by the light of God’s realm, the value of our human lives and souls, is simply a gift, by God’s grace. It simply does not have anything to do with any of the ways we humans try to place value on each other and on ourselves, and our work.
God loves you. God loves us, each of us, all of you.
So let’s just relax.
Take a deep breath.
There’s a big harvest to take in. It’s huge, more than what everyone needs. But the frost is coming. So, God needs all hands on deck.
So let’s go out and get to work, whatever is your work to do – you just do you, and we’ll all do it together, as a team.
And, for the love of God, let’s enjoy ourselves while we’re at it.
Thanks be to God
(Delivered October 27, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Image: Saturnino Hernán