I never really understood the parable of the vineyard owner and his hired hands until I spent a few days in Houston in 1990.
Several times a day I passed a corner where a number of Latin American men were standing around. I had no idea why they were there, wasting their time – in my eyes. They were there not just in the morning, but also at noon, and in the afternoon. Where they just a bunch of lazy bums?
Then I saw a pick up drive up and stop. The driver was besieged by the men, all seeking a job. Some got into the pickup and went to work. The others would have to say, “No one has hired us.” (Matthew 20: 7)
Now here in Honduras I understand it even more. Though I don’t see people hanging out on street corners seeking work, I do see trucks and pickups crammed with people going to work on the coffee fields, especially during the coffee harvest. They are jornaleros, day laborers.
For many day laborers, the coffee harvest is one of the few ways they can earn cash. It’s not easy work; I’ve helped harvest coffee in the parish coffee fields. And it doesn’t pay all that much – maybe 30 lempiras, about $1.28, for every five-gallons picked. The really good harvesters can pick up to twelve of these, whereas most pick between five and eight.
In the days of Jesus, many of the day laborers were not paid by what they harvested but were paid a certain amount every day. A denarius was probably enough to pay for basics for a family for a day. If you didn’t get work, your family had little or nothing to eat.
I think of the men at the last hour. They have been waiting all day for work. They have almost given up hope when the owner arrives and offers a job. I think they must have thought, “Well, at least he’ll give us a few coins so we can buy a few eggs for the family.”
But when he gives them a day’s wage! I wonder how they felt. I would feel so grateful that I could now give my family some food for the next day. They wouldn’t starve.
And I would pause in wonder – and gratitude – at this owner who thinks more of the good of his workers than of his profits.