September 18, 2011
Psalm 106:1-6, 37-45
This Tuesday, the Census Bureau announced that the nation’s poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 in 2010, leaving more Americans in poverty — 46.2 million — than at any other time in the past half-century.[i] The Heritage Foundation, however, would have us believe that being poor in the U.S. is a really good deal. Citing data taken “from various government reports” (without stating what these reports were or whether they were statistically comparable to Census data), the Heritage Foundation states that these are “facts about persons defined as ‘poor’ by the Census Bureau”:
- 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
- 92 percent of poor households have a microwave.
- Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
- Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV.
- Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and 70 percent have a VCR.[ii]
- During the recent Republican Presidential debate, when the question was posed as to whether a man without insurance in a hospital should be left to die, the audience enthusiastically shouted “Yeah!” Not a single candidate rebuked them. It seems that we like our poor to be
- poor: destitute, meek, subservient, menially – but productively – employed, and (most importantly) living in some other country. And apparently, we like them dead, too.
The Gospel reading for this week shows an instance of ire at the “undeserving poor”. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard, picking groups of them up at the marketplace at 9:00AM, at noon, at 3:00PM and at 5:00PM. All goes well until payout time comes, and the landowner gives everyone a full day’s wage. The workers hired first grouse:
“And when they received [their wages], 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.’” (Matthew 20:11-12)
As Americans, we empathize with the workers hired first. We work hard for our money, and we get rubbed the wrong way when someone else gets something for nothing. We’re supposed to live in a meritocracy after all, right? Nonetheless, lurking behind this belief is the assumption that we live in a zero-sum universe, ruled over by the Lord of Scarcity. If someone gets something, then it must have been taken from me. Oddly enough, though, we never seem to get around to leveling the same amount of venom at the undeserving rich, whose something-for-nothing schemes cost us infinitely more per person. Under the ever-popular “Prosperity Gospel”, the rich are assumed to have deserved their wealth.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the Gospel author makes apparent that God has no truck with resentment against the poor, no matter how seemingly justifiable. The landowner says to those hired first, “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?” (v.13-15). Just in case we missed the point, Jesus hammers it home: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (vv.16).
Psalm 24:1 tells us “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” If we are fortunate enough to receive our daily bread, our response should be gratitude to a generous God, not grousing. As Jesus said earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord sends the rain “on the righteous and on the unrighteous” alike (Matt.5:45). We have all been both deserving and undeserving at times. Hopefully, someone will pray for us and have compassion when we are the latter.