By Rev. Doug Martindale
Matthew 20: 1-16
Marcel Pelletier, his real name, used with permission, lived in the early 1980’s on Stella Avenue in the hardscrabble North End of Winnipeg. At the age of 12 he loved hockey but his family of two parents and four kids, didn’t have much money. Some of his hockey equipment was donated to him, by me. Every week he would walk about two blocks to practices and games at Centennial Arena and every week the coach would say: “Marcel, I need your registration money.” Marcel would say, “OK, next time.” Finally, the coach said: “If you don’t bring the money to the next practice, you can’t play hockey.” The next week Marcel trudged down Stella Avenue with the $85 in his hand and a heavy heart. After one block he turned around and walked home and gave the money back to his mother. You see, that $85 was the family grocery money for the week.
Marcel had a younger brother named Culley, who joined the Indian Posse, an aboriginal street gang. As a result of crime, he spent time in the Remand Centre, Headingly Jail and Stony Mountain Penitentiary. I offered to go and visit him, but Marcel said: “Don’t waste your time. He will never get out of the Indian Posse.”
Two brothers were also in my Boys Group at North End Community Ministry, an outreach ministry of Winnipeg Presbytery, almost entirely funded by our Mission and Service Fund. These brothers were raised mostly by their grandmother since their father didn’t live with them and their alcoholic mother wasn’t capable of raising them properly.
One day there was a group activity at North End Community Ministry that needed donuts, so I walked a block to Robins on Salter St and bought a box of donuts. As I was walking across the parking lot, the scotch tape on the box caught my finger and I dropped the box on the ground spilling the contents on the pavement. I went back in and bought another box of donuts. As I came out, I ran into the two brothers, I’ll call them Bruce and Brian (after the Good Brothers). They greeted me and I said: “I’m really mad at myself because I dropped a box of donuts and had to buy more.” “What did you do with the dropped box?” they asked. “I threw them in the dumpster behind Robins.” I said. They immediately went dumpster diving, retrieved the donuts, and began eating them. Years later I heard from Marcel that there was a sequel. A friend came along and they sold him some donuts for 10 cents each!
One weekend in the summer, I took my Boys Group camping at Grand Beach Provincial Park. This is a beautiful park, nestled in the pine forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and beside Grand Beach. The beach itself consists of 3 Kms of white sand with dunes 12 metres high.
When we got to the park, we had to set up the huge wall tent I had brought and the boys weren’t very cooperative. Then we made supper and did dishes, also with little cooperation and more than a little yelling by me. Finally, just after sunset we walked to the beach. On the way back, with the moon rising over the forest, I said to Bruce and Brian: “What is the best thing that has happened to you so far this summer?” They replied: “Camping at Grand Beach.” It took me a while to comprehend that they were talking about the three hours that they had been there, most of the time being yelled at by their frustrated leader.
What do these stories have in common? What they have in common is the effects of grinding poverty on children and the lack of opportunities that we take for granted, such as children playing organized sport or having a family holiday and visiting a provincial park or going to the beach.
Let’s look at the Parable of the Vineyard. Some workers were hired early in the morning, some were hired at 9 o’clock, some at 12 o’clock, some at 3 o’clock and some at 5 o’clock. Yet when it came time to get paid, the farm manager paid each of them the same, regardless of how long they had worked.
This really challenges our sense of fairness because we define fairness in terms of merit. We can’t imagine a labour economy or justice apart from reward for work.
So, who do we identify with in this parable? Probably the workers who were hired at dawn and worked all day. Why should they get the same pay as those hired at 5 PM? It’s just not fair!
The manager though, paid them based on what they needed, regardless of how much they worked. They were day labourers. They all had families to feed so their needs were similar.
We aren’t very accustomed in our capitalist society to making decisions based on human need, or what is fair or just. I can think of one huge exception. When my widowed mother was writing her will, instead of asking a lawyer how to divide up her estate among her four children, she asked a United Church minister. He said, do so on the basis of their need. She had a large sum of money to work with due to the sale of the house they lived in for 48 years. They made a capital gain of over $600,000, on which they paid no tax because it was their principal residence. By contrast, if you are on welfare and you earn over the earnings exemption, (in Manitoba $150 per month) it is clawed back dollar for dollar or in effect, a 100% tax rate). She did spend some of it before she died, almost always on other people and she called it “spreading the sunshine.”
My three siblings and I had no idea how she was dividing up her estate. So it was with some surprise that we discovered after she died that one brother was given about $300,00, another brother received about $200,000 and my sister and I got the residual of the estate, which turned out to be $800 in credit card debt! Mom’s rationale was that one son who was self-employed sometimes had to borrow money from her to buy groceries when his clients didn’t pay him. Another son was a musician and was by far the poorest of the four children. I had a steady paycheck all my working life and our sister and her husband had no mortgage and a house that had appreciated greatly. My sister and I talked about the division of the estate. We decided that it was only money and have never discussed it with our siblings. The family continue to get together once a month for pot-luck supper and I join them when I’m in Toronto. Our mother followed the advice of her minister and based her will on how much she thought each of us needed.
How can we lift people out of poverty in a way that recognizes human need, like the workers in the vineyard all getting paid the same – a recognition that they all had families to feed – and not with a temporary, band-aid or charity solution and instead recognizing human need based on justice?
The Biblical Hebrew word for justice is “mishpat” and most often in the Hebrew Bible refers to restorative justice. Restorative justice means seeking out the oppressed and downtrodden and helping them. Not only this, it is also about changing the social structures to prevent further injustice.
One way to do this, which is supported by the United Church of Canada, and people on the right and left of the political spectrum, is called the Guaranteed Livable Income.
What is a Guaranteed Livable Income? A Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI) is a payment to individuals or families by government (federal and/or provincial/territorial) that covers the cost of basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and community participation, and is not conditional on meeting employment criteria in order to qualify for the benefit. It ensures everyone an income adequate for meeting basic needs, allowing all people to live with dignity regardless of work status. Such a program would be part of the national fabric of services that preserve and protect Canadians, or as Jesus put it, “to love our neighbour as ourselves.”
The Central Okanagan Poverty and Wellness Strategy Summary Report puts it more elegantly:
“A community where every person and family feels secure in meeting their basic needs (housing, food, clothing, transportation, mental health, wellness, etc.) and feels a sense of meaningful inclusion. As people move from surviving to thriving, they are able to explore themselves and their community in new ways that bring joy.”
The only guaranteed income experiment in Canada was the Mincome program in Manitoba and analysis of the results showed that it was not a disincentive to work, with two exceptions. New mothers stayed home longer, at a time when maternity leave was only two weeks. And young males stopped dropping out of school and stayed to complete high school instead of joining the workforce. As a result, graduation rates from high school jumped. Similar to experiments in the US, health outcomes improved, at least measured by visits to doctors or hospitals, especially mental health visits. Health care utilization dropped by 8% which was very positive. If that was directly translatable into health care savings, and it may not, the Government of BC would save $2.06 Billion. This suggested to health economics professor and researcher Evelyn Forget, a positive social outcome, not just morally but economically too. Other less tangible benefits she noted included the mental security of knowing the program existed, even for those who did not need it based on their income.
A Guaranteed Livable Income is one suggestion on how to lift many people out of poverty in a way that protects their dignity, since it would be delivered through the income tax system and does not have the stigma of being on welfare.
We are already meeting human need, and addressing poverty in indirect ways, through our support of the Mission and Service Fund, organizations such as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Central Okanagan United Way, our Community Fridge, our Thrift Store and much more.
Perhaps this parable has been misnamed as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. This focus of the story isn’t really the workers and particularly the indignation of some. The focus is the estate manager and his generosity. He says: “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?”
The Kingdom of Heaven or the Jesus Way is not based on merit but on grace. If the estate manager stands in for God, then should we not follow God’s lead and live lives of generosity and grace?
When we see persons in need should we not relish opportunities to provide for them? The Kingdom of Heaven is a world of grace and not merit, status reversed not status reverenced, undeserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.
This parable is connected, I believe, with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told this parable in response to the question “who is my neighbour?”. The answer in the parable is anyone in need.
Let’s work together to establish God’s kingdom on earth, working together in love, to find the best way or ways to do so.
“Justice is the form in which and through which love performs its’ work.”
Sources of information about a Guaranteed Livable Income:
Stevens, Harvey: Backgrounder on the Nuts and Bolts of a Guaranteed Livable Income
Canada’s forgotten universal basic income experiment