The story of the owner & workers – only a one-off?

Thoughts on the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 11, 2019

by Rev. Jim Ryan,  jimryan6885@gmail.com

Today’s Gospel parable of the relationship between the owner and workers (Luke 12:32-48) can easily be seen as a one-off.  What I mean by one-off is, if what is described here (the grateful owner rewards the vigilant workers who kept guard and assured the safety of the owner’s property by feeding them a nice dinner), if all this is simply an example of a charitable act, then the owner has the freedom to also not do that again, even as the owner might be, let’s say, charitable elsewhere.  In this case this story is a one-off, or as they say in the sports world – one and done.

BUT, if this story is about a fair owner who acknowledges that the relationship with vigilant workers involves seeing to it that the workers have enough to eat, enough and more (after all, they did get to sit at the owner’s own table) to thrive in life, then, in that case the owner is not only charitable but fair as well.  In this case we enter the world of labor relations.  Seen in this light – the owner engages in a repeatable act of justice.  The owner is not to act from being charitable.  The owner is obliged to act in this way.

Last week I got instruction on such a fair and just relationship from, of all places, the love letters between my Mom and Dad.  Here’s the story.

One of my Father’s final treasures is a group of 30 letters that he and my Mother wrote to each other in the Summer of 1942, a few months prior to their wedding.  At the time Dad was in Naval Officers’ Training starting at Notre Dame and then on to New York.  Mathematics just wasn’t a strength for him and he didn’t complete the training.  He started, though, when he left home on July 6. The first letter, this one from Harry to Peggy, was dated July 9.

On the question of labor relations, though, my Mother had it figured out.  She worked for White Motor in Cleveland, Ohio (later to become Singer Sewing Machine Co,).   Just before their planned, and much anticipated, first weekend together (chaperoned, of course by my Grandmother) on July 18-19, Mom had suffered a toe injury.  She wanted to make sure it was better before the weekend so she took a couple days of sickness leave to stay off her feet.  She was entitled to the leave – but that’s not the story.

She, without a crutch, and Nana traveled to Notre Dame together.  She had a wonderful weekend with her “dear Harry” and returned to White Motor on Monday.  Here’s where it gets good.  I’d like to think it’s evidence of the apple not falling far from the tree (makes me the apple here).

Mom wrote to Dad on Monday evening, July 20.

“The White Motor suffered my return today and quite a one it was.  Yes, the boss was quite cool (that’s 1942 cool meaning “distant” and not 2019 cool meaning “OK”) and I was twice as cool, because it seems that no one knew my job while I was out – so this week I do two weeks work or else.  So she thinks.  But I’m afraid she will find out differently.  I don’t see why I should do it, so I won’t.  After all I think I’m only human or have I misjudged myself?”

There you have the Peggy Doyle theory of labor relations.

It reminds me that this story of the property owner when seen through the lens of, as my mother put it so well 77 years ago, being “only human” then a truth of justice emerges.

BTW, I guess she prevailed.  On Wednesday Dad wrote back,

“With White Motor coming around to your viewpoint your mood should be the best yet this week-end.”

When this story is applied to just relationships between owners and workers many viewpoints will become seen in a “better mood” – a mood that values the thriving of the human person who is the worker.  This viewpoint of obligation on the part of the owner (or, CEO) toward the worker has given way to today’s CEO paying attention more to the distribution of profit to shareholders than to just treatment of the worker.  This application of justice to labor relations is a legitimate, faithful, yes, even a religious response to the story of the property owner.

That being said, the question of economic inequality in this country – an inequality that exposes the obscene and sinful disregard for just being human that blemishes American society at its core – this question is a religious one.  One wonders where the teaching exists nowadays that addresses the nation’s conscience on these matters.  In 1942 Peggy Doyle, with her education from St. Joseph’s Academy, Rocky River, Ohio clearly knew the priorities, not to mention being clear in expressing them..

Just as in 1950 the worker priests of Limoges, France had their teaching correct in their report to church leaders.  The worker priests, whose mission was to be invisible through their jobs on the factory floors, came to know labor relations intimately because they, too, were workers.  And, like the workers they did not trust the Church.  They wrote in their report,

“The working masses do not believe in the sincerity of the church’s wish to change working conditions because the Christians are those industrialists (read: property owners) who want only to conserve their privileges.”

Let us not misjudge ourselves, as we all are “only human.”

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my thanks for the blessing of this community.  We allow ourselves the freedom to explore these questions of just labor relations and economic inequality – explore them in the light of faith.  We give to ourselves in our sharing the freedom to look into the difference between charity and justice.  Charity, don’t get me wrong, is one response to Jesus’ example and command to love.  But, it is not enough.  Justice does not allow the one-off that can too easily become a misplaced generosity.  Justice obliges.  As Justice obliged the owner to value the vigilance and safeguarding of the workers – a value that keeps on obliging.

A Prayer  (JR)

Grant to us, O God, the will to serve you in each other and the conviction to sustain this creation which is your gift.  You entrust to us the responsibility of deserving the respect of future generations.  May we earn this respect by not fouling and despoiling what we have been given.  Rather, may we act only to sustain and renew it.

By your command and our action may justice mark the path we follow through Christ, your Beloved One.   Amen.

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