Series: Lessons From The Cotton Field
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. … When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first’.
The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:1, 8-16)
Cotton farming in the days of my youth was very labor intensive. With a supporting cast of five children and a hard-working wife, my father could handle most of the work of preparing the soil and planting the seeds. But the process of chopping cotton, as I described in my last post, and gathering the harvest required him to hire additional help. After breakfast, he often began his workday by driving to various homes of farm workers in the area and transporting them to our fields.
The prevailing daily wage for chopping cotton in those days was $3.00. Unlike the scenario described in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in the passage above, all the workers started their workday at the same time and worked the same number of hours as every other worker. While some were likely more skilled at chopping cotton than others, all received the same daily pay. (Except for the children of the landowner who received nothing! Did I mention that already?)
At harvest time, Daddy would hire those same laborers to gather the crop. But rather than paying a daily wage for picking cotton, each picker was paid a piece rate of three cents for every pound of cotton picked. A highly skilled picker could gather 200 pounds of cotton daily, doubling the wages they earned for chopping cotton. At the end of the workday, each worker’s burlap spread of cotton was tied up and weighed. Daddy carried a ledger in the pocket of his overalls in which he recorded each one’s daily pickings, totaling it at the end of the week to pay each his due.
Writing this series of articles about growing up on a cotton farm has brought back many memories of my childhood and given me time to pause and reflect about my father, Sammie Paul Wells. While he rarely talked about his own childhood, life had surely been a struggle for him growing up on a farm himself. His own father died when Daddy was only ten years old. He was sixteen when the Great Depression hit in 1929. My selfish complaints about not being paid for chores on the farm seem petty when I consider what those early years must have been like for him.
We are all shaped by life experiences. His own life experiences gave Daddy a keen appreciation for the value of hard work. While he had his faults, laziness was certainly not among them. Hard work had undoubtedly sustained him through many difficult times and engendered within him a driving desire to be an independent businessman. Armed with only an eighth grade education, he not only ran a successful farm, he also maintained a profitable upholstery business for those times when there was no work to do in the fields.
Given his skills as a master upholsterer, I always felt he could easily have charged more for his services. He didn’t just recover furniture, he rebuilt it completely, replacing springs and batting to restore each piece as close as possible to its original condition. The quality of his work was unparalleled. But he had a sense of what his labor was worth and refused to charge more than that, no matter the market demand or the prices charged by his competitors.
As I consider those things about my father in light of this parable from Matthew 20, I’m sure he would have never entertained the idea of paying someone who chopped cotton for only the last hour of the day the same $3.00 he paid those who had borne the burden of the work in the stifling Georgia sun all day long. Had he done so, he would have soon lost many of the loyal workers he depended upon.
But this parable from our Lord is not a picture of man’s sense of a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. It is a picture of grace – the unmerited favor of God. In this parable, my father is not the landowner. He is that last hired worker who, like the thief on the cross, came to experience the unmerited favor of God in the eleventh hour of his life, placing his faith in Christ at the age of 59 while on his deathbed in the VA Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
And because of that, I can join so many others this weekend in saying, “Happy Father’s Day in heaven, Daddy!” And I will be eternally grateful for his close friend, Tony Hay, who refused to let him enter eternity without hearing about the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ once last time.
“The thief had nails through both hands, so that he could not work: and a nail through each foot, so that he could not run errands for the Lord; he could not lift a hand or a foot toward his salvation, and yet Christ offered him the gift of God; and he took it. Christ threw him a passport, and took him into Paradise.” – D.L Moody