This month we are studying some of the parables. These short stories, told by Jesus, were used to provoke and challenge the faithful and devout people who followed Jesus in the 1st Century. Sadly, we’ve come to hear the parables as simple and easy fables that offer little more than the expected ‘moral of the story.’
In our studying of the parables, we’re cutting away centuries of parabolic pleasantries and seeking to hear these teachings as the challenging stories Jesus first told. Why would these stories have been challenging for the 1st Century listeners? What would these stories have challenged those first listeners to think about differently … or to do differently … or to believe differently?
This morning’s story in Matthew 20 provides another good example where, not only do centuries of explanations fail to challenge and provoke the way Jesus did, but the added header to the story misleads our hearing. Let’s start with the misleading header.
The parable is often titled “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.” Such a reading encourages us to focus on the laborers who worked in the vineyard. But this isn’t Jesus’s focus. In verse 1, Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers.” Why do the editing agencies tell us the parable is about the laborers in the vineyard, when Jesus tells us upfront the parable is about the landowner?
Most of the poor interpretations of this text are built around this faulty focus. When we focus on the laborers, our homiletical goal becomes figuring out who the laborers are, and why they might have been hired at different times. I don’t think the parable is about the laborers – I think Jesus says quite plainly the focus of the story is the landowner. But, for argument’s sake, let’s look at the laborers for a moment and consider why focusing on the laborers leads us down the wrong path.
Most explanations of the laborers assume that the first hired are the most favored. Yet, Jesus doesn’t say this in the parable. Nowhere does Jesus give us any guidance as to why the early morning laborers were hired first. It’s our cultural rat race that offers this unfortunate belief that those picked first must be the best. It’s why professional teams want the first selection in the draft and give up a lot of money, and often great players, to obtain the first overall pick of a draft. This kind of behavior is ingrained in our being from the days of selecting teams on the elementary school playground. The captains take turns, one by one, selecting teammates, choosing first those whom are believed to be the best – perhaps the biggest, or the fastest, or the strongest … all the while, we sit in line hoping and praying we don’t get selected last.
Using this kind of playground principle, and hearing Jesus’ parable allegorically, there are some who try to equate the first hired laborers as the most faithful Jewish followers. They are picked up first by the landowner, who is said to be God, and promised a guaranteed wage, said to be the promise of the covenant, and sent into the vineyard to work. At the end of the day, they receive their promised return. … Those who are hired at later times are representative of Gentiles, or other non-Jewish converts, who at a later date and time professed faith in God, and, like the first hired, received the same eternal return. There’s a clear delineation that the first hired are the preferred, and the others, who took longer to become part of the fold, are less faithful, or less qualified as a believer.
Another more common modern translation is that those hired first are faithful Christians in the world today, and the last hired are the heathens or the sinners who take longer to come to acknowledge Jesus as Lord … perhaps not even coming to acknowledge Jesus as Lord until the day of Jesus’ return. Those who are “believers” are equated to the first chosen – the elect. And all others, regardless if they were believers at the end or not, are “the less desirable.”
These such readings invite the kind of toxicity between cultural sub-groups that Jesus seems to be speaking against. When one group spends the majority of the time doing what they claim is the brunt of the work, they are of course angered and frustrated when those who they believe have done less work, or have less of a claim to the payment, receiving an equal share. Verse 11 tells us this is what happens in the end of the story, “When they received [their equal pay], 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.””
This is a “we were here first” kind of sentiment. Or perhaps, leads to the question, “why should others reap the benefits of our work?” I think it’s worth calling out that this is one of the claims in support of white supremacy; it says that others are doing less work, or at least less qualified work, but are still reaping the same rewards. Why should others get the same benefits when they aren’t doing as much, or as good of work? This is such an anti-Biblical principle, perhaps they would do well to re-read this text. They aren’t even following such a faulty reading well, for according to the scripture, everyone, regardless the amount of work done, receives the same return. Just imagine if a presidential nominee used this text at a debate as the base of their argument for Medicare for all, or expanded food benefits for the poor. Everyone receives the same, regardless the amount of work accomplished.
But this argument is worthless because, again, it’s based on a rationale that the first hired were the best workers, which is not a claim supported by the text. Jesus never says why the first were hired first, other than they happened to be in the market first thing in the morning. Take away the allegory, which tries to equate the laborers with faithful and unfaithful groups of people, and hear this for the story about day laborers that it is.
Perhaps we should be asking questions about how day laborers find work. Why were there still laborers out there at 5:00pm looking for work? There are some interpreters who, trying to justify that the first hired hands were the best, say that the late coming laborers partied too hard the night before and didn’t make it to the town square to look for work until late in the day. They were hired so late because they were lazy, or hungover, and just didn’t get out of bed soon enough. Others try to argue the opposite and say that the laborers who were there at 5pm had already worked a prior job in the morning or afternoon. Having completed a previous job, they went looking for more work. What if those hired last were actually better workers? If they had already finished a prior job, couldn’t we say they were more efficient workers. What if they were paid the same amount for a shorter period of work because their quality of work was that much better? … Interesting questions, for sure, but perhaps not helpful.
Not only do such questions take away the provocation of the parable, the workers hired at 5:00pm refute both claims by giving us a reason they are still in the market, claiming, “because no one has hired [them].” They’ve been looking for work, it just hadn’t been available.
The more we look at the laborers, the more we become disappointed. To support traditional readings of the parable that focus on the laborers, we must either apply faulty allegorical connections, or make up laborer profiles that aren’t supported by the text. … This isn’t surprising, because the text isn’t about the laborers. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers.” So let’s look more closely at the landowner.
The biggest mistake made in the historical explanations of this text is to assume the landowner is an allegorical fill-in for God. We read the parable as if the landowner isGod. This is a much better leap than reading the text to be about the laborers … but it’s perhaps still too easy a reading read this way.
The Greek work for ‘landowner’ in this text is oikodespotes, which very plainly declares this person to be the master of the estate. This is a conjunction word – oikos means home or family, and despotes means master or the one with authority. There are times in the New Testament text that the word despotes is used to refer to Jesus as the Master, but it isn’t used this way all the time. And sometimes, the word is used to refer to masters who do not demonstrate faithfulness, and thus, it’s hard to say this word must refer to God or Jesus in the parable. It’s not unilaterally used this way in the Greek manuscripts. And, given the way Jesus tells the parable, we really have no reason to think the parable is about God – it seems to be simply about a master of an estate, which had a vineyard.
I find it interesting that it is the master of the estate that goes in to town to do the hiring of the laborers. It’s clear from verse 8 that there is someone else who is in charge of the laborers at the property, perhaps in charge of the vineyard at large. Once the workers have finished for the day, the master tells the manager to pay the last hired laborers first. Why wasn’t the manager sent into town to hire the laborers in the first place? Perhaps the manager would have known how many laborers were needed for the whole day. I mean, the master goes into town five times to hire laborers, as if he had no clue at the start of the day how many laborers would be needed.
This seems like an insignificant detail, but I’m not a farm hand, a vineyard manager, or an estate master. Jesus is speaking to people who understood the agricultural connections far better than most of us in this room, and so it’s worth at least wondering, what would the first hearers have thought about this story and what seems to be the carelessness of the master? How is it that this kind of foolish action by the master likened to the kingdom of heaven? I mean, is Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a micro-managing estate master who doesn’t know how many hired hands it takes to harvest the grapes in the vineyard?” … That’s certainly provocative, but, in the context of the gospel, it doesn’t quite fit the picture of the heaven that Jesus paints in other parables.
And, if we slow down for a second, we might find that the master is even more foolish than we first thought. It doesn’t seem like the master hires extra laborers because they are needed in the vineyard; it seems he hires more laborers because there are more laborers who needed work in the town square. Look closely at verse 3 … it says, “When [the master of the estate] went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” … It appears he hired them because he saw them standing idle, not because he needed more workers in the vineyard.
Verse 5 says he did the same thing again at noon and three o’clock, and then verse 6 says he went into town at five o’clock and found more laborers, asking them, “Why are you standing here idle.” He sent them into the vineyard too.
Again, to follow the text, it seems that at the start of the day, the master of the estate hired the number of workers he thought he needed for the day … but four more times he went into town, and each time he hired more workers simply because he knew they needed work.
This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of heaven is like – it’s like a landowner who sees the needs of everyone in the community, who ends up employing even those he doesn’t need, because he sees the others and can acknowledge what they need. … Talk about connections between the parables, isn’t that why the Samaritan stopped to help the beaten man on the side of the road? The Samaritan first saw the man, and then, drawing near to him, acknowledged and responded to the need of the man who had been beaten by robbers?
But the master of the estate is not finished yet. He’s not just giving work to those who need work. At the end of the day, he tells the vineyard manager to pay the workers, starting with those who had worked just one hour. Each laborer received what is called in our NRSV pew Bible, “the usual daily wage.” The Greek here is denarion,which is best translated simply as ‘denarius,’ which was a monetary unit that was equitable to a single day’s wage. This is the amount that was agreed upon by the master of the estate with the first group of hired laborers, back in verse 2.
Why is it the master of the estate wanted the workers who had worked the least amount of time to be paid first? It’s almost as if he wanted everyone to know how equitable his payment would be. … Remember, Jesus is telling this parable … without doubt, he wants everyone to know.
Those who were hired first grumbled – not because they received an unfair wage. In fact, the master of the estate rebuts, they were paid the fair wage which they all agreed to at the start of the day. They grumbled because they felt like they should have been paid more after seeing everyone else who had worked less be paid the same amount. They weren’t upset about the payment when the day began, they agreed to terms and went to work. If we’re honest, we might take the side of these first hired laborers. They might have a point. Perhaps they deserved more in comparison. But this is why Jesus’ parable is so challenging and provocative.
The landowner isn’t worried about the feelings of the hired laborers; he doesn’t seem to care if they felt they deserved more pay or not. It seems from his hiring practice that his biggest concern is that every laborer in town who needed a day’s wage to support their family, or their personal livelihood, receives such a day’s wage. He goes in to town again, and again, and again, and regardless his need for the extra hands in the vineyard, he hires the laborers and sends them to work. And when it comes time to pay them, he pays them all what they had set out for at the start of the day, a full day’s wage.
Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like … it’s like the master of an estate who has an abundance of capital, and who uses that capital not only to care for his own vineyard, but also to ensure the well-being of the entire community, even when it means paying exorbitant rates on short-term employees. May we hear God’s word, may we be challenged by Christ’s stories, that we may be more faithful in seeking the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. For the glory God, may we have ears to hear, and hearts to receive, Jesus’ teaching. Amen.