Matthew 20:1–16 (NRSV)
The Laborers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
At times the teachings of Jesus can make you mad. This is one of those parables that annoy me. Maybe annoy is a strong word, but it brings to question pretty much everything my personal cultural integration has taught me.
Let us consider it for a while. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like this, “A land owner goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers on the usual daily wage, he sends them to his vineyard.” It starts off just fine. I like this exchange because it speaks to the truth I know, that those that labor should be paid for their labors. There is a balance the owner pays the usual daily wage. The daily wage at that time was a denarius which in the first century was enough to survive in that area. The land owner does not seek to exploit the people working for them, nor does the laborers seek to extort the owner out of money they do not work for. They agree on the usual, one day’s work is worth one day’s subsistence. The laborers were not going to get rich off this wage by any means but they were going to be able to survive. With that daily wage if they were to use it wisely they would be able to provide their family with the food they needed and were able to maintain their abode.
Jesus goes on to tell us that the owner goes out again to the marketplace around nine o’clock in the morning and he finds others idling standing around. The owner goes to them and says, “You also go to my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right.” He repeats the process again at noon, then again at three, and one last time at five o’clock.
Those that met with the landowner early in the morning were the only ones that were given a contract of any kind. They spoke with the landowner and agreed to terms, one day of labor for one day’s wage. None of the others had any negotiated contract at all. They were simply given the opportunity to work where they did not have that opportunity prior to the land owner’s coming. These guys worked without the security of any contract and worked out of faith that the land owner would be an honest man and would pay what was right. They had no illusion that they were going to receive a full day’s pay they were simply hoping that they would make enough to eat that day.
Up to this point, I am right there with Jesus. I love this sort of story. It is a story about economics. And if anyone knows me they should know that I would never get elected to any school board because of a couple of things. I firmly believe that every student from kindergarten to a senior in High School should learn not only English but also Spanish and French because they are languages with in our hemisphere. I would want Economics to be required. I have my reasons for this and they I feel they are good reasons. The main reason is because it would give our students greater success. But that’s a side note and not really anything that matters. And this is where Jesus challenges my enculturation.
Evening comes, and in Jesus story the landowner gathers the laborers together to settle the accounts. Everyone is standing there, I imagine they are standing in a line because I am a systems type of guy and have organized retail events that require massive groups of people gathered in limited space. And the landowner goes to those who were last to arrive. This is where I first cringe, when it comes to payday why would anyone have everyone lined up where everyone else could see what was being transacted. I guess I am used to my pay being directly deposited into my bank account, or if not in a nicely sealed envelope. This way no one could calculate their pay in relation to mine and I would not know their pay unless they felt the need to tell me. Notice there how easy it is to read our own culture into the scripture. I first reaction was based on my own experience, my own desires, my own ideas of proper conduct in a business world. Again, I have reasons for why I would do things, but my ways are not the ways of those in this story.
The land owner goes to the last and he gives them the pay that he feels is right. He pays them a denarius. If you happen to be reading a version of scripture that does not translate the ancient time into modern reckoning you would notice that they used terms like the 9th hour or the 11th hour. In the first century they literally split time in half twelve hours of day twelve of night, or they may have split the day in six hours of day and six of night. Evening had come, so it was approaching the end of the 12th hour. The last who came worked only one hour according to their record of time. These men received a full day’s wage for one hour of work. He moved on to those who were hired ninth hour and again paid them a day’s wage for a mere three hours of work. He moves to those hired in the sixth hour and paid them a full day’s wage for half a day’s work. And for the ones who worked nine hours were also paid for a full day. Finally, he came to the ones that worked the entire day a full twelve hours according to their timeframe, and they were paid the agreed amount of one day’s wages.
My heart almost stops when I read this. The first thing that comes to mind is that this is unjust. How could Jesus even consider offering the same pay to those that did not work as much? Jesus then said that the laborers began to grumble, and I look at this and say, “You better believe that they would grumble.” This goes against everything I believe about economic justice. Or does it?
I get worked up about this because I like most people read my own culture into scripture. I am not saying that my culture is wrong, but it is different from that of ancient Israel, Rome, or even medieval Europe. I forget the first phrase of the parable, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”
The kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdoms of mankind. Every kingdom or sphere of influence on earth has some sort of central code of conduct. For some it is the rule of a monarch, for others a constitution, some might resemble religious ethics and others might simply be secular. In most cases the code written down are only a fraction of the actual code. These codes are our culture, and these cultures are deeply engrained in our core being because these are the ways in we interact with one another and how we keep peace among men. Even in the United States there are various cultures living under a uniting constitution. We each read our culture into the scripture in some fashion. But the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom of man. And the economy of God is not the economy of men.
In man’s economies we have placed value in certain thing; currencies, labor, time, precious metals, real estate, livestock or commodities. We place a specific value on something to exchange. But this is not what God cares about. If we were to read John’s vision in The Revelation, we would notice that gold, the most common and universal precious metal of the economies of man, was used as pavement. Have we considered what symbolic meaning that hold? Everything that we hold a valuable is tread under foot in the kingdom of Heaven. The very things wars have been fought over, the things we tirelessly work to obtain are of so little value in the kingdom of heaven that they are used as pavement.
A central message within the Gospel of Matthew is that the kingdom of heaven is not the same as the kingdoms of mankind. And Matthew seeks more than the others to show us that Jesus is the awaited king of Israel. Which tells us that maybe the kingdom of Israel may have been misinterpreted by even those that lived in Israel though history. Matthew seeks to tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven is something that is different than what we have always known. The kingdom is not focused on individuals and individual gain, but what is important to God is humanity and bringing all of creation to its fullest to glorify God its creator.
The kingdom is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is like a field. The kingdom is like a generous land owner. What could we possibly glean from this parable? What did the landowner value? He valued his land. He valued the vineyard and the most important thing to him was to make his vineyard grow to its greatest potential. For this to happen he needed labor, so he went out to get the needed resources. But the vineyard represents something more. The landowner valued life above all other things. He wanted his vineyard to prosper, to grow to its fullest potential, but not just the vineyard he valued the lives of those who worked for him. Each person that was brought into the vineyard was necessary for the vineyard to fully live out its purpose. Making each person worth the value of one full day’s labor, because without each the vineyard would suffer.
The kingdom is like a vineyard stretching out over the hills and in the valleys. A vineyard that converts the things of the soil and air into something both pleasing to the eye and to the stomach. A vineyard whose produce can bring pleasure and healing, profit and sustenance. The kingdom of heaven is about each part working together to bring about the intended purpose of the whole. The purpose of creation is to bring joy to God and in that joy, we receive our share of the joyous profit.
So often we read this parable from the economic eyes of labor relations and just pay, but that is not the total intent. Jesus is telling us that the community is more important than the individual. The Church is more important than an individual within the church. But that everyone with in is of tremendous worth because of the unique and divine gifts we can bring to the greater community. This is why in the story Jesus pays all the people the same, because we are all equal. Without a pastor, without Sunday school teachers, without those that maintain the building, without those who play the piano, or watch the children, without the children and the students, without the contemplative thinkers, or the humorous interjectors, without the purse minders and those who assist the poor our vineyard would wither. Because each of us are that important together we unite, caring for the needs of those within and ministering to those without. It is the community that God cares about, He wants each of his vineyards to prosper and bear fruit. Are we working for that goal? Is the kingdom we live the kingdom of heaven or men?