If we were sharing stories over coffee or tea, I’m sure that we could tell some really good ones about bosses we’ve had.
Some would be stories of praise: the best boss I ever had checked in with me every week to see how I was doing and helped with strategies to handle really tough customers.
Some would be stories of anger or frustration – like the boss whose sexual harassment or racist slurs made it hard to make ourselves go to work in the morning.
Some would be funny – like the funeral home director who took naps in the caskets with some surprising awakenings! But there might be a story or two of sincere puzzlement, possibly coupled with frustration, over bosses’ quirks or unreasonable ways of doing things. Today’s story is one of those…
Our story begins with business as usual. A householder with a vineyard needing harvesting is looking for workers. He shows up at the marketplace, the agora, early in the morning to collect the workers that he needs. He bargains with them and they agree upon the customary day worker’s wage, and they go to the vineyard to begin work. All usual and customary – nothing to see here folks. Well, maybe a bit unusual in that he goes to the marketplace himself instead of sending his steward – but maybe his steward was more essential on site.
The first unusual element in the story is that he returns several more times to the marketplace to pick up workers. Usually, you know the number of workers needed and you hire that number. But he keeps going back for more workers. We wonder…
But the workers keep coming, and the workday is done. Now the really strange thing happens. The householder instructs his steward to pay all the workers, but to start with those hired last. They receive a denarius, the wage for the day. I’m sure they all were incredibly thankful – they had enough to feed their families for several days!
But when those hired first receive their wages – they also receive a denarius! THEY are not pleased. It’s not fair! THEY have been toiling all day in the heat. THEY deserve more than the laborers who were just there for a short amount of time. “IT’S NOT FAIR!” They grumble at this unfair treatment. What was the point of getting up early to go stand in the marketplace to be hired at the start of the day if later workers are paid the same? What is the point of their hard work and perseverance throughout the day if this isn’t rewarded?
WE understand. We too have experienced situations when less talented athletes, musicians, or actors receive the best positions or parts. Or work situations when people are promoted who are not as hard-working or talented as we are. We understand.
This kind of unfair treatment makes us angry and frustrated! It’s no wonder we grumble. We compare how we are treated to others. Why are we not rewarded for hard work and diligence? The Protestant work ethic has been drilled into us from our early days – work and you will be rewarded. Greater benefits come with greater contributions. Greater responsibilities lead to greater privileges. BUT what about the times when it doesn’t? Sometimes life – sometimes bosses just aren’t fair! This parable challenges our sense of fairness, just as it did the readers and hearers in Matthew’s day.
When things don’t make sense in the scriptures, we step back and take a look at the context. Matthew places this story Jesus is telling as a part of the journey narrative as he makes his way to Jerusalem …
Instructing insiders – This whole section of the narrative is Jesus instructing the disciples. He isn’t talking to crowds here. This is insider conversation for those who are already committed to following Jesus. Lean in and pay close attention to how Matthew sets up this parable…
Right before we switch from public ministry to private instruction, a man approached Jesus to ask what good thing he needed to do to have eternal life. This is chapter 19, starting with v. 16 if you want to look it up. Jesus replied, “Why are you asking me? Keep the commandments!” The man replies, “Which ones?” Okay – here’s a clue: Commandments are commanded by God – which ones should you obey? ALL of them! Right! Jesus lines them up for him and the man asks again what he is missing. Jesus must have sighed – a heavy sigh – “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor. They you will have treasure in heaven. And come and follow me.” But the man went away sad – because he had many possessions. That wasn’t the answer that he wanted to hear – following Jesus was more than he had bargained for.
Then Jesus turned to the disciples and commented that it would be easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.
Peter responds: “So what will we get?” We’ve left everything to follow you?”
Jesus answers Peter: The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers….
Put in context, Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples what the kingdom is like. .. obviously it is different than the “What do I have to do?” question of the rich man – and different from Peter (bless him) asking “What’s in it for me?” Jesus tells the rich man that this matter of living rightly doesn’t have a Band-Aid answer. Riches are obstacles to right living – which seems to be his point about camels and needles. Jesus tells Peter that he is still – again – missing the point. The benefits of discipleship are not personal gain, all mentions of thrones and extra relatives aside.
We might just start to wonder if the moment of blessing was the invitation to work in the vineyard, not the payday! Looking at the whole context of the parable definitely helps us expand our thinking about what this parable might be doing!
We probably all know the central focus of Jesus’ ministry: Love God; Love neighbor. Maybe that lens will help us understand what is going on here! After all, this parable isn’t about what’s fair in an ordinary sense. Nor, do I think, it’s truly about grace. It may be about something else entirely!
First, let’s look at the grumbling of the workers who were hired first. They don’t actually object to the extra pay offered the workers who were hired last. They object to not receiving MORE than those other workers! They object that those late-hires are treated as those they were “equal” to THEM! Very clearly, in their minds, they were not!
We see this kind of thinking today – we even participate in it from time to time. This is the argument against free school lunches, affirmative action, reparations, and any objection that comes from a place of privilege. What we have worked for is ours by right – and other people shouldn’t simply be given what we have had to work hard for. Sound familiar?
In this parable, Jesus suggests that a different perspective is called for. What matters is the well-being of our neighbors. We should ask if everyone has a paying job, if families have enough to eat. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, looks like a landowner who hires everyone who needs a job and gives them wages that are a daily rate – what is fair and right. Worth noting: the story would have ended better for those hired first if they had been happy for their neighbors who now had enough to feed their families instead of grumbling and getting kicked off the property and probably blacklisted against future employment.
Scholars get distracted by arguments over who would be left un-hired in the marketplace – were they workers from a farther town who couldn’t get there as early, or folks coming from other jobs still trying to earn a bit more to feed their families? Or were they the “undesired workers,” the ones not as able or as strong? I hear the echo of Ebeneezer Scrooge here…”Are there no prisons, no workhouses? … Perhaps they should die and decrease the surplus population?” The modern expression is a “lifeboat ethic,” that the world can’t support all those who can’t support themselves.
The landowner has a very different perspective. He asks these workers why they are still in the marketplace. He doesn’t see them as any less desired because they’re still there. “Because no one has hired us” -- It’s a simple answer. They need to work – and so he hires them. They need a wage – so he pays them. He pays them the standard daily wage, because that is what they need. And here we have a clue. The landowner or householder is named “Lord of the vineyard.” Vineyard is often an image for Israel – for God’s people, and we now may see that as a fairly inclusive term. Perhaps this is what “love your neighbor” looks like in God’s economy. This is what “good news to the poor” looks like – but also what the responsibility of the rich looks like!
Jesus’ parables are frequently about very practical issues of both life and faith. What Jesus wants – what God wants – is not necessarily what we see as appropriate. As Professor AJ Levine expresses it, “The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair;’ the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’” The householder treats all of the workers equally. It is the first-hired workers, full of their sense of righteous indignation and privilege, who break the bonds of community caring. Instead of being happy about their neighbors and coworkers receiving a living wage, they are angry about what they perceive as a slight. The fact that others will have enough to feed their families is less important than their perceived superiority. AJ Levine points out that “the householder is both analogous to God and a model for followers of Jesus.” THIS is how we should act! The householder fulfilled the contract with the first hires – and was generous enough that the others all received what they needed. This parable isn’t about “getting more,” it’s about “getting enough.” Laborers should receive an adequate wage. Jesus expresses this through the story.
Which circles around to us on worker’s rights, issues around fair payment including a livable minimum wage, and jobs for all. Jesus suggests that in God’s economy, everyone has a job – everyone receives a living wage. And that his followers should indeed be very concerned about these things. These are not Democratic or Republican concerns, not a matter of progressive, moderate or conservative – these are God’s concerns for “What is right.” The Torah emphasizes that land belongs to God and blessings come from God and are entrusted to us to share with the needy, not to hoard. The Romans held ideas of private property, not the tradition of Jesus!
In the Great Depression, a man knocked on the door of my great-grandfather’s parsonage. He said that he was a butler and currently out of work. Could he serve as the family’s butler for a small wage and room and board? Never had the family had a butler – or even considered having a butler, as you can well imagine. But my great grandfather’s congregation was able to pay his entire salary through the Great Depression – and so to provide a job with dignity to a man who needed a job, they had a butler. When he left for another position, he and the family were thankful for their time together. It’s not much different now. There are a lot of folks out of work. All of us have family or friends who are out of work and searching for work and can’t find it. People who need jobs…need to have jobs. Perhaps the parable suggests that those of us who can afford it should hire a teenager to cut the lawn, or consider having our garden beds tended or painting the trim on our homes when a neighbor asks for work. Our community might then look a bit more like the kingdom of heaven.
In God’s economy, every person has work. Every family has enough to eat. Those who have wealth to share “recognize their responsibility to those who are less well off, a responsibility that includes not simply giving a handout, but hiring ‘workers’ who can thus preserve their dignity.” Jesus gives his followers, then and now, a lesson in God’s economy and how we can be a part of a world both more just and more loving. Loving our neighbors might be the way to salvation after all. In this parable we see what it looks like ”to act as God acts – with generosity to all. And that’s what parables are supposed to do.”
May those who have ears to hear, let us hear.
1. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume VII, “Matthew,” 393.
2. NIBC, VII, 393.
3. NIBC, VII, 394.
4. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
5. A.J. Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 212-13.
6. A.J. Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213.
7. Levine quoted Brad H Young on this point. Ibid. 215.
8. Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, 74.
9. Levine, 219.
10. Levine, 219.