The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard.

At our Wednesday evening meeting we continued to look at the parables featured  in Amy-Jill Levine’s “Short Stories by Jesus”.

In the parable, a landowner searching for workers for his vineyard continues to hire labourers throughout the day, and in the end, he pays all of the workers “whatever is right,” which results in every employee receiving the same amount.

In the standard reading, this parable is taken to be about salvation, Levine described, where the landowner is God, the workers are Christians and the daily wage is salvation. The workers hired early in the day are lifelong Christians, and the workers hired toward the evening are deathbed converts.  All are equally saved and all receive the “usual daily wage” of salvation.

The traditional title is “the labourers in the vineyard”. Levine says “Titles can be deceptive – they tend to focus on one element of a story and so mask the importance of others, and slant interpretations. The title highlights the workers and the vineyard; it encourages interpretation to associate with the labourers and not the landowner and so allows the easy allegory that the landowner is God.  Once allegory is used the real world is left behind, as well as any concerns that Jesus might have had for wages, employment, economics and labour relations”.

Is Jesus more interested in how we love our neighbour than how we get into heaven?

Is the landowner “God” or is he just an employer in search of labour for his vineyard?

What if the parable is really about what God would have us do?

What if the parable is about generosity and love of neighbour rather than about salvation?

What if the parable is about a landowner being God-like?

Matthew 20: 1-2.

In v1 the owner of the vineyard is usually described as the landowner, the literal translation from the Greek is actually householder.

Also v1 begins….”the kingdom of heaven is like”…. so obviously it’s describing what the kingdom is like and so the parable is not a tale about the world, in other words it’s what the world should be like.

He goes out at about 6am to hire workers. This is unusual – you would have expected him to send his steward at that hour.

In v2 the landowner agrees to pay the labourers a denarius for the day’s work – this is “the usual daily wage”.

There are some interesting verses about labour relations in the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a written version of the tradition known as the oral Torah.  It was written down in the 3rd century BC and is the first major work of rabbinic literature.

The Mishnah states: “he who hires workers and tells them to begin early and finish late cannot force them to, if beginning early and finishing late does not conform to the custom of the place.  Where the custom is that they are fed as well, he is obliged to feed them; where it is that they be served dessert, he must feed them dessert. Everything must be done according to the custom of the place”.

The quote is grounded in custom and tradition and is an attempt to create a fair system.  The landowner would have followed the customs of the time, which is why he agreed on the “usual daily wage” – he cannot offer less, if he wants labourers.  A denarius, that is a fair day’s wage, would feed a family for between 3 and 5 days.

So far everything is fairly normal – we have a landowner, a group of labourers needing work, a wage upon which all have agreed, and a vineyard that needs harvesting.

Matthew 20: 3-4

Then the parable becomes a little strange.  The landowner goes out again at 9am and hires more labourers. “Doing nothing” in v3 is a poor translation of the Greek. It literally means “without work” – which means “wanting work, but unable to find it”.

At 9am there is no discussion about an agreement or the “usual daily wage”.

Some commentators argue that the landowner is trying to take advantage of the labourers by not offering an agreement. It might hold for today’s unscrupulous employers – zero hours, earnings below the minimum wage, using immigrants who don’t feel able to complain, giving people so much work that by the time they have completed it their pay is way below the minimum wage – but this was unlikely because of the Mishnah laws that were designed to create a fair system based on local custom.

But in v4 the landowner goes on to tell the workers “I will pay you what is right”. The word translated “right” also means: “just”, “proper”, “fair”.

Matthew 20: 5-7

Then things get even more strange. He goes out again to look for labourers at 12noon, at 3pm and at 5pm. Landowners and stewards usually know how much labour they require.  Is the landowner clueless as to the number of workers needed?  Or had he earlier employed all the workers he could find?  Or could it be that he has another agenda?  There is no discussion about payment.

Matthew 20: 8-12

In v1 the Greek word literally means “householder”, in v8 he is described as the “lord of the vineyard” or “the owner of the vineyard”.  Does this identify him with God? Or does it mean “one, who follows God, should behave like God”? The point is that whether God or just a landowner the “lord” behaves with God-like generosity.

Matthew 20:13-16

In v15 the Greek translated “envious” literally means “evil eye”. The “evil eye” possesses an individual – it suggests they are not fully in possession of their good sense – it gives the grumblers a way out, it’s not really their fault – the landowner is being generous once again.

It is important to grasp that the landowner was not treating the first hired unjustly. They agreed to the “usual daily wage”.  V13 – “I am not being unfair to you” – it is not the landowner who is in the wrong – it is the labourers who do not want those hired later to have a living wage, who are in the wrong.

V16 is unlikely to be original. It does not fit in with the parable, it contradicts both the equal pay for all workers, and the complaints of the first hired that all workers have been treated “equal”.

The first hired labourers should have been happy at the good fortune of their fellow workers who, because of the landowner’s generosity would now be able to feed their families for at the next few days.  Is this the provocation of the parable?

So could the parable be about economics after all? 

Such a focus is consistent with Jesus’ teaching, it fits in with the first century context, with rabbinic teaching of the time and with the emphasis on justice of many of the OT prophets.

Is it about a landowner paying all labourers a living wage so that all have enough to eat?

Might the landowner represent both God and also be a model for all followers of Jesus?

Is it a warning to the rich and powerful that they should behave as God does – be generous and open handed just like God?

To dismiss the parables’ practical interpretation is to domesticate it and make it safe, and so lose its challenge and provocation.

It seems to me that there is a duel emphasis in Jesus’ teaching – “good news to the poor” and the “social responsibility of the rich”.

In this parable Jesus encourages employers to be gracious and generous – just like God. The landowner is a role model for the rich – they should pay what is right – and what is right is a living wage.

The landowner not only fulfilled his contract with the first hired labourers, he paid a living wage to those who did not expect it or even deserve it!

The parable started with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like……..” surely it is a picture of the kingdom, of its values and what the world should be like!

Perhaps the parable helps us re-think what a good life is all about; that an abundant life is about being generous.

Is the parable telling us that religion and economics go hand in hand, and perhaps salvation in the present is a living wage for all?

If we can re-imagine the parable away from “who gets into heaven” and to “who gets a living wage”, we find a message that challenges and provokes today!

Jesus’ parables, when stripped of “other-worldly” interpretations reveal the radical stories of a Jewish rabbi restating the OT prophetic tradition which condemns gross inequality and calls for justice and generosity.

The landowner pays a living wage to all his labourers and so allows all to feed their families while being able to keep their dignity.

What a message for the world that is!