The wonderful thing about parables is that no matter how often I read or study them, no matter how many sermons I’ve preached on one, there’s always the possibility that I will discover something completely new. The difficult thing about this particular time is that my aha moment came about 7:30 this morning as I was rereading the text I had prepared and first service starts at 8:00 and I had no time to rethink or rewrite the whole sermon in light of my discovery.
What jumped out at me this morning was that the parable takes place in two settings–a vineyard and a marketplace. There’s a rich tradition of symbolism of vineyards in biblical literature. It’s a symbol of God’s abundance and generosity, even the extravagance of God’s grace and creativity. The product of the vineyard–wine is not essential for life but as the old Jewish prayers says, “wine makes glad the heart.” The vineyard can even be a symbol of Israel.
While we may unfamiliar with vineyards, we certainly know all about marketplaces,, even if our marketplace, the global market is rather different from the agora of this parable and the ancient Hellenistic world. Imagery and ideas from the marketplace dominate all of our lives. We don’t visit churches, we church shop. And I remember the first time I heard a college administrator referred to students as customers. It was 1995. I later realized that if students were customers, faculty are customer service agents.
What’s interesting in this parable is that over the course of the story, the values of the vineyard subvert the values of the marketplace.
In first century Palestine, as throughout the ancient world, the marketplace was the center of life. In addition to buying and selling goods, or hiring workers, the market place was where you got the news of the day, where contracts were hammered out, where people spent much of their free time.
We’ve heard a great deal about how our economic system is heightening inequality. Wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a very few people in our nation and throughout the world. There are a few who are thriving, many who are barely making ends meet, and many of us worry whether we will have enough to live on in retirement or whether our children’s lives will be as comfortable and successful as our own. On a global scale the disparities are even greater. The clothes we wear, the electronics we use, are made by people who make almost nothing, who are often treated as little more than slaves.
If you’re around Grace on a Saturday mornings, you see that inequality first hand. There’s a terrible irony in the fact that while thousands of people shop for the best organic fruits and vegetables at the Dane County Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, a few yards away, there’s a line of guests waiting at our food pantry, because the pantry, even for working people is necessary to help put food on the table. This summer, I’ve purchased work boots for several men who were promised jobs but couldn’t afford the cost of the necessary boots.
The parable we just heard is often interpreted allegorically—with the landowner standing in for God. On this view, the laborers who were hired at the beginning of the day are usually understood to be Jews, and those who come into the vineyard in the course of the day are the Gentiles who receive the gift of God’s grace. That the earliest workers grumble when they find out they are paid the same amount as those who worked only an hour, feeds into traditional anti-semitic tropes.
As I’ve often said, parables are meant to unsettle us, to challenge us to see the world in a new way, from a new perspective. This one is no different. In these little stories, we should look for strange behavior, for actions that don’t make sense and explore how those actions and behaviors might challenge our assumptions about the world and God.
There’s plenty of strange behavior in this story. The landowner, for example. He begins the day just the way that landowners and farmers have begun the day for thousands of years, contracting with workers to see that the harvest is brought in. We might assume that he hired all the help he needed the first time he went into the market square. And when he hired them, he and the workers bargained on the pay they would receive. Presumably all were satisfied.
It’s now the landowner begins to act strangely. He comes back into the marketplace throughout the day (One might think that he would want to stay back and oversee the harvest). And throughout the day, he continues to hire workers. What’s his motive for this? Does he really need the additional help or is this his way of helping men who lost out on the opportunity for a full day’s wage? But as the story progresses, something else rather interesting happens. While he clearly stated to the first groups that he would pay them a day’s wage, when it came to the last ones, the ones who worked for just an hour, there was no mention of the pay they would receive. It’s almost as if he ordered them to go, and that they had no idea, no reason to know what pay they might expect. In this situation they lacked power and rights.
The odd behavior continues at the end of the day when the landowner passes out the laborers’ pay. Instead of settling up with those who had been working all day, he starts with the ones who came last. And he pays them a full day’s wage! We can all imagine the surprise and joy we would feel if we were treated that way. We can also imagine the anger and frustration we would feel if we were the ones who worked all day and received the agreed-upon wage, rather than much more. If they received a day’s wage for one hour’s work, it’s only fair that we receive nine times that amount for our nine hours of work.
There’s another way the landowner’s behavior is strange and inexplicable. This is no rational way for an employer to operate. He had better hope they finished the harvest that day, because if he goes out the next morning to hire workers to finish up, do you think anyone would agree to work for him? No, they would all wait, hang out all day, then show up in the market place at the last minute, in hopes of getting a day’s wage for an hour’s work. And all of the other landowners would be angry as well, because they could expect similar behavior from the pool of day laborers.
So, lots of questions… But the fundamental one is this: how does this parable explain or shed light on the reign of God? Matthew introduces this story with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” That intro prompts us to allegorize it as a story about God offering grace and salvation. But how might have Jesus’ listeners heard this story? We can assume that many of them knew all too well the rigors and challenges of life as a day laborer? How would they have judged the landowner’s behavior? Would they have commiserated with those who were jealous at the latecomers? Would they remember days they had spent in the hot sun, working themselves to the bone, all for a meager sum that was enough for one person to live on, but not enough to provide for a whole family?
In negotiating with and paying the first set of laborers a denarius, the landowner was acting justly—he paid the agreed-upon wage. In paying those who came later the same amount, he was acting with generosity.
I find the different settings of the parable instructive. On the one hand, there’s the marketplace where the landowner conducts his business, hires his workers. On the other hand there is the vineyard, where the abundance of God’s grace is on display. The grapes that are being harvested will be turned into wine, a symbol of God’s love and extravagance.
In the parable, we see the values of the market place being subverted by the values of God’s vineyard. As the day progresses, best practices in business give way to something else, as the landowner orders the laborers into the vineyard without first establishing their pay. When he does pay, everyone is treated equally, it’s not equal pay for equal work; it’s equal pay for each person.
It’s a bit like the story from the Hebrew Bible we heard—God’s gift of manna in the wilderness. God provided food for the Israelites, just enough for each person per day. There was abundance, but no hoarding because the manna would spoil.
We hear a great deal about economic anxiety today, about people worrying about whether they will have a secure future or whether their children will live as comfortably as they do. Along with that, there is a sense that some people receive benefits they don’t deserve, that they haven’t earned. We’re locked in competition with others, and so often our own status, our own sense of self is tied up in how much we make, what we own. It’s a dog eat dog world, and we want to come out on top.
This parable points to a very different reality. In the vineyard, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked, when you started, where you came from. There’s enough to go around. It’s a world of abundance and generosity, not a world of scarcity and competition. Can we imagine such a world where greed and competition, and ambition are replaced by generosity? Can we imagine a world where the losers and the outcast, those discarded by society, are of great value to God, worthy to live each day with dignity? Can we imagine a world, can we help to bring into being a world where God’s generosity is greeted with gratitude and not jealousy? Can we imagine the world as God’s vineyard, not a marketplace?