A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 24, 2017: Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20:1-16
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

20:2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

20:3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;

20:4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

20:5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

20:6 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?’

20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

20:8 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.’

20:9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

20:10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

20:11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,

20:12 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.’

20:13 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?

20:14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.

20:15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

20:16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A Question or Two:

  • Are the workers angry because the boss is generous?  Really?
  • Or are they upset because he is generous to some, but not to others?
  • Does it matter?

Some Longer Reflections:

Notice that there are people standing idle.  Why?  And what do we think about idle people?  And, again, why?

This scene hands us some choices: do we take shots at the lazy people who are not working though there is clearly lots of work to do?  Or do we take shots at people who are clearly not property owners, clearly not accomplished or hard-working?  Or do we notice that the economy is clearly not working well if there is work to do and no sure way to connect labor with need?  It matters.  And that is only the first round of choices.

We will have to think a bit about who it is that harvests the fruit (for one thing) in our fields.  We will have to notice how it is that our economy uses undocumented people.  But that will require that we actually study how it is that our economy uses undocumented people.  Ideological rants will make things worse, no matter what part of the ideological spectrum they emerge from.

And we will have to know something about the economy of ancient Galilee.  There are good studies available.  One thing that emerges from reading those studies is that traditional landowners were being pushed off their family land by newcomers with wealth and connections to Roman political power.  Read from this angle, this parable introduces us to people who stood idle in the marketplace because their farms and vineyards had been confiscated by these newcomers.

So, what if the master in the parable is one of the Jewish landowners who had not (or, at least, not yet) been pushed off his land.  Why does he pay most of his workers more than the customary wage?  Perhaps the master is trying to make things right by hiring people who have been dispossessed.  That might be the force of “pay you whatever is right.”  The “usual daily wage” is what it would take to feed a family.  Those who were not hired would have nothing to feed their children, so the master decides to pay them all enough to feed their families.

Notice that the workers first hired grumbled against the landowner, who might have been trying to help people who were dispossessed.  So, maybe we are to reflect on a basic fact of life: it is not simple to try to make things better than they are, and you should not expect to get cookies for your efforts.  Sometimes you will get insults.  And sometimes the insults will be correct.   Or at least helpful.

Of course, the master could be one of the newcomers who was, in fact, hiring the people who formerly owned the vineyard he was sending them to harvest.  That would complicate everything.  The workers would feel the sting of being hired  (at a low wage) to bring the fruit of (what had been their own) land to the one who had stolen what was theirs.  The master might be playing with them, taunting them, even, when he pays them different wages, knowing that they would have to accept whatever he gave them.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?,” he says, thus reminding them that he owned the land that God had given to their ancestors.  That does put a twist on things.

No matter where you look, economic and political complications raise their hydra-like heads.

Perhaps the point of this little scene is that we all have some research to do.  It is easy to take cheap shots at the workers or at the master, and it is easy to beatify one or the other, but the complications of the parable will twist any such interpretive effort.

No matter how you understand the politics and economics of this parable and of the world around us. do your research, or this parable will bite you.

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