I have been intending to post a series of commentaries on passages in the Bible. I started it with my Genesis post, comparing creation stories. I wrote this commentary on the Parable of the workers in the vineyard in Sept. 2011, when it was the liturgical passage in Protestant churches across the country. I didn’t think to post it in my blog then, so I am now posting it here.
(Sept. 24, 2011)
Matthew 20:1-16 The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Here is the text of this passage:
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. Rev. Co says “parables are supposed to mess with your mind” and this is a good one because it totally goes against what our society values.
In this parable, those who worked one hour were paid the same as those who worked all day. All were paid what they needed to survive the day, regardless of how long they worked. And I think also, some of the workers may have arrived in the marketplace later, and if it hadn’t been for the generosity of the landlord to hire them as they arrived throughout the day, they would have been out of luck – too late to get a job that day.
Rev. Co talked about the American Jobs Act proposed by Obama – wouldn’t it be a good thing if more people had jobs and money in their pockets? He contrasted this with the Kingdom Job Act: God will give you what you need, whether you do just a little for the church or something glorious. Jesus didn’t care much for society’s rules; he knew that God loved everyone equally.
This parable seems so contrary to the thinking of modern society. However, perhaps we would do well to think of the people who do not have as many opportunities for good jobs and share some of what we have, as did the employer in the parable.
As Matthew L. Skinner (Huffington Daily Post 9/18/11) says in his religion column: “We learn more about God when we travel deeper into the world the parable imagines and consider its other characters. After all, this parable draws all its force and illustrative potential from the dynamics of economic life. Whom, then, should we think the landowner encounters when he’s looking for workers late in the afternoon? What kind of people are the last to find jobs, added to the rolls only when there’s no more labor available? Nothing suggests that those characters in the parable are irresponsible or lazy. More likely, they are unwanted.
“If [we compose] a list of ‘people who have to wait all day long to get hired’ in our current setting, we need to expand it. Add the unemployed and underemployed to the list. Suddenly those who cannot get hired until 5 p.m. aren’t necessarily just people wearing rags or talking gibberish to themselves. Many are college graduates, highly skilled manufacturers, loyal, capable.
“And [what about] undocumented immigrants…who hires them these days? The parable’s landowner might be at risk of prosecution in Alabama, depending on the outcome of a battle over that state’s new immigration law. It’s a severe law allegedly spurred by the national unemployment crisis, but one legitimately wonders how the law’s rough justice squares with a Bible that repeatedly commends hospitality and compassion toward refugees, strangers and other aliens.”