September 21, 2008
Our Gospel reading for today tells us that there were labor disputes in Jesus’ day. Just like today there were problems between labor and management like the recent teachers strike in Bellview and Boeing’s machinists, who, by the way, reportedly average in salary, overtime and benefits a little over ninety-one thousand dollars a year. The question of equity in the work place seems to be a perennial one.
The players in Jesus’ parable are the landlord who goes to the marketplace at 6 a.m. and the laborers he hires to harvest his grapes. Because the harvest must be completed quickly, he returns to the marketplace several more times. At 9: and at noon he finds others standing idle and waiting to be hired. He goes again at 3: and finally at 5:, one hour before the end of the workday, each time hiring more unemployed people. The explanation of the unemployed and idle workers is always the same, “No one has hired us.”
All of them are sent into the vineyard to work, and at 6 o clock in the evening the landlord commands the manager to pay the wage. The law required such payment at the end of each day so that the workers could afford to buy food for their families. But in a surprise move he orders that those who were hired last are paid first. This was an affront to those who had labored twelve hours. By reversing the order of payment the first hired were made aware that the last hired receive a wage equal to that for which they had bargained. Was their daylong effort in the scorching heat no more valued than the brief labor of the eleventh hour workers? They expected that they would receive more. But all of them receive the same wage, one denarius. Indignant at what they perceive to be an injustice, they protest, but the landlord reminds them that they had contracted for one denarius.
Most of us who have spent anytime in the church have heard messages that addressed people who had given much of their time, talent and something sweat and wealth to the work of the Kingdom compared to those who make death bed professions of faith.
It raises in our minds just what kind of a landlord this is? Like others of his kind, he owns the means of production, the land. But unlike others of his kind, he does not exploit his laborers by depriving them of the surplus value of their work. “…not only is he just, but most agree that he acted with generosity toward those hired last.” He is just because he has paid those who labored twelve hours the contracted wage. But he is more than generous! Unlike other owners of the means of production, he has not extracted the labor surplus from these unemployed laborers in order to increase his profit. Moreover, he develops productivity by hiring more workers, and enables more of the unemployed to earn a living for themselves and their families. Most times, we identify this extraordinary landlord with God.
This parable is unique to Matthew and it has always energized the imaginations of its interpreters as far back as John Chrysostom in the 4th Century who coupled this parable with the older brother in the prodigal son story. Another way to summarize this parable is to say that when we focus on the disappointed workers – those who had borne the burden and the heat of the day and grumbled about their pay, it is most concerned with overturning society’s notion of just rewards, that we should get what we think we deserve. They had gotten what they bargained for and the landowner comes off as a generous benefactor to those who came later. But what of the workers? They are being criticized for buying into the idea of merit – the idea that those who work hardest, longest, most – will be rewarded in a greater way. A system of merits allows for an economic evaluation of everything. In other words, it holds up God’s extravagant generosity, a sovereign graciousness that is not based on what is earned.
Then there is what you might call the Darwinian theory that suggests that the Land owner ensured that each worker had what each worker needed regardless of their labor. A day’s wages would feed their families and workers needed a day’s wage in order to survive, even if it seemed unfair to those who had worked all day. The wage of one denarius for twelve hours of work is minimal, indeed, a subsistence wage. But it would supply food for a family from three to six days. It is, in face, the wage that has been agreed upon by both parties, the owner and the unemployed. Generally speaking, of course, the unemployed would have no bargaining power, but if it is harvest time – and the landlord’s need for many workers as is apparent in the story – those who are being hired would have a degree of leverage in negotiating with the owner. The text indicates that the landlord came to an agreement with the workers, not that the workers reached an agreement with the landlord. You could call this Sabbath economics, it is about the grace of receiving what the creator, or employer or God gives and the responsibility to not take more than is needed. To those according to their needs, from those according to their resources.
I think with a little greater understanding of the context we may discover yet another way to look at this parable.
Through-out the whole Roman Empire land was confiscated from the population and then redistributed among the rich and powerful. It dramatically changed societies where there had been land holding and land working in the same families for generations into a society where once prosperous and industrious people became hourly agricultural laborers.
Historical records indicate that this was particularly the case for many generations in Galilee where the land was awarded to officials of the state who derived their income from it by leasing it to the peasantry for a stipulated rent to be paid in the form of agricultural produce, money or labor. A Papyri of the third century before Christ discloses that the Hellenistic monarch of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus granted property in part of Galilee to his finance minister Apollonius. During his reign in the first century Herod the Great followed this same practice of land acquisition by expropriating large tracts of farmland and selling them to wealthy landowners. Consequently the best agricultural lands of Galilee fell into the hands of a few land barons.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard reflects these economic realities and helps us understand why unemployment in Galilee was so widespread. Consequently peasants and tenants, as well as the artisan who depended on them, had only their labor to sell to anyone who wished to hire them as a means of feeding their families.
Those who grumbled and accused the landlord of being unjust, in spite of the original contract, disclose that they too have been infected with the values that trickle down from the top of the socio-economic pyramid, values which the rich and the powerful foster in order to “divide and conquer” those on whom they are dependent for labor.
As traditionally interpreted the Landowner is a great guy – but I’ve got to ask– where else in Jesus’ parables and teachings is the man on top held up as a model of righteousness? I think we need to leave the focus on the labor and look at the position taken by management. Ingeniously, Jesus confronts the guardians of society with their own injustice. What is the landowner’s great line “Can’t I do what I want with what I own!?”
Since Leviticus, even though no year of Jubilee was ever fully accomplished, there has been an under girding understanding that the needs of each member of the community cannot be ignored in God’s rule. No advantages of noble birth, inheritance, achievement or merit of any kind determine participation in the distinctive justice and equality of God’s rule.
“Can’t I do with as I like with what I own?” He asked. And the answer is decidedly no! – as much as we in this country want to embrace economic Darwinism – the prophets pointed out the need for ethical treatment of all of God’s people. The institution of jubilee and its economic regulations, detailed in Leviticus 25, may never have been put into practice in the history of Israel but the ideals of redemption and restoration, which it envisioned for the nation’s relationship with God and its establishment of justice were applied by Israel’s prophets to the social, economic and political conditions of their times. Jesus’ ministry is also oriented toward the fulfillment of these ideals. All bargains ought to be made by this rule: You shall not oppress one another; you shall not take advantage of one another’s ignorance or necessity, but you shall fear your God. The fear of God reigning in the heart, would restrain from doing wrong to our neighbor in word or deed.
It was a surprise to me that Leviticus 25 is left entirely out of the cycles of the lectionary. And its appropriateness to this Gospel reading is unquestionable. Instead we were given a passage Exodus and Ezekiel that dealt with grumbling. Leviticus deals with economic justice. In Leviticus land could not be sold in perpetuity. It would revert to the family in the year of Jubilee. And the reason given is that the land belongs to the Lord! Of course this passage also rails against charging interest on money loaned and for taking advantage of another’s ignorance.
Jesus’ parable challenges the system of land tenure and economic exchange in the world of his day where family holdings were confiscated first by foreign rulers and continued by Jewish rulers. In Leviticus 25:23 God declares that the land belongs to him! The rule of God, which Jesus’ stories disclose, undermines the ruling elite’s self-serving systemic structures and institutions. Under the expansion of God’s rule those who exploit, dispossess and marginalize the weak and the poor will, ultimately, forfeit all their advantages of power and wealth. In spite of the continuation of the stark realities of the socio-economic pyramid benefiting the upper classes, the realities of redemption and restoration, which the year of jubilee envisioned, will be actualized, not only for Israel but for all the nations and peoples of the world.
This is just as true for us today as for the workers and the landlord then – both are being held up by Jesus as examples of failing in their responsibility to the community at large. The workers who got what they bargained for argue with a more generous treatment of their equals. The landlord has the false notion that he has the right to do what he wants with what he controls. Do we at times feel that way and fail in our acknowledgment that God is the owner of everything and we are at best stewards of that entrusted to us?