In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.
The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew. One traditional interpretation of this parable has been to focus on the very last verse where it says “the last will be first…,” and insist on understanding the parable as a statement about the gift of eternal life as the ultimate equalizer, that will be granted to all “laborers in the vineyard.” But there may be a more practical application that might require a different title.
From our contemporary context, this parable brings to mind issues of immigration and daily laborers. What is “fair” for those who work among us as migrant workers or labor in the various service industries which supporting our highly educated professional class and our technologically-driven economic complex? And, what is it to us if the minimum wage rises to assist those workers on the lowest end of our economic system?
It is fascinating that even after two thousand years this parable in Matthew 20 still arouses indignation in some people.
20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
To cut to the chase Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like this very responsible landowner. More than anyone else he is critically aware that he can’t make wine from grapes on the vine. He knows that he is in business. He negotiates a usual days wage and sends those who were available out into his vineyard. He goes to the labor pool at nine but this time he doesn’t negotiate with them he simply says “I’ll pay you what’s right!” He is desperate for more hands and he needs them now. He does the same at noon and three. Too much sun, to much rain, too little sun, too little rain and too long ripe on the vines cuts into his income. He hires. He hires every available pair of hands to pick his grapes. We shouldn’t miss the reality that his is not the only vineyard in the valley that needs pickers at the same time. At this point he is in competition with the other wine producers who need the same help at the same time. He is desperate. He goes out at five, with only a hour left to work. I also think he may be thinking ahead, planning the work that’s needed the next day. He needs all the hands he can get. But beyond that this vineyard owner is part of the fabric of the Jewish society in which Jesus lives and teaches. Derived from the written and oral Torah there is a standard covenant of employer/employee relations from which Conservative Jews and Conservative Jewish institutions operate. It is a commitment to treat their workers with dignity and respect; pay their employees a living wage and not knowingly put them at risk of injury or death. Employees, in turn, are expected to do their best work and treat their employers with the same dignity and respect due them. This is a special relationship in which both employers and employees feel that their work in ‘sacred’ and they are involved in a partnership with God in the work of creation.In Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Torah specifies that one must pay a worker on the day that he completes his work. In Jesus’ parable the manager is sent out to pay the daily laborers – not for the hours they worked but a day’s wages. The underlying principle is that a day worker needs a day’s wage to meet his family’s needs. Paying less than that leaves the worker and his family destitute. The Torah recognizes that often a worker is in urgent need of his wages; he needs to feed himself and/or his family. To postpone paying him may cause him distress and, in some cases, death. In addition, by keeping this patter we train ourselves to be compassionate and kind. This, in turn, prepares us to accept God’s goodness to us.
This is a hard concept for us. Jesus’ parable holds up for all to see a responsible business person. We are expected to live our values in the ways in which we care for members of our communities, in our choices about how to spend time and money, and in other aspects of our communal lives. Conservative Jews do that because they believe that their commitments to individuals within their communities, their children, and to the principles of their system are not theoretical constructs. Low-wage workers are members of our communities. If we are to live our values in our business practices, we will be considerate in determining how much to pay these employees and how to treat them.
Did you catch that last Sunday evening on Downtown Abbey when the Jewish family was asked whether it was hard for them, being Jewish, to get good employees? The response was, “We are Jews and we pay well.”
That’s a pretty high bar. Jesus started his story saying that the landowner and vineyard operator was like the Kingdom of God. In that, he meets his obligations and provides a model for others in the community. Every worker gets a daily wage, not based on the hours worked but based on their need.
Then there are the grumblers. Speaking of those who were paid a day’s wage but had worked fewer hours they said to the landowner “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And yes, that is exactly what he had done. He paid each and everyone a living wage.
Rhetorically the landowner pleads: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? And of course in our culture the answer to that, is ‘no’. You can’t open a pot store next to an elementary school. You can’t have topless baristas serving coffee in some neighbourhoods. The owner’s property does not belong to him; it belongs to the community. Ask the people in Nebraska who are in court over pipeline proponents and their claims of imminent domain. Here, everyone gets only what is just. No room for generosity is allowed. All ownership that would allow for generosity is unjust.
In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed. Is it true that there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance. We can lose the Kingdom of Heaven if we are just but begrudge generosity to others. Must God in dealing with us be only just? Must we blame God if God is more than just? Must we be more than just?
In the divine owner’s contract with us, we must accept one condition, namely, His generosity. Many a just man refuses it.
The last question was for the workers and us : Or are you envious because I am generous? How do you respond to that? The literal Greek is “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Reference to the “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets our eye. As Jesus taught in the 6th chapter “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness”. In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity. In both Islamic and Jewish cultures the ‘evil eye’ is taken quite seriously. It’s about regretting the good fortune of another. It’s about jealousy, greed and stinginess.
So our parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard.” In fact, this is not even a story about the productivity of the vineyard. We hear the complaints of those who have toiled all day long, but the story was really not about them either. Rather, Jesus’ parable highlights the generosity of God. God, the ultimate “landowner,” will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all, even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes. In Jesus words in the fifth chapter God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust. The landowner’s question in the parable is Jesus’ punchline: “Are you envious because I am generous?”