Jesus told his disciples this parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage of one denarius, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So, they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
Around 6 o’clock, when evening came, the lord of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage of one denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more for their twelve hours of labor; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.”
But he replied to the ringleader, “Friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not make an agreement with me for one denarius? Take your denarius and go! I wish to give to this last one the same as I give to you. Is it not permissible to do what I wish with the things that are mine? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.
(Matthew 20: 1-16)
Knowing the historical context in which this parable was told can lead to some unusual and even disturbing conclusions about its meaning. In first-century Palestine, work was scarce and poverty widespread. Day laborers were peasants who had lost their land through indebtedness. If they were no longer needed as tenant farmers for the new landowners, they would become part of the “expendable” class. They were on a downward spiral and were desperate for work to survive. They did not have many options. They could choose between day labor or robbery. If they were too weak for either of these, they would become beggars at the gate (like Lazarus) until they died of hunger and disease. When Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), reflecting on the fate of peasants in a time of war, said that the life of humanity was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” it could aptly apply to the expendable class in the time of Jesus.
Jesus brings together the social extremes of an agrarian society: the elites and the expendables. And he arranges this meeting at a time when the elites were dependent on the lowliest of laborers. To ensure a timely harvest, the landowner needed their labor.
Small peasant farmers would often have a small vineyard for their own needs, but this parable is about the owner of a large vineyard estate. Wealthy elites could only create large estates by foreclosing on the land of indebted peasants, joining lot to lot. Only the wealthy could afford to create a large vineyard because it could take up to four years to get the first usable crop. Vineyards provided a cash crop to sustain the elites’ lifestyles. Wine was an export product that could be shipped throughout the Roman Empire.
Jesus’ audience would probably not associate a wealthy landowner with God. (For some reason, we moderns assume that the rich man or the king always represents God in a parable. We tend to idealize the superior character.) But peasants had no love for the elite class. And the estate managers, stewards, or foremen—although usually arising from the peasant class—were not trusted or respected either. They were considered complicit in the exploitation of the poor.
Many translations of this parable substitute the phrase “the usual daily wage” for the Greek “a denarius for the day.” I suppose this is to ease the comprehension of modern readers who have no idea about the value of a silver denarius coin in the first century relative to our times. One denarius a day—the daily wage in this parable—was not enough to support a large family. A single individual could stay alive on about ½ denarius per day, but only survive. The landowner is not being generous in the wages he pays.
To give us a modern comparison, an unskilled day laborer can make about $8 to $10 per hour in the United States today, depending on the market. An agricultural worker in Michigan makes about $10 an hour. The official minimum wage is $9.87 per hour. But to be clear, these are poverty wages. Compare that to a living wage in Detroit which is $16.59 for a single person. To support a family of four, a single person would have to make $36.69 per hour. So, let us assume these vineyard workers were making the poverty wage of $10 per hour. For twelve hours of labor (6 AM to 6 PM), this would total about $120 for the day. But let’s say that the landowner offered the laborers a $100 daily wage instead of an hourly wage, making the silver denarius coin equivalent to $100 for the sake of discussion.
Note that the vineyard owner does not negotiate the workers’ wages. He simply tells the first workers what wage he will pay— the usual daily wage, twelve hours of labor in the hot sun, take it or leave it. After that, he never specifies any wage to his workers, except to say that he will pay what was right or just. Again, it is a situation of take it or leave it. For the last workers, he simply says “Go.” None of these workers have any choice regarding wages. They have no negotiating power. (Perhaps they live in a ‘right to work’ state, like Michigan.) For day laborers, it is a situation of working for whatever one can get, or quickly starving.
This story presumably takes place during a grape harvest, but it does not specifically state that. A harvest creates an unusual demand for labor. Day laborers, in any age, are never assured of getting work on a regular basis. Work is very spotty. As a result, a day laborer in the first century, with no social safety net, does not have the prospect of a long life. Age, weakness, and disease lead to eventual death in this labor market. The day laborers were most likely all present at the labor market (agora) early in the morning. Those picked first were the fittest—the youngest, healthiest, strongest. Those picked last were the most unfit for hard labor—older, weaker, sickly.
As a youth in St. Louis, my daily route to high school took me past the Granada theater, one of two neighborhood movie houses. Day laborers gathered early in the morning at the theater parking lot, which faced the street. Every day, I would see these shabbily dressed men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee to stay warm. Occasionally, a pickup truck would pull in and the driver would point to two or three men who would climb in the back. They were going to do yard work or construction work or home demolition. Some were probably skilled in construction; many were most likely unskilled. Years later, I saw the same thing at a small park across from a church in the historic section of Savannah, Georgia. The same downcast look from defeated men. I am told that day laborers often gather today at many Home Depot parking lots across the nation. I am never up and about early enough to observe the truth of that anymore.
In this parable, those picked last were not slackers. I wish preachers would recognize this. Those last picked did not show up late. They were not spending the early part of the day drinking in a bar. They were simply the most obviously unfit for the task. The parable says clearly that they had been standing there all day simply because no one selected them.
The landowner has not planned wisely in determining how many workers he needed. He returns four times to hire more workers. Perhaps his concern is to assure the quality of a harvested crop. Grapes had to be picked promptly when ripe or the harvest would be lost. One thing that seems out of character is that the landowner personally hires the workers. Why not have his steward or foreman perform this task? Elites did not usually get involved in this kind of detail.
In the evening, the owner instructs his foreman to assemble the workers. He does not pay them discreetly. This is a public gathering. Normally, we would expect the first hired to be paid first. But this is a set up for a public demonstration of the landowners unquestioned authority. The listening audience expects justice in payment. They do not receive it.
Let’s be clear. The landowner was not being truly generous to anyone in absolute terms. After all they were poverty wages. It seems that he chooses the last workers to receive their wages first to publicly humiliate the first workers. They each receive a crisp $100 bill. The problem from the point of view of the first picked is that the owner has established the value of their contributions as the same as the last picked. Twelve hour’s work or one hour’s work, it doesn’t matter. The first workers complain, “You have made them equal to us!” When challenged on his behavior, the landowner picks out the ringleader or spokesman of the fittest workers to personally denigrate. He condescendingly calls him “Friend.” He delights in saying that he has the power to do whatever he pleases with these men’s lives, letting them know in no uncertain terms that they have absolutely no bargaining power with him and no recourse to his decisions. He is the master of their lives and survival.
Some people have interpreted parables as allegories. An allegory is a story that refers to some other event, person, or thing that is both concealed and revealed in the narration. When taken to an extreme, allegorizing makes every detail symbolic, often investing story elements with unwarranted importance and significance. Allegorizing uses equal signs. For instance, in an allegorical interpretation, the vineyard = Israel; the landowner = God; the foreman = Jesus; the first workers = the Jews; the last workers = the Christians; or some other scheme for the first and the last (the Jews and the Gentiles, the Pharisees and the outcasts, or lifelong Christians and deathbed converts, for example).
Reading the parables as allegory is a way for the church to domesticate the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching. Allegorizing the parables often takes the life out of them. They become dry tales of salvation history rather than stories that invite us in, cause us to think, and take us by surprise. Allegorizing makes the parables safe by substituting the known for the unknown.
In the nineteenth century, scholars began to react to the allegorization of the parables and suggested that these stories were intended to convey just one central concept or idea. They compared Jesus’ use of parables to sermon illustrations. The parables did not convey a hidden meaning in every detail, but simply tried to drive home a particular point. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the main point is that the person who proved to be a real neighbor was not a religious Jew, but one of the despised and hated Samaritans. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Matthew suggests that the point may be that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” However, most preachers today would (and usually do) propose that the point is that God is gracious and generous to all people regardless of merit. However, to buy this point, it is better if we ignore the historical context and its implications. Clergy and lay ignorance about what was really going on, works in favor of this nearly universal interpretation.
For many scholars, the parables of Jesus are now being understood to be much more than sermon illustrations, even though the gospels themselves often portray them that way. A parable of Jesus stands on its own. It is the sermon. The parable is the message. Often, it is a message that the listener does not want to hear.
More recently, the parables have been talked about as poetic metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a comparison. Many parables are extended metaphors in narrative form that provide a picture of the kingdom of God. Metaphors often serve the function of explaining something that is completely new or foreign to one’s experience, by comparing it to something else within one’s frame of reference. It can articulate something that is so alien to one’s understanding that no other reference can explain it. The visual imagery of the metaphor invites the listener in to experience the new reality.
So how do we understand this parable in its historic context as an extended metaphor?
First, this is a parable about the kingdom of God, not about God’s grace. Jesus begins by saying “The kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner…” (Matthew characteristically substitutes “kingdom of Heaven” for “kingdom of God.” This can be misleading, for the historic Jesus rarely talked about heaven.)
Many of Jesus’ parables were parables of reversal. In conventional thinking, good people are normally expected to receive good rewards, while bad people are expected to receive bad rewards. This is the nature of justice. But in Jesus’ parables, the good are often denied their expected rewards while the bad, the unclean, the dishonorable, and the undeserving are rewarded. Is that what is happening here? More than any other parable, this one seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society, the fundamental nature of fairness and justice. It denies equal pay for equal work. Americans believe that the reward should be in exact proportion to merit.
In this parable, nobody gets what they expected. The last hired expect only about $10 or so. Certainly, less than a denarius. Instead, they receive the full $100. The first hired, when they see the peculiar generosity of the owner, expect to be paid much more. The last are surprised, while the first are incensed. If the kingdom of God is like this landowner, what does he do? How does he act? To the last hired he is unjust, but unexpectedly generous. To the first hired, he is just, but not generous. The landowner has insulted them. He has shamed them in public. He has made sure that they know their place.
We all know that wages indicate a person’s value or worth in a company and in society-at-large. This parable subverts the association between wages and worth. It also deals with justice and injustice. Is the goal of justice to ensure that everyone gets what they deserve? Or is it to ensure that everyone is equally accepted as a person of worth?
I’m not sure of the meaning of this parable. The real value of a parable is that its meaning is varied to different people. Perhaps the parable is just a lesson about the injustice of the world and the ability of wealthy people to do anything they want. But perhaps there is more.
Maybe it is this. If this is about the kingdom of God, we note that the landowner is constantly calling people to work for him. He is, after all, the real focus of the parable. Like Jesus, he invites them in, regardless of their social value, fitness, or perceived worth. In the end, when the first called—those who think they’ve worked harder and who expect recognition commensurate with their worth—begin to grumble about being treated equally with those who do less, the landowner tells them to take their wages and go.
Jesus invites everyone, no matter their status, to enter the kingdom of God and to engage in its work for justice and peace. Within the kingdom, there is no hierarchy. It does not matter if one is giving up everything to treat the dying on the streets of Calcutta or signing online petitions to Congress and writing postcards to voters in one’s family room. All workers in God’s kingdom are of equal value and worth.
And the work is truly diverse. Many large and small acts are required to help bring about the just, equitable, and loving system we are trying to construct here on earth. Some people are needed to build Habitat houses or maintain soup kitchens and clothes closets for the poor. Others may find themselves protesting injustice; getting into ‘good trouble,’ as John Lewis used to say. The work may be difficult. The wages will be certainly unfair. The hours may be long. Some may even be beaten, arrested, and jailed. We may never be publicly thanked or get the recognition we think we deserve. But nonetheless, Jesus calls us to labor alongside others in a vast conspiracy of love.
Following Jesus is a response to his call to transform society. It makes one a troublemaker, a revolutionary, a seeker of change. It calls on one to be an agent of transformation, or as Jesus said, to be like a mustard seed in a tidy garden, a pinch of yeast in a large bowl of bread dough, a dash of salt in a pot of soup, or a small lamp in a darkened room. It is to add your light to the sum of lights so that little by little a violent, hungry, and suffering world can be renewed for the sake of its children.
In the first century, Jesus led his small movement in a concerted action to subvert the normality of civilization and the prevailing domination systems of his society. He called for economic justice, he shared meals with those who were considered outcasts and rabble, he taught creative nonviolent responses to domination, and he led a public demonstration at the seat of political and religious power. He was executed for daring to challenge the status quo that benefited the top one percent of his society.
The way of Jesus leads to the cross. This is not some inward spiritual journey. This is a confrontation with the real world of power, violence, poverty, disease, suffering, and death. But we do not work alone. There are many others walking beside us. The spirit of Jesus leads the way. And he bids us to come and join him in the journey to a better world.