CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Laboring in the Vineyard
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, 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.’ 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; 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 one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
- Matthew 20:1-16
I always have a lot of questions when I read this parable: Why did the landowner himself go to the market place to hire the workers? This would have been the manager’s job, just like paying out the wages. Also, why did he not hire all the workers he needed for the day’s tasks in the morning? Why did he go through the trouble of walking again and again to the market place? What were the men doing standing around all day?
But let’s start at the end of the story. The result of all the running to the market place, hiring, working in the vineyard, running again, hiring again, et cetera, is this: Everybody goes home that night with enough money in their pocket to feed their families. Not more and not less.
That reminds me a lot of the Israelites in the desert. God feeds them after they make their grievances known. God gives everyone exactly the amount of manna they need to sustain themselves. Not more and not less. As soon as the Israelites try to hoard and take more than they need, the manna gets foul and full of maggots. Everybody gets what they need – no mention of earning or working for it. God is like the anti-Pharaoh. Pharaoh was all about preserving his power and multiplying his wealth by oppressing, enslaving and exploiting the Israelites. But in the desert, Pharaoh’s economy of slavery is met by God’s new wilderness polity.
Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, every day laborer in today’s parable will eat tonight. So why don’t the men who were hired first simply rejoice that everybody will be fed? Why aren’t they simply happy that nobody will go hungry?
Here is their complaint: “You have made them equal to us!” You, the landowner, have made those lazy guys over there equal to us who we worked all day! Talk about a profound sense of privilege. We are better because we worked all day. We deserve it. We earned it.
Well, maybe not. Think about the situation in the market place in the morning. A whole lot of laborers all standing there eager to be hired for the day. They want to work. All of them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be standing there. A few of them get hired. Why do they get hired? We don’t know. The story doesn’t tell us. Why do others not get hired? We don’t know that, either.
The first group that gets hired knows that they will do meaningful work all day and receive a daily wage in the evening. The second group will work and hope that the landowner will keep his promise to pay them fairly. The third, fourth and fifth groups of men to be hired stand in the market place for a long time without anything to do, afraid that they might come home with empty hands tonight. When the landowner hires them, they go and work in the vineyard and hope for the best; after all, the landowner didn’t even promise them any kind of pay.
So did the first group earn the privilege of meaningful work and economic security? No, they didn’t. As far as we know, they were picked randomly. Their advantage was given to them. Did the last groups for some reason deserve to stand in the market place all day, or did they contribute in any way to their misfortune? Not that I can see.
These last months of the pandemic have exacerbated the gap between those who enjoy economic security and abundance, and those who don’t know whether they’ll have enough to feed their families each night. There are too many people left behind in the scorching heat of the market place, eager to work. Yet, at the same time, the grumbling noise of some who feel they don’t get what they deserve, or others do get what they don’t deserve, is growing louder every day. In addition, those in power try to do everything to solidify their advantages, even attempting to silence the voices trying to lift up those left behind.
The crucial question is how we, as disciples of the one who told this parable and lived it, will respond. Will we raise our voices? Will we share our power? Will we make sure that everyone has enough? Will we work for the kingdom of heaven where the first will be last and the last will be first?
Tags: Caminando with Jesus