There are so many complexities embedded in the story, I don’t even know where to begin: politically, economically, theologically, and racially. “Who decides who deserves what?” What happens when some of us can’t get hired and are left on the street, hungry, tired, exploited and un-seen? Why do we buy into social constructs, like racism, that are truly evil? The story of the ‘workers in the vineyard’ is a very controversial parable indeed. It was a problem for the early church.
And it’s a real problem for the contemporary church.
Many of those who offer guidance as to how this story should be heard know of these difficulties, and so have ‘spiritualised’ it and suggest the emphasis should be on the rich vineyard owner’s graciousness, goodness, or generosity. And they have turned the owner into a God-like figure.
But such an interpretation goes against the parable itself. The parable is about God’s kingdom, not about God. Or is it about social security or full employment or a minimum wage? Is this parable about comforting people or challenging people?
Hardly any other parable in all of the gospel tradition upsets the basic structure of an orderly society, as does this one.
So a little bit of background. When Jesus’ audience heard him tell this parable, they would have immediately understood who the landowners and who the workers were. Jesus’ audience lived under the occupation of the Romans. Jewish landowners in occupied Palestine would have had very few choices. Landowners could oppose the Romans and lose their land and then have to resort to becoming day labourers themselves, or they could collaborate with their Roman oppressors and participate in the abuse of their neighbours. Added to this there were:
• Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and the priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper.
• Small farm owners were losing their land.
• Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.
Second, in a society organised along the lines of a patron-client ‘pyramid’ system, the ultimate patron was the emperor or Caesar, Son of God, Saviour of the World. And power worked its way downward from him. His clients became patrons for other clients who became patrons for others. Scholar B. B. Scott, in his book Hear Then The Parable describes it as: “And their fleas have fleas!”.
Such an arranged social order guaranteed that no one was equal, and every social engagement or offer of work was a contest to determine one’s place in the hierarchy. And you worked hard to preserve your position, or to knock someone else off theirs, if it meant you could climb up the ladder.
This parable violated this orderly system.
This parable turned this ordered world upside down.
This parable from Jesus was indeed “subversive speech”. (Herzog 1994)
How? The parable seems to suggest people are to be treated according to their needs, not according to their position within the hierarchy or otherwise. And that is indeed a very worthy ‘kingdom’ value.
So what else can we take home from this story?
The storyteller brings together two social extremes, the rich elite and the poor expendables. And they are brought together for just a few moments or days, when the elite (the rich landowner) is in urgent need of the expendables (the growing pool of day labourers) at harvest time.
So at this point, the workers seem to have some power – their bodies and energies – in the situation. But because they were forced to accept occupations which quickly destroyed them, and they are ‘poorly organised’, to use a modern concept, they lose that power, and the landowner is able “to conquer them by dividing them”. (Herzog 1994:95)
The oppression and the exploitation of others, no matter how it is dressed up to look otherwise, is not a ‘god given’ virtue. So the ‘twist’ in the tail of this parable undermines the ruling elite’s self-serving structures and institutions.
The realm of God is not more of the same. And that is some ‘twist’
People, especially the most vulnerable people in society, not only have rights, but because they are people, have a right to claim their rights. Such is the real power behind this controversial and dangerous story.
In this reading, the message is not about eschatology, but economics; it is not about salvation in the world to come, but the even more pressing question about salvation in the present. To those who ask today, “Are you saved?” Jesus might well respond, “The better question is, ‘Do your children have enough to eat?’ or ‘Do you have shelter for the night?’”
“What if we saw this parable of the householder and laborers as about what God would have us do not to earn salvation, but to love our neighbour?” Love our neighbour? This is hard, this is very hard, because sometimes loving our neighbour means owning our complicity and seeing our transgressions more clearly. It also means recognizing our own victimhood. Goodness comes from self-awareness. Jesus shows us how it is done, this self-awareness that leads to change and justice. In the householder’s act of going back again and again to receive the laborers, we are reminded that we are one. “You go, even you, to the Vineyard, and whatever is just, I will give you.”
In this chaotic and crazy present day 2023 I believe we are being called to a love that names the truth. This love propels us to turn back, with restored vision and understanding. It is a love that inspires a deep desire for justice. It also claims our very hearts to know that we are all seen, named and held by God. In the movement of turning back in love, we find ourselves restored to God. And paradoxically, we discover the capacity to move forward (together) into God’s new reality for us. Amen.
Bernard Brandon Scott. Hear Then The Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1989.
William R. Herzog II Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed Westminster John Knox Press 1994