The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is not about Justice but about Acceptance in an Economy of Grace
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2014
(reprinted from 2011) By Dennis Ormseth
The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost invite our participation in God’s gracious care for all creation. In the words of the Psalmist, we “celebrate the fame of [God’s] abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of [God’s] righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (145:7-8). An additional verse makes it clear that this love is all-inclusive: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (145:9). So we hear that out of concern for the “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals,” God relents of a threat to punish all Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). And we are encouraged by the Apostle Paul to engage in the “fruitful labor” of a life lived “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” the one whom we know as the Lord, the Servant of all creation (see our comment on the readings for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost for our most recent justification for this title). And the Gospel provides more specific encouragement for engaging in this care.
Interpretations of the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard” typically emphasize the landowner’s generosity and “the free gift of grace associated with the kingdom’s coming.” The problem with this reading, suggests Bernard Brandon Scott, is that the supposed target of this teaching, the Pharisees, “would not have seen themselves as rejecting God’s generosity to sinners,” nor is it suggested anywhere that “those who have worked in the vineyard all day have not earned their wages,” which on close analysis turn out to be not generous, but only what an average a peasant could expect to earn (”the usual daily wage,” NRSV) (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 282-83).
What about these workers living on the margins?
The point of the parable lies elsewhere, Scott urges. Matthew reads the parable “as an example of the theme that the first shall be last and of the moral contrast between good and evil” (Ibid., p. 287). He leads his readers into the parable, we note, with a sketch of the end of time (“at the renewal of all things” . . . “and when everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life”) and a portrayal of the great reversal it brings about (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”). The parable also speaks of those who have left home. As Warren Carter notes in his illuminating commentary, day laborers like those invited by the landowner to work in the vineyard,
“. . . were a common sight in the agora, or marketplace (20:3) as they waited to be hired for work. They were a readily available pool of cheap labor for wealthier landowners and urban dwellers. Commonly uprooted from peasant farms taken over by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household, they looked for agricultural or urban work, usually day by day and at minimal rates. During planting and harvest, work was readily available, “for vintage and haying” (Varro, On agric 1.17.2), but in between times it often was not. For these “expendables” or involuntary marginals . . . life was unpredictable, marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them (Matthew and the Margins, p.397).
We have seen their modern-day counterparts crowding the entrances to Home Depot parking lots. They are persons for whom the passage of the time of day could easily descend into hunger and a state of despair. Those not hired will end the day without resources to restore themselves for another day of anxious waiting to be hired; they will know themselves as persons without place or means to live. The question that has to be answered in the hearing of this parable is: “What is right?”—because those who are jobless at the day’s end have the same needs as those who are hired early in the morning. And what possibly could the hope for the renewal of all things mean for them?
Determining what is “right” is not so easy.
The narrative of the parable is structured according to the passage of time: from morning, to noon, then through the afternoon and into the evening. The landowner has promised that he will pay each of them “‘whatever is right. And as each new cohort arrives to work in the vineyard, the question “what is right?” has to resonate more stridently with those who came earlier—and, of course, with the parable’s audience. The surprise at the end of the day is that all are paid the same, what those hired first agreed to, namely, a day’s living wage. Just so, those who came first want to know, what is right about equal pay for very unequal work? And hearers who identify “with the complaint of the first-hired,” opt “for a world in which justice is defined by a hierarchical relation between individuals (i.e., for a world in which the accounting should set matters aright.). To treat all the same is not just, because all are not alike, all have not earned the same.”
The issue is not justice but acceptance
But we have seen earlier what can happen when an accounting is expected to set matters aright. For example, in the parable of the king’s accounting we read last Sunday, an expectation of different treatment on the part of the servant elicited a demand from his fellow servants for an equally harsh punishment! It appears that it is indeed more difficult to say “what is right” than one at first thinks. But is it really a fair resolution that the landowner claims for himself: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Again the ground has shifted under the feet of the audience: there will be no resolution to the question “what is right.” As Scott explains, “The lack in the parable of any absolute standard of justice undermines any human standard for the kingdom.” What then is the standard? For the parable, value or worth (i.e., a place in the kingdom), Scott argues, is determined not by what is right but by acceptance. The householder’s urgent though unexplained need for laborers is the parable’s metaphor for grace. It is not wages or hierarchy that counts but the call to go into the vineyard. The householder’s generosity lies not in the wage but in the need (Scott, p. 297). And because nothing is said about it being either planting or harvest time, the need is not so much the landowner’s own need, but rather that of the laborers themselves. Those who hear the parable as a story of injustice (“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”) are sent away from the vineyard; they do not belong here with “the last.”
The vineyard is God’s vineyard—the world!
How then is this parable concerned with care of creation? Early, midday, afternoon, evening, the landowner persists through the cycle of the day. The workers are called, Scott notes, to service at “not simply any farm work but labor in a vineyard,” which has the strong metaphorical potential of the Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7) and Jer. 12:10, the vineyard which “many shepherds have destroyed.” It is a richly significant place. And who is the householder? In Matthew’s casting, it is Jesus (Scott, p. 287). In our reading, it is Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And he calls these persons at the margins to participate in the “alternative economy of unlimited grace” which we envisioned in our comment on last Sunday’s readings, in which the gift of creation always creates the value to be enjoyed by those who participate in it. Here, too, is that “alternative economy” in which an “alternative egalitarian lifestyle” with its equal opportunity for meaningful work is regarded as the “right” thing, the good, Godlike thing, to do (Carter, p. 398). The workers were without place to work; but by the end of the day each of them has been restored to work in the creation and invited to enter into the joy of that “good thing.”
Can we offer work that is meaningful for people and that restores creation?
Among the strategies for developing a “culture of creation” (identified by Norman Wirzba in his Paradise of God) is the renewal of the meaning of work in relationship to the creation. Work that is severed from the rhythms of creation in places that are not familiar to us has an anonymous character, he suggests,
that makes it impossible for workers to see practically how what they are doing might benefit or harm others, and vice versa. What we do, our productivity, serves a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to us, and so the affection and care that are the hallmarks of quality work, as well as the inspiration for a fulfilling and enjoyable work experience, are untapped. In a global economy, for the most part, we do not see the effects of what we do because they take place, oftentimes, thousands of miles away. Compensation serves as the substitute for the felt kindness and experienced blessing that otherwise would come from the close, affirming interaction among friends. . . More fundamental to work than its compensatory or its obligatory aspects is its ability to express gratitude and respect for innumerable benefits received. . . .Put positively, authentic or proper work and leisure reflect an attitude of attention to the orders and the needs of creation and a disposition to care for and preserve the rhythms and flow of life (Wirzba, pp. 153-54).
The workers hired at the beginning of the day protested the seeming injustice of the landowner; they obviously thought mainly of their value in terms of the compensation they should earn, it seems. Those called later had the opportunity to learn about mercy, respect and gratitude from one who wanted to be not just an employer, but also one who would be a friend.
Can we root our work in the grace of creation?
Can members of a congregation learn to think differently about their work, and perhaps even to experience it differently? Possibly, if they can see themselves as people who have at least in spirit “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields,” for Jesus’ name’s sake. As Wirzba suggests, drawing on the mystical insight of Meister Eckhart, in “returning to our ‘ground . . . we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head. It is to join with God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen. 2:8-9). It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality.” For those who came last to the vineyard, all this opens up as possibility for them—for them, and for those who hear, whenever the invitation of Jesus to work in God’s vineyard is presented. .
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288