Sunday, August 15, 2010

When God is Not the Landowner

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers 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 market-place; 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 labourers 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.
Matthew 20:1-16

A Sermon preached on Matthew 20 at Rifle United Methodist Presbyterian Church this morning:

Throughout the Christian centuries, most interpretations of Matthew 20 have equated the vineyard owner with God and the workers with God’s People or humanity at large. In this schema, God is seen as “generous” and “equitable” with the people and expands the population of those who, by grace, are ushered through the heavenly gates. The grumbling worker at the end of the story is representative of Israel at large or the Pharisees, chief priests and other Jewish leaders who confronted Jesus during his life and ministry—the lesson being that we should all be thankful for God’s equal treatment and unconditional generosity and kindness.

This morning, however, I want to offer an interpretation of Matthew 20 from a “minority report” of the Christian tradition. Nothing in the parable forces us to assume that the vineyard owner in the parable is God. Instead, functioning like our cartoon of the Lebron James incident, the parable is an exaggerated representation of what life was actually like during the time of Jesus and in the culture of the very first hearers of the parable of the vineyard owner some 50 years later. Instead of offering us timeless truths or simple principles of God’s Kingdom, the parable functions as a jarring illustration that animates the Christian disciple to subversively embrace an alternative way of life.

If the vineyard owner, then, is not God, then who is he? The original hearers of the parable would have no trouble connecting the dots. In first century Palestine, someone who owned a vineyard was quite wealthy. It usually was someone who collected properties from subsistence farmers who were forced to foreclose because they could not pay their debts. As the “investor” gained more and more land, he used it as “capital” to exponentially grow the business. A vineyard usually required 4-5 years of preparation before the wine business began to make a profit…a substantial profit. Eventually, the wealthy landowner would hire these former subsistence farmers as day laborers to work during planting and harvesting seasons. Knowing the laws of supply and demand, the landowner would only hire them one day at a time, keeping the supply of workers large and thus keeping wages at their minimum. The landowner was a crafty businessman who played by the rules of “the bottom line.” In our parable, notice how the landowner tells the second group of workers: “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” The landowner always sets the terms of the business deal, establishing power and control.

On the other hand, the workers of the vineyard in agrarian societies were those who mostly fell into that pitied class of day laborers which made up less than 10% of the population. They were debt-ridden, homeless and usually lived only 5-7 years once they became workers who were truly expendable to the agrarian economy. They lived on daily wages, which allowed for the bare daily minimum, but, to add insult to injury, they did not get work everyday. They spent the rest of their hours begging to make up for the lack of a living wage. These “expendables”—just like the undocumented farm worker picking lettuce today in Yuma, Arizona—worked long hours in the hot sun and would rarely risk questioning the unjust, inhumane practices of those who hired them. In our parable, notice what happens to the one worker who questions the paying practices of the landowner. He is shunned and humiliated in front of his fellow workers: “Friend,” the wealthy landowner responds, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go.” Clearly, the vineyard worker is not a “friend” of the landowner and this is exposed when we read from the original Greek (the word for friend here is hetaire, not the more common term which denotes a peer relationship: phile). When the vineyard worker questions the “justice” of the situation, the landowner naturally assumes the power position and speaks condescendingly to him. Indeed, day laborers in ancient Palestine would have been treated worse than slaves because slaves were actually a real, human capital investment who worked for the owner every day. The wealthy landowner only treats his workers with dignity and respect if it directly benefits his economic bottom line.

What is rather peculiar in Jesus’ parable is the actual presence of the landowner both in the marketplace hiring workers and at the time of payment. Usually, both of these jobs were reserved for the manager, who only gets a cameo appearance in the parable. The landowner, in real life, would not do the leg work of finding day laborers and would not do the actual paying of workers. All the grumbling and groaning of injustice coming from the workers would be aimed at the scapegoated manager, leaving the landowner free to spend the day on other investments and, in the end, to enjoy the fruit of cheap labor without any of the hassle or burdened conscience of his dehumanizing business practices.

Jesus includes the landowner during both hiring negotiations and at payment time so that the hearers of the parable will recognize who is at the root of the unjust system. It is, no doubt, the landowner who first took over the foreclosed land from the debt-ridden farmer and then paid those who worked ALL day in the hot sun the exact same wage as those working a couple hours at dusk. This wealthy investor boasts, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” With this callous mentality, the landowner shatters the spirit of God’s jubilee provision for all humanity demanded in the Hebrew Bible—as Deuteronomy 15:7-8 attests: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” This kind of socio-economic behavior is deeply at odds with the creator and covenant God who is, in fact, viewed throughout Israel’s Scripture as the paradigmatic landowner, caring for the precious vineyard of Israel.

Now, with our contemporary text in our bulletin, we receive the Lebron James cartoon appropriately, not at face value, but ironically. It prophetically exposes the shameful collusion of Lebron’s youthful ego with ESPN’s business savvy to take advantage of our collective American obsession with celebrity. We “get” the joke and roll our eyes, shaking our heads with disgust and a little laughter. Perhaps a community 2000 years from now will not have the socio-historical tools to understand the context and will come up with a vastly different conclusion than we have today.

Along those same lines, the original hearers of the parable of the vineyard workers would have got the joke. They would have been struck by the deep contrast between the vineyard owner in Jesus’ story and the God of Israel especially articulated by Jesus’ vision for the imminent invasion of God’s Heavenly Reign in our world throughout Matthew’s Gospel. The two episodes prior to the parable of the vineyard workers within Matthew’s Gospel are Jesus’ call to receive little children (who had no status in that society) and Jesus’ command to the rich investor to follow him by first giving back all the properties that he had taken from debt-ridden subsistence farmers. And these episodes build on a consistent theme of the Gospel: “blessed are the meek”…the miraculous healing of “expendables”: lepers, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics…the divine investment strategy to “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”…followed up by the financial advice of God’s Heavenly Reign: “You cannot serve God and wealth”…and the simple motto: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” The landowner in the parable exhibits none of these markers of God’s Heavenly Reign and the audience of the parable can plainly discern this. Jesus’ promised flip of the script is really bad news for the wealthy landowner and the best news of all for the expendables of society: the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

In light of this prophetic word from Jesus, what then shall we do? Christians are those called to creatively enact God’s Heavenly Reign in the unique context of our community 2000 years later. After all, where the function of Jesus’ parable differs significantly from Lebron’s cartoon is that it calls us to action. This will take wisdom, discernment and a lot of imaginative brainstorming on 3 fronts.

This parable animates us, first, to criticize social and economic conditions and practices that mirror the mentality of the landowner—within our own selves, as well as our community, our nation & our world. Where are we caught up in economic events that are purely commodified, based only on an exchange of currency and goods or services? Where do we use our status, power or wealth for our own self-interest, and, in so doing, strip people of dignity? Where do we see the innocent and naïve and hard-working being taken advantage of? Let us be convicted by the landowner’s boastful proclamation to the courageous day laborer: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”

Second, this parable animates us to humanize “the expendables” in our families, our community, our nation and our world. If we pledge allegiance to God’s Heavenly Reign, it is our identity and vocation to be the home of the homeless, the strength of the physically disabled, the mind of the mentally disturbed, the healers of the addicted, the companion of the loners, the champion of the unemployed and the dignity of the undocumented. Let us be reminded of the humble articulation of the day laborer to who explained why he stood idle in the marketplace all day: “Because no one has hired us.”

And lastly, this parable animates us to energize our selves, our community, our nation and our world. When theologian Jonathan Wilson was asked what the point of reading the Bible is, he responded: “to teach us what the Kingdom of God looks like and how to look for it.” Wilson continues, “And often we need others to point us in the right direction, to say, not ‘there’s Waldo’, but ‘there’s the kingdom.’” If Jesus’ parable is true, then we have become equipped to presently discern God’s Heavenly Reign within this rather callous and undignified world—just as we cling to the hope that it will be fully enacted someday soon. This morning and throughout this week, let us be reminded of the fiercely hopeful declaration of Jesus to those original disciples: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Amen.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. Tom - Care to share any references for the historical claims you made about the socioeconomic conditions of the Middle East during Classical Antiquity?

    And please explain how supply and demand in this setting works. This sentence does not make sense: "Knowing the laws of supply and demand, the landowner would only hire them one day at a time, keeping the supply of workers large and thus keeping wages at their minimum." How does hiring workers one day at a time affect the supply of workers? Why could the causation not run the other direction? Perhaps it is the case that the landowner hires only one day at a time BECAUSE the supply of workers is large? Please do not let your ideology get in the way of a deceptively difficult econ exercise. I'm not sure which way the causation runs. My concern is that you do not seem to offer any justification for your interpretation apart from a portrait of a greedy, profiteering bourgeoisie who somehow controls the size of the labor force via per diem hiring practices.

    Finally, I find it interesting that both you and Craig Blomberg claim to interpret from the minority report perspective. See the preface and/or page 19 for the reference. See page 221 for his interpretation of this parable.

    I'd be interested to know your thoughts on how the two of you come to different conclusions re: the meanings and themes of this parable despite the same claim to the minority report perspective.

  2. Timmy T,
    Thanks for reading and weighing in. Of course, any historical claim about what happened on the ground in 1st century Palestine is contested. I rely heavily upon William Herzog's reading of this parable and his interpretation of this particular parable comes from the "minority report" of the Christian tradition simply because he does not equate the landowner with God, while most scholarly work on the passage, in fact, does. Since you've read Blomberg a lot more than me and it sounds like you've read his interpretation of this particular parable, how does Blomberg interpret the passage and how does he claim that his is from the "minority report?"

    I appreciate that you reference "ideology" in your comment--it is an appropriate question that ALL interpreters must weigh. I believe that we should all be transparent about the kinds of influences that shape our biblical interpretations and I believe that every reader is greatly influenced by what Walter Brueggemann calls the "zone of imagination": all our readings are shaped by powerful interests, deep unresolved fears and hurts, family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology (to name just a few). Interpretaion is very complicated and not innocent. With that said, my own interpretive outcome was saturated with scholarship, dialogue, prayer and a literary criticism that takes into account Matthew's wider narrative. My reading of Jesus is consistent with how Jesus lives and teaches throughout Matthew's Gospel and I point that out in my 15 minute sermon. Ideologically, one could fairly label my reading theologically as "Anabaptist" or "liberation." Ultimately, it was a message given to a small United Methodist Presbyterian Church on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies with the expectation that the Spirit of God would shape the community more and more into the image of Jesus.

    We can debate over historical and economic details (which have scholarly arguments coming from both sides), but, in the end, how does the interpretation of the text shape the listening congregation? Does my interpretation motivate disciples away from the way of Jesus in any way? That's the question I more interested in: faithfulness to the vision of God's Heavenly Reign. In the end, what matters is what the kingdom of heaven looks like and whether or not we are enacting it in the very tangible concepts of our lives. I hope and pray that the sermon motivated folks to do just that.

    My economic reference to supply and demand and the "effect" on wages was simply referring to the practice of hiring day laborers. If the landowner hired them for longer periods of time to work the land, then it would naturally take those workers off the market and reduce the supply of workers driving wages up.