Jesus’ parables are subversive, because they reveal things about the realm of God. They’re stories we can read in different ways. Sometimes parables clarify things, but they can also confuse things enough that they start important conversations about what it means to live in the realm of God. The realm of God doesn’t operate like other realms, which is why Jesus told Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
Ever since Peter made the Good Confession and received his commission (Matt. 16:13-20), Jesus had been revealing things about the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the Church. This parable is another contribution to that conversation. There is an important phrase that surrounds the parable: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The first instance of the phrase brings to a close Jesus’ conversation with the one we often call the “Rich Young Ruler” about what is required to enter the realm of God. That conversation centered around the hold our treasure has on our hearts and minds. In many ways, this parable is a continuation of that conversation. (Matt. 19:16-30)
In the parable of the Vineyard, a landowner goes out early in the morning to hire workers to tend the vineyard. The landowner hires the necessary number of workers, and agrees to pay them the normal day’s wage. The owner has workers, and the workers have a job, at least for one day. Everyone is happy, except that this isn’t the end of the story. The day has only just begun.
As I read the parable, I thought about the day labor pools that gather in certain locations in Santa Barbara. When you gather at a place like that, you never know what the day will bring. You might work on a construction site one day, and mow lawns the next. It’s quite possible that on some days, you won’t find any work. You may stand there all day, in the sun, hoping someone will come along and give you a job so you can pay rent and provide groceries for the family. Most of the day laborers in Santa Barbara are Latinos, and at least some of them are undocumented. Prospective employers stop by, tell the group what they’re looking for, and how many they need to hire. When they reach the allotted number, the workers get into the vehicles and head off for work. There is a promise payment at the end of the day, but of course, since most of these workers are paid in cash, there’s no certainty of payment. Besides, there are no benefits and no protections, especially if you’re undocumented. That means the employer has all the power. What I observed in Santa Barbara occurs all across the country, including here.
While it isn’t quite the same, I do have one day’s experience as a day laborer. When I returned home from my first year of college, my mother told me that the local ice house was hiring. Neither of us knew what that meant, but I decided to go down and check things out. When I arrived, I was told to sign in and then join the room full people hoping to get called up, so they could spend the day unloading trains filled with cartons of frozen food. When my name came up, I was told to go down into the freezer, which is where I spent the rest of the day stacking boxes of frozen broccoli that had come off the train. It was hard work and it was very cold in that freezer. At the end of the day, I picked up my wages, and started looking for a steadier job the next morning. Fortunately I landed a job at the local college working as part of the summer cleaning crew. So, while my brief experience as a day laborer, wasn’t anything close to what I observed in Santa Barbara, it did give me an inkling as to what it means to be a day laborer.
This parable is a story about day laborers. We have an employer who seems generous at first read. We also have a pool of workers seeking a chance to earn a day’s wage. Is this a parable about generosity or is it a parable about fairness? How you interpret the parable may depend on which of these two ideals you use as a lens to read the parable.
I would suggest that the issue here is not the work, but the payment. Did you notice that only the people hired at the beginning of the day had an agreed-upon wage? Everyone else was hired without any agreed-upon wage. They probably thought they would get a prorated wage. If you work eight hours for ten dollars an hour, you’ll get eighty dollars. If you only work two hours, you should expect to receive twenty dollars. That seems fair. After all, you “reap what you sow.” But that’s not the way it works in this parable.
When the owner returns at the end of the day to pay the workers, the owner starts with the most recent hires. The group hired at the end of the day, people that may have worked a couple of hours at most, received the full day’s wage. The same thing happened with each group of workers. They seem thrilled, because none of them expected to receive the full day’s wage. Now they had enough money to provide food and housing for their families for at least one more day. Since they didn’t expect to receive the full wage, none of them will complain.
There is one group of workers, however, who began to expect a bonus. Since they had worked all day in the vineyard, wouldn’t it be fair for them to receive more than the person who worked for just a few hours. After all, agricultural work is difficult, backbreaking work. The vineyard can be hot and even dangerous. But, when the owner gave them their pay, they discovered that they had received the same wage. The owner may claim to be generous, but they felt used. They were upset. Jesus concludes the parable with the words: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
How should we read this parable today? Traditionally, it has been read as a story about divine grace. It serves to answer the theological question: What must I do to receive eternal life? Read that way, the parable suggests that everything is up to God. Your status in heaven doesn’t depend on whether you’ve been a good Christian all your life, or you said yes to Jesus on your death bed. In heaven, we all get the same reward.
When it comes to the question of getting into heaven, I vividly remember the conversations we had in the theology class I taught at the college. We were discussing universal salvation, and some of my students didn’t think it was fair for them to live a Christian life, if everyone got a free pass into heaven. In other words, why bother living a Christian life, when you could be out having fun with your non-Christian friends? So, is the Christian life that burdensome, that you would complain if someone got in on God’s grace without first living a “good Christian life?”
That’s one way of reading the parable. It simply speaks to the next life. But, what if we read the parable through the eyes of the poor? What if the realm of God has this world implications? When we read the parable in the light of social and economic contexts, what is fair and just?
With that question in mind, Catherine and Justo Gonzalez write that “justice looks different to those who are employed than to those who seek work and do not find it” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 402]. So, if we think of the realm of God having this world implications, what are fair wages? Which side in this conversation should we take? Should we stand with the workers hired at the beginning of the day? Or should we commend the owner for making sure that everyone had enough money to pay their bills? According to Catherine and Justo Gonzalez, “the end of the parable shows an employer who holds each worker as deserving of a wage that supports life. Even time spent waiting for work was in itself work” [Preaching, p. 402]. So, what is just and what is right?
If the realm of God exists on earth as it does in heaven, then what does this parable have to say to us about how we live in this world? How does it affect the way we vote, shop, use electricity, or drive our cars? What are the implications for employment and immigration status? What might this parable say about income inequality? What if this is about more than who gets into heaven?
At the end of the parable, Jesus declares: “So the last shall be first, and the first will be last.” At the end of the day the parable seems to speak of God’s realm in terms of radical equality. In the realm of God, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and honor, because everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Yes, the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 24, 2017