August 22, 2011

Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The sun has not yet risen. You make your way to the market. Others have already gathered. Then the bosses arrive. They select the workers they need. After all the landowners have hired the day laborers they need, you and several others are left. You wait through the heat of the day in the hopes that someone will hire you.
This is the scene for a familiar parable that Jesus told his followers – the parable of the vineyard workers (Matt 20: 1-16). It is a parable about the Kingdom of God. That is the way Jesus starts the story: “The Kingdom of God is like….” It’s relevance is not so much as a metaphor about faith and heaven. It is about the Kingdom of God in the direct sense of when we pray: “… your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Recall the story. The owner goes to the market at sunrise to hire workers at the standard wage. Several times during the day, he returns to the market and hires more workers. Even near the end of the day, he returns once more and hires those who have found no work for the day. When evening comes, he has his foreman pay the workers, starting with those who are hired last. Lo and behold, the owner pays each of the workers the same daily wage. To the complaints of injustice made by workers hired first, the owner replies:
“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?”
Paying the wages at the end of the day fulfills the law in Leviticus: “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight (Lev. 19:13).” Deuteronomy elaborates on the reason for the law. “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy…. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it (Deut. 24:14-15).”
Another verse from Deuteronomy (15) also adds insight. “There will… be no one in need among you …if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.”
Deuteronomy 15 includes the well-known line “The poor will always be with you,” which Jesus quotes to Judas Iscariat. While some people use Jesus’ quote as an argument for accepting poverty, the passage in Deuteronomy ends with the injunction: “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”
That command makes a strong case for almsgiving. The parable of the vineyard workers demonstrates one way that “diligently observing this entire commandment” will make it such that there will be no one in need. But it goes beyond charitable almsgiving to demonstrate several dimensions of justice.
By definition the landless workers who line up for work in the vineyard are resource poor. They need the full day’s work to put food on the table. Presumably the agreed-upon daily wage is sufficient to meet the workers’ basic needs. Thus it meets the basic criteria of distributive justice. Paying his workers the full day’s wage and paying it before nightfall, the vineyard owner is fulfilling his part of the bargain, meeting another dimension of justice.
Social justice is also at work. Social justice goes beyond an equitable distribution. It also has to do with the way each of us is called to contribute to the common good, the set of social arrangements which assures that everyone can live life to the full and contribute as they are able to the good of all.
Clearly, the vineyard owner has the means to make sure all of the workers are hired. Why not just hire them all at the beginning of the day? Or, why not just give the workers who did not find work some money?
Some people are not mentioned in the parable: namely, other vineyard owners. If the vineyard owner went to the marketplace to hire workers, it is because there was a market for day labourers where all vineyard owners would go to hire labour. If there were no other employers, the workers could have just presented themselves at the vineyard owner’s gates seeking work.
So, the vineyard owner goes to the market and hires only the workers he needs to do a day’s work. This way, he assures other vineyard owners that they will be able to hire the workers they need as well. The owner then goes to the market repeatedly to make sure that everyone has work for the day.
The parable of the vineyard workers points to the need to constantly strive for fair and full employment. For Christians who earnestly pray that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we need to do like the vineyard owner. We need to see how we can contribute to a just economy that helps assure that no one is needy in our land.
(This article first appeared in The Catalyst.)

1 comment:

  1. I also really like this other perspective on the laborers in the vineyard. it something I had never heard before but made complete sense