The parable of the workers in the vineyard as politics and economics
In an earlier post I wrote about the parables of Jesus in general, and about the parable of the workers in the vineyard in particular (Matthew 20: 1-16). In this post I go into more detail about how the parable works, and what it might mean. Recall the parable.
Some workers come to work early in the morning, others are chosen around noon, the rest late in the day, working only an hour or two. Yet all are paid the same wage at the end of the day, a denarius, hardly a generous wage, barely enough to live on.
Most readers have assumed that the vineyard owner is God, and that the message is that whenever people come to believe in the kingdom of God, all will receive the same reward, all will be saved. Some equate the workers hired early in the morning with the Jews, those late in the day the gentiles, but all will be equal in the kingdom of God (Herzog, p 101).
Still, there seems something fundamentally unfair about the arrangement. As one of the workers hired early puts it to the vineyard owner, “‘these who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’” (20:12) However, once the vineyard owner is equated with God, the unfairness disappears. In the face of eternity, what difference do a few hours make?
What if this equation vineyard owner = God is misleading? What if the vineyard owner is just a vineyard owner, and in the parable, Jesus teaching the peasants about their own economic and political situation? For almost all seem to accept the situation as fair, or at least acceptable, while the one who speaks out is fired (20:13-14). It’s hard to know what Jesus had in mind because by the time we hear about it from Matthew, almost fifty years have passed since the death of Jesus, and the parable has already taken on a theological meaning. Matthew is clearly making a statement about God. The owner of the vineyard is called ho kurios tou ampelōnos, the lord of the vineyard (v 8). Kurios is a term frequently used in the New Testament for God, as when Matthew says “an angel of the Lord (Κυρίου) appeared.” (2:19)
Life in an agrarian economy
From about 3000 BCE until the industrial revolution, almost everybody lived in an agrarian economy and society. In many parts of the world they still do. William Herzog, upon whom I rely heavily, points out that these economies are two-tiered (pp 78-79). One to two percent of the population make up the ruling class, while peasants make up 70-80% of the population. The rest of the population is made up of scribes and merchants on the one hand, “expendables” on the other, men who had no claim on the land, and were reduced to hanging around the marketplace, hoping for work during the harvest season. As the parable tells us, they were hired by the day. As for the distribution of wealth in agrarian societies, the top 2 percent of the population, in this case almost all Roman, controlled between 50 and 67 percent of the annual wealth of their societies (Herzog, p 82).
Brief intermission: yesterday and today
Unlike then, the middle-class in America is large, and generally financially secure, particularly as compared to agrarian societies. On the other hand, today “the top one percent alone holds more wealth than the middle class.”* We have come a long way from an agrarian economy and society. On the other hand, the concentration of wealth at the very top of the economy has changed little.
The day laborers would be the expendables, having no land of their own, and often not working at all. This is suggested by the fact that there were laborers still waiting for work late in the day. If a denarius was a bare living wage, it was even less than that if the laborer did not work daily. But the workers did not bargain with the vineyard owner, or even ask how much they would be paid. Anything was better than nothing. Are the men often seen today standing on certain street corners, waiting for someone to drive by in a pickup or van offering them a job for the day, so terribly different?
Recall that Jesus and his audience were all Jews. Many would have been familiar with the spirit of the debt code, though few would have read Deuteronomy 15. The debt code says that the abundance of the land was to be shared by all, for it was created by God. The more one got, the more one had to give. Violating the both the spirit and letter of the debt code, the vineyard owner asks “don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (20:15) The answer is simple. No, you don’t have a right to do what you want with your own money because it was earned by the work of destitute laborers who also have a Biblical claim on the land and its produce.
Is Jesus a union organizer?
No, Jesus is not trying to persuade his audience to do anything. He is trying to get them to talk about their situation. He is a teacher, not just a preacher. He’s not just talking about God. He’s helping the peasants think and talk about their situation, what Paulo Freire called the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” For most are apparently demoralized, willing to accept any payment for their labor, which has the effect of devaluing their labor. If all the destitute peasant has to sell is his labor, then why should he not be paid according to its worth? And how else to measure its value except by the time spent working?
Not all who heard Jesus, probably not even most, were vineyard day laborers, but all would have been familiar with the economic and political situation of the oppressed peasant class. They might, however, have accepted it as part of the natural order of things. Jesus would break open that seemingly natural order, as he broke open the boundary between heaven and earth, showing how the values of the kingdom of God could be partially realized in this world. This is what connects the theological teaching of the parable with its political and economic teaching. If, however, one begins the parable by assuming the vineyard owner is God from the beginning, as almost all do, then the meaning of the parable is lost.
The parable has more than one meaning. Arguing that it has nothing to do with God would be foolish. But assuming that it only has to do with God, and nothing to do with real peasants and vineyard owners, obscures the richness of the parable, which resides in its double meaning. Jesus came not only to break open our world to the kingdom of God, but to open the minds of those who live and work here to the possibility that the second coming (parousia, παρουσία) lies not just in the future, but now, everywhere where righteousness and justice reign.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 4th edition. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.