Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus certainly has an interesting definition of “fair wage.”

September 21, 2008

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Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus certainly has an interesting definition of “fair wage.”

Imagine the corporate executive’s reaction to this parable: If reimbursement is not commensurate with hours worked, then how will I motivate my employees? And if I can’t motivate my employees, how will I sell my product, serve my clients, and turn my profit? Or imagine the committed worker who puts in the long hours. Well, we do not really need to imagine this since Jesus describes him for us: “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.” It’s just not fair. If that’s how it’s going to be, why shouldn’t we just dally all day long and punch in at four o’clock? Thus, Jesus undermines the great Protestant work ethic.

I liken the scandal here to what the older son experiences in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is simply not fair for the father to lavish all his attention upon the younger son and treat him as the honored guest after he has brought immeasurable shame upon the family. If parents everywhere acted like this father, the world would quickly spin into chaos. So it is also with the landowner. With people like him running our businesses, nothing would get done. Both the father and the landowner appear to “enable” inappropriate behavior. They are strange models of parenting and of vineyard management. But in what way, exactly, are they “models?”

We must resist the temptation to extract universal principles of behavior from Jesus’ parables, forgetting the specific concern to which they are directed in the narrative. In this case, the attentive audience will have noticed that Jesus is never asked a question like, “How should I run my vineyard?” or “What kind of wage should I expect as a vineyard worker?” In fact, Jesus is never asked a question at all. He has been teaching about the kingdom of heaven for quite some time. And in describing the kingdom to his disciples, he must use human categories and analogies. It’s “like” this; and it’s “like” that. No single parable–not even all the parables–can fully capture the kingdom of heaven for us, but we can learn something about it if we listen carefully.

Since the parable speaks to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, we must resist pushing the analogy too far. We mustn’t force it to fit into what we already know, or assume to know, about “the way the world works.” In fact, if the parable is about Jesus’ kingdom, then it is really not at all about “reimbursement” or “fair wages”–the principles we normally associate with hired labor. It is rather about a gracious and undeserving gift. It is about what Jesus brings to the world and how he transforms it. After all, who is Jesus, and what is his ministry, if not a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation, of the world?

Notice, for instance, that even the workers hired early in the morning, the ones who later complain about the owner’s fairness, roll out of bed un-employed. But the owner finds them and gives them work. I imagine they were, no less than the nine o’clock hires, “standing idle in the marketplace.” Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working. There was no real livelihood prior to the owner seeking them out. But by the end of the day they seem to have forgotten this. Or maybe they never really understood. What is clear is that, come payment time, they are thinking only in terms of just reward. Pay must be commensurate with the hours worked−as if the work itself was not the real “reward.”

Our modern capitalist impulses will lead us to think that the laborers are providing a mutual service to the landowner. And it may be that Matthew’s first hearers were tempted, at least initially, to think the same. In our cynical moments (which we mistakenly term “realist”), we are prone to reduce human interactions to self-interest: if this is real economic exchange, then there’s something in it for the landowner as well. But Jesus’ parable is not about a landowner looking for help from others as much as it’s about a landowner who helps others. More to the point: it’s about a landowner who sweeps up idle (and therefore lost) people and gives them a purpose. Indeed, given that this is a parable about Jesus’ kingdom, what we’re talking about here is the purpose we’ve been looking for, or avoiding, all along: God’s purpose for us.

So there’s absolutely no room for questioning the landowner’s rationale for payment: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” It reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). How easy it is to forget over the course of the day that every good thing comes to us as a gracious gift from God, and God is not required or compelled to create us, much less pull us out of our estranged idleness. While it is true, then, that the parable isn’t intended specifically to model economic relations, your average corporate executive and hard-working employee still have every reason to be offended. Jesus’ kingdom will offend all of us who assume that the future, if it is to be good, must be earned and deserved.

Within the narrative, Jesus seems to be defending his inclusion of those traditionally deemed unworthy of the kingdom (e.g., tax collectors and sinners). Outside the narrative, Matthew may also be defending the recent influx of Gentile converts into a predominantly Jewish Christianity. In both cases, the point is that fewer hours clocked serving the Lord does not lessen one’s status as a laborer, either now or in eternity. These historical explanations are probably worth mentioning to a congregation, but one need not dwell on them. The logic of the workers’ complaint will be sure to surface anywhere God’s grace disrupts our sense of just recompense (e.g., new church members taking leadership positions too quickly, someone sulking over lack of sufficient recognition, failure to accept a repentant sinner, etc). Faced with God’s boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others, we reveal whether we view our own labor as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfillment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.