February 2, 2020

How to Live in Community

Passage: Matthew 20: 1-16

Bible Text: Matthew 20: 1-16 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman | Series: Sayings and Stories of Jesus | Synopsis: Jesus’ parable with the familiar title of “The Laborers in the Vineyard” is better titled “The Protesting Day Laborers.” It raises provocative questions about how to live in community and what ultimately matters. The vineyard owner’s strange actions raise provocative questions about respect, justice, equality, generosity, mutual care, and how to create healthy, flourishing communities.

This continues my series on the sayings and stories of Jesus. As biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine says, “Jesus told parables because they serve . . . as keys that can unlock the mysteries we face by helping us ask the right questions: how to live in community; how to determine what ultimately matters; how to live the life that God wants us to live.”[1]


Unfortunately, however, we have heard these parables so often and we think we know their meaning. This keeps us from asking the right questions. They, therefore, lose their provocative edge, which challenges our hearts and imaginations. This is especially true of this parable given the title “The Laborers in the Vineyard.” That’s why I changed it the more provocative title “The Protesting Day Laborers.”


We have generally treated the parable as an allegory where the different characters represent someone else. We assume that the owner of the vineyard who is hiring workers represents God. This isn’t necessarily wrong but it can keep us from probing more deeply. Who is this vineyard owner and what might his motives be?


We also think the workers hired first represent the Pharisees and those hired last represent tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is slamming it at the Pharisees! Laboring through the heat of the day is thought to represent being under the law versus under grace. When the Jewish law is equated with working through the heat of the day, we can be certain that we’re no longer listening to a Jewish Jesus talking to fellow Jews.


This becomes even more problematic when we have Jews in general taking the place of the Pharisees, and Gentile Christians taking the place of tax collectors and sinners. That easily becomes antisemitic and can lead to atrocities like the holocaust. We must always question such allegorical interpretations.


Furthermore, we will want to consider what happens if we change the theological focus. As Amy Jill Levine says, “The parable could be about salvation, but Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than about how we get into heaven. Might we rather see the parable as about real workers in a real marketplace and real landowners who hire those workers?”[2]


Who was this landowner who repeatedly returned to the market to hire more laborers? The Greek word is oikodespotes. The first part of the word, oikos means “house” It’s the origin of our word “ecumenical” which has the connotation of being in the same house. It’s also the origin of our word “economy.” Ancient households were economic entities. The term despotes means “master” and is the origin of our word “despot.”


Biblical scholars debate how powerful this housemaster was. Was he the owner of a huge estate, including many vineyards. Such landlords were common in first century Palestine. In Jesus’ parable of the “wicked tenants” in Matthew 21, the oikodespotes or “housemaster” planted a vineyard and moved to a far country—indicating an absentee landlord of considerable wealth.


On the other hand, a man who goes to the marketplace himself, throughout the day to hire workers, indicates someone of more modest means. An extremely wealthy person would most likely have sent one of his managers to do that chore. Furthermore, what’s up with the fact that he keeps returning to the marketplace throughout the day to hire more workers.


Was he a poor manager who didn’t know how many workers he needed? Had he hired all the workers available early in the morning, and then returned hoping to find more? Was this a scheme to take advantage of vulnerable day workers? Or was he being generous, taking pity on those who had not found other work? We’re not sure.


And who were those day workers? Someone hiring themselves out one day at a time was most likely very vulnerable. Or could they have been nearby local farmers who wanted to make some extra money during the grape harvest? My wife Ruth’s father was a potato farmer who hired local teenagers to help gather his potatoes when he harvested them. They welcomed the opportunity and the extra cash.


On the other hand, when I help my daughter Sara with house repair projects at her home in Oakland, California, I notice all the men lined up looking for work outside the local Home Depot. There’s a huge squatter community nearby. Such workers would be very vulnerable and easily taken advantage of. There’s no indication, in Jesus’ story, that the workers in the marketplace were especially vulnerable because of their ethnicity or their immigration status. Many poor Palestinian villagers, however, had lost their family farms though high taxes and debt. We can assume that such people would have been reduced to being day workers who lived hand-to-mouth.


The vineyard owner agrees to pay the earliest hired workers the going wage of one denarius. This was apparently a just wage. He doesn’t make the same agreement with the workers he hired later, instead telling them he’ll pay whatever’s fair. He asks the very last group why they’re still standing at the market place all day without work, and they answer, “Because not one has hired us.” He responds, “You go, even you, into the vineyard.” This is highly unusual.


Things get even more unusual at the end of the day, when the vineyard owner tells his manager to pay the workers beginning with those hired last. When he pays them the going day rate of one denarius, the workers hired earlier expect to be paid more. When that doesn’t happen, and everyone is paid the same wage, they’re understandably upset.


We’re not quite sure why the owner set up this strange procedure or exactly what happened next. What’s clear is that one of the workers organized a group to go to the owner to protest. The owner responds, “Friend, did I harm you? Didn’t I agree with you to work for one denarius?” Take what I gave you and go. Are you begrudging my generosity?”


This needs to be unpacked. Addressing the worker as “friend” may actually show his dismay, if not his anger. It’s the same greeting that Jesus gave to Judas in Gethsemane, “Friend, do what you are here to do” (26: 50). Likewise, accusing the worker and his friends of being jealous would be literally translated, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”


Some biblical scholars have asked if the owner may be manipulating and shaming the workers who worked through the heat of the day. Is this a form of union busting where he’s setting the workers against each other to keep wages low? What do you think? Probably not, because there’s no indication that he was seeking to depress wages. But it’s something to consider.


Matthew frames the parable in the context of the rich young ruler walking away sad because he’s not willing to give up his wealth to follow Jesus. The disciples are dumbfounded when Jesus responds by saying that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.  Peter then says that he and the other disciples have left everything and asks what their reward will be. Jesus responds by saying they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. But this spectacular reward is pulled out from under their feet when he adds, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The very notion of reward is replaced by grace.


So perhaps the parable’s a direct challenge to Peter who thinks he has worked through the heat of the day and expects a spectacular reward. At first, Jesus plays along but then turns everything on its head. He’s more concerned about equality and meeting the needs of everyone. The laborers who were hired first should have been happy because the generosity of the owner has provided a living wage for all.


Again, at the end of the parable the saying is repeated, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” The kingdom of God is not about who’s most important or who receives the greatest salary. Such ambitions easily destroy community. I saw our concern for meeting needs during our congregational meeting last week when we decided to take a financial risk to pay our next pastor a salary enabling her or him to live comfortably here in Fairfax.


I was especially touched when you decided to make that retroactive and give me a higher salary even though I’m retiring. Perhaps I’m the last who has become first. I honestly didn’t need a higher salary but it makes me feel valued. Thanks! Let’s consider how this works in our families, in our businesses, and in our church. By being generous and caring for each other, we create healthy, flourishing communities.


Biblical scholar John Donahue comments, “Mercy and goodness challenge us . . . to move beyond justice, even though they do not exist at the expense of justice. God’s ways are not human ways.”[3] Categories of worth and value, based on wealth and importance, which we erect to separate ourselves from others are reversed in God’s eyes. They’re replaced by respect and mutual care. That’s a grace filled, God centered way of living in community.


[1] Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 297.

[2] Ibid., 215.

[3] John Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (New York: Fortress Press, 1988), 85.

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