“I wonder what happened the next day!” my friend commented after we discussed Matthew’s parable over lunch. He is the owner of a successful business with approximately 140 hourly workers. I asked him two questions: Could you pay your employees as the landowner in the parable paid his workers? What do you think would happen at your business? He said he could pay his employees however he chose, but following the landowner’s example would inevitably cause workplace problems.
As for the next day? We wondered if many potential workers would show up early because they would want to work for a generous landowner or if all the workers would show up one hour before closing time. My friend honestly admitted that even as he tries to care for his laborers, he still has a responsibility to make a profit at the end of the day. The landowner’s business model would not allow him to do that. However, he observed, “This story really isn’t about good business practices and a fair payment structure, is it?”
It’s not. Our sense of fair play is offended here by the landowner’s distribution of his assets, even though the people who worked all day received exactly what they had agreed to. Those workers remind me of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). His complaint against his father (“I have been working like a slave for you … yet you killed the fatted calf for him.”) sounds much like the laborers who worked all day (“We have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat . . . yet you have made them equal to us.”). Of course, the father’s response to the elder brother (“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”) is similar in tone to the landowner’s defense of his actions (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”).
A pastoral care professor in seminary focused on the elder brother in Luke’s parable and told us, “You’re going to preach to a bunch of elder brothers in your Presbyterian congregations. They are the ones who work hard, follow the rules, and make things happen.” He could have said the same thing about the workers in the vineyard who bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
The context of this parable in Matthew 20 is important for its interpretation. In chapter 19, Jesus encounters the rich young man who is reluctant to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. Immediately following Jesus’ encounter with the young man, Peter asks Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27). Peter could just as well have said, “Look, we’ve worked all day for you. How will you reward us?” Jesus’ response to Peter in Matthew 19 ends with the same idea as today’s parable: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30, 20:16). Jesus emphasizes this point through the story of the laborers in the vineyard. Matthew builds upon this theme by inserting the request of James’ and John’s mother that Jesus put her sons in positions of power (Matthew 20:20-28). Once again, Jesus talks about the great being the servant, the first being the slave (vv. 26-28).
As my friend and I finished lunch and our discussion of Matthew’s parable, he said, “I guess the interpretation of the parable depends on the perspective with which you read the story.” Exactly! From the workers’ perspective, especially those who worked all day, the story seems to be about fairness (or unfairness, for that matter) and it offends their (our) sense of fair play.
However, from the landowner’s perspective, the story is all about generosity. After all, every worker in the vineyard benefited from the landowner’s generosity (v. 15). Just as the parable of the prodigal son is now often referred to as the parable of the loving father, it’s appropriate to think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard as the parable of the generous landowner.
Even with this change in perspective, however, the parable retains its challenging meaning. Remember how Jesus began the story? “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”. If the kingdom of heaven is among us and we insist on evaluating God’s kingdom by our terms of human fairness, we will always be grumbling. However, if we are called to be workers in God’s kingdom, shouldn’t we strive to live the kingdom life which is characterized by the generosity of the landowner rather than by the carping and comparing of the workers?
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