Painting of the parable, by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid 17th century.
Painting of the parable by Rembrandt, showing the workers being paid that evening (1637)
Jesus’ “Parable of the Generous Landowner and the Laborers in the Vineyard” could be profitably retold today as “The Parable of the Job Creator and the Day Laborers.” This story is one of those frequent passages of scripture that many would likely decry as “Socialism!” if these passage were not from the Bible.
This parable from Matthew 20:1-15 begins with the line, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” But before we plunge too deeply into this story, it is often fruitful to explore the ways that the Christian Scriptures echo and recapitulate stories and themes from the Hebrew Scriptures. And some scholars invite us to consider that this parable was inspired by Jesus’ familiarity with a passage from 1 Samuel.
As David rose to power and eventual kingship over the United Monarchy of Israel, he fought many battles. And we read in 1 Samuel 30:10 that, “David went on with the pursuit, he and four hundred men; two hundred stayed behind, too exhausted to cross the Wadi Besor.” Wadi is an Arabic term for a “valley,” and some of David’s soldiers didn’t have the stamina to continue through one more valley into yet another battle. The remarkable parallel with our focal parable comes ten verses later when David and the four hundred men returned from victory over the Amalekites and united with the two hundred of their brethren who had stayed behind to rest and guard the supplies.
We read in verse 21 that, “When David drew near to the people he saluted them.” But, in contrast to David’s generous greeting, the victorious foot soldiers, “who had gone with David said, ‘Because they did not go with us, we will not give them any of the spoil that we have recovered….’” David, shocked at their selfishness, reiterates his original position: “You shall not do so, my brothers, with what God has given us; God has preserved us and handed over to us the raiding party that attacked us. Who would listen to you in this matter?” Here David makes the vital point that ultimately everything is God’s, not ours. Moreover, the victorious soldiers — in the wake of a victory which, in David’s opinion, God helped them win — refused to show the same generosity to their brothers that God had showed to them. Then in verse 24, we see what may be a precursor to Jesus’ parable. David says, “For the share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.” Verse 25 goes on to say that, “From that day forward he made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel; it continues to the present day.”
If Jesus grew up hearing stories from the Hebrew Scriptures of major figures such as King David telling his troops that, “The share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike,” it makes sense that such sentiments could bloom into parabolic lessons such as our focal passage for this morning. When those day labors hired at 5:00 p.m. received a full day’s wage for only working one hour, those who were hired at dawn (and who had worked a long, hard, 12-hour day) somewhat understandably expected that they would get much more than simply’s a day’s ‘minimum wage.’ The equivalent pay would have been for those hired first to receive four times more those hired last because they had worked four times as many hours that day.
But recall from verse 2 that these early laborers are receiving precisely what they signed-on for at dawn: “After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” When they received the amount for which they had been hired, we read in verse 11 that, “they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’”
Hearing their protest, the landowner corrects them: “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?’” As with the standard King David set centuries before, “The share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.”
I mentioned earlier that this story from Jesus is variously known by such titles as “The Parable of the Landowner” and “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.” And, from one perspective, I do think that Jesus’ parable invites us to praise the “Generous Landowner.” One of the most interesting angles of this parable that I have ever heard is one that may not naturally occur to myself or others who have not worked as day laborers. But someone who had worked as a day laborer once pointed out to me that those who are picked first are usually the youngest workers in their late teens and early twenties. For these workers in their prime, the landowner paid “the usual daily wage.” It’s basic economics: supply and demand. To enlist those workers in greatest demand, you have to pay the standard rate.
But, Jesus tells us, “When the landowner went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace.” Perhaps the landowner did not go out intending to hire more workers. He likely had hired all the workers he needed for the day three hours earlier at dawn. But upon seeing these workers still standing around three hours later hoping to be hired, he said, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” Notice that he doesn’t agree with these less desirable laborers for the usual daily wage as he had with his first round draft picks. Nor do the laborers haggle with him over a rate. They are eager to be paid “whatever the landowner deems right” when the alternative is spending the rest of the day waiting in vain and returning home to their families with no paycheck at all.
When the landowner “went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.” Most shockingly, one hour before the end of the 12-hour workday, “he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’” So perhaps we should call this story “The Parable that All People Who Want to Work Should Be Given a Job and Paid a Fair Wage.” Such a parable would have deep resonance today given our country’s high unemployment rate and surging Occupy Wall Street protests.
From a perspective of ‘full employment,’ I think that Jesus’ parable invites us not only to praise the “Generous Landowner,” but also to reflect on the plight of the day laborers. Yes, from a certain point of view, the “Generous Landowner” is what is known these days in political-speak as a “Job Creator.” He generously created jobs that would not otherwise have existed that day for a host of workers. But let’s take a step back and consider the implications of the “usual daily wage” they all were paid.
Scholars familiar with the first-century Greco-Roman world report that the usual daily wage would have been “The denarius, a Roman silver coin, that had approximately the same value as the Greek drachma…. Rabbinic sources show that the denarius was a common wage for one day’s manual labour: it is neither generous nor miserly.” This insight undercuts an initial evaluation of this episode as primarily a vehicle to praise landowners who are generous. Scholars tell us that, “The pay rate of a denarius a day is not generous. In fact it is about normal for cheap labor (as much as we can tell)…. It pays perhaps enough for a subsistence existence, if the day laborer could not find regular daily work.” Moreover, if you check a King James Bible, you’ll see the KJV baldly tries to communicate how little the “usual daily wage” was in its decision to translate this phrase as, “he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day.” That’s a low minimum wage that is not a sustainable ‘Living Wage.’
If first-century folk living on a penny a day seems extreme, we must recall that in 2008, the World Bank estimated that 1.4 billion people in the twenty-first century live on less than $1.25 a day. Ethicist Peter Singer emphasizes that this statistic has been adjusted
to the amount of goods and services that can be bought in the United States for $1.25…. The 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty are poor by an absolute standard tied to the most basic human need. They are likely to be hungry for at least part of each year. Even if they can get enough food to fill their stomachs, they will probably be malnourished because their diet lacks essential nutrients. In children, malnutrition stunts growth and can cause permanent brain damage. The poor may not be able to afford to send their children to school…. This kind of poverty kills.
And the day laborers in Jesus’ parable were on the edge of that sort of extreme poverty. Whether they were hired each day made all the difference.
Remembering that Jesus himself was an itinerant Jewish peasant, perhaps Jesus often told this parable to day laborers that he met on his travels around Galilee. Perhaps Jesus told this parable precisely to those day laborers who were standing around at 9:00, Noon, 3:00, or 5:00 still hoping to be hired and had the time to listen. Such an audience would have had ‘ears to hear’ a story with the opening line, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” And such an audience of looked-over, would-be day laborers would have been captivated by the idea that the “kingdom of God” is like a generous, egalitarian landowner.
However, these laborers would have also had ‘eyes to see’ between the lines of this parable’s implicit critique of the low minimum wage. Both then and now, we need more generous landowners. Both then and now, we also need to find a way of living together that doesn’t leave some of our fellow humans in a treacherous, inhumane daily struggle to stay out of poverty, much less 1.4 billion of our fellow humans in extreme poverty.
As a contemporary example of this tension between landowners called to generosity and day laborers hoping to work, Elizabeth Warren, who helped advocate for the formation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the recent financial crisis, has spoken a powerful remember that,
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Jesus’ term for this social contract — for this emphasis on the commonweal, the commonwealth, the common good, the public welfare — is the kingdom of God.
And the kingdom of God is like a generous landowner and laborers who want to work. To those of us who are sometimes angered or envious of freeloaders or those who seem to work less and benefit the same as those who work harder, King David set the standard long before Jesus that, “The share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.” And given how much all of us have been blessed by God, Jesus invites us to ask ourselves, “Are you envious because God and others are generous?” The rhetorical point of Jesus’ question is an invitation to practice generosity — an invitation that Jesus issues repeatedly: to expand our love our self to include the love of God and the love of all our neighbors without exception.
For Further Reading
- John Cobb, et al, The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God: A Political, Economic, Religious Statement.
- Bernie Sanders, “Six Demands to Make of Wall Street,” Common Dreams: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/10/12-6.
- Nicholas Kristof, “America’s ‘Primal Scream,’” The New York Times. An excerpt:
It’s fascinating that many Americans intuitively understood the outrage and frustration that drove Egyptians to protest at Tahrir Square, but don’t comprehend similar resentments that drive disgruntled fellow citizens to “occupy Wall Street….” According to the C.I.A.’s own ranking of countries by income inequality, the United States is more unequal a society than either Tunisia or Egypt. Three factoids underscore that inequality:
- The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.
- The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
- In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.
More broadly, there’s a growing sense that lopsided outcomes are a result of tycoons’ manipulating the system…. Living under Communism in China made me a fervent enthusiast of capitalism. I believe that over the last couple of centuries banks have enormously raised living standards in the West by allocating capital to more efficient uses. But anyone who believes in markets should be outraged that banks rig the system so that they enjoy profits in good years and bailouts in bad years.The banks have gotten away with privatizing profits and socializing risks, and that’s just another form of bank robbery…. Some critics think that Occupy Wall Street is simply tapping into the public’s resentment and covetousness, nurturing class warfare. Sure, there’s a dollop of envy. But inequality is also a cancer on our national well-being.
The full article is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-americas-primal-scream.html.
1 Jesus’ familiarity with a passage from 1 Samuel — see W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 330.
2 In David’s theology (as presented nationalistically and jingoistically by the biblical editor known as the ‘Deuteronomic Historian’), God ensured their victory and their enemy’s defeat, but Bob Dylan’s theology is stronger on this point: “If God’s on our side, [God] will stop the next war.” See: http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/with-god-on-our-side.
3 Four times — Although our focal parable occurs only in Matthew and the Zacchaeus story only occurs in Luke, there is nevertheless a potentially important intertextual connection between the Matthean dynamic that “The equivalent pay would have been for those hired first to receive four times more those hired last because they had worked four times as many hours that day” and the climax of the Lukan pericope in which Zacchaeus proclaims, “And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8).
4 Grumbling — see the textual echos in Exodus 17:3, “”; Numbers 11:1; and Numbers 14:27, 29, “”.
5 Unemployment Rate — see The New York Times’ article archive on “Unemployment” at: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/u/unemployment/index.html. Carter also notes regarding day laborer ‘supply and demand’: “That there were unhired laborers available at this time suggests oversupply and unemployment (Josephus notes eighteen thousand out of work at the completion of temple [Ant 20.219-220] (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading [Bible & Liberation], 296).
6 “The denarius” — Davies and Allison, 309, 330.
7 “Pay rate” — Carter, 296.
8 For more on the need for a “Living Wage,” not merely a minimum wage, see http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/livingwage/.
9 Poverty Statistics — see Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, 6-8.
NOTE: If you appreciate this post, see my previous blog, “Jesus, #OccupyWallSt, and the Rich Young Ruler” at http://www.patheos.com/community/carlgregg/2011/10/12/jesus-occupywallst-and-the-rich-young-ruler/.