South of the Hugh River, NT 2016

Labourers in the Vineyard


Week of Sunday September 21
Matthew 20:1-16

As always we need to read the context and not take the Labourers in the Vineyard on their own. The context is the story of the rich young ruler who went away sad, for Jesus asked too much of him. About him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.' When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded.... Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?' Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first...." Matthew 19.

Clearly Matthew understood that there would be "a renewal of all things," which obviously is a time of judgement and reward. Those who have been faithful to Jesus will receive a hundred fold what they have left behind, but "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." Then he tells the story of the landowner and the labourers. It's set in the context of the day labourer who would come to the marketplace early in the day in hope of being hired; a parlous existence at best. The landowner hires people during the day; some of them work perhaps only an hour or two, but are paid the same as those who began at the first hour. Those who began first, reasonably enough, complained at only being paid the same as those who worked only an hour or so.

I learned from my Mum, I think, that this meant we who had been Christian for a long time, perhaps all our lives, had no greater rights to the kingdom of heaven than those who were newly converted. Following Jesus was what mattered, not the length of time spent doing it. Later, I heard the story was also a message to Jewish Christians who thought by virtue of their Jewishness, that they had some priority or status over Gentile believers. Then again, "you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat," is something a clergy person might almost say after a hard parish whilst his parishioners seem to have paid little cost.

In each case we are dragging the example back from the time of "a renewal of all things" into our present church, where we have lesser glimpses of the kingdom of heaven.

More recently it was put to me that certain people had not "done enough" to be elected to church council. It was even suggested, as though this has anything to do with it, that these later immigrants were somehow ineligible for election because current day Australia is providing more material help to newcomers than was provided to those who were migrants forty years ago. ""Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?" said the landowner.

Here's the story in full:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock 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." When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first." When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, 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." But he replied to one of 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?" So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Commentators make some interesting observations. Bill Loader says

The farmer's gruffness in accosting these men for standing around all day doing nothing has its echo in stereotypes of dole bludgers or people unemployed because they are too lazy to seek a job. How could you preach on this without touching people among your hearers who live in similar vulnerability and how would you affect them if you simply ignored the issue?

John Petty says that in this parable "God's ‘goodness' is not revealed as justice, but as mercy."

The really interesting point is made by Partners in Urban Transformation who look at the reaction Jesus intends to draw out of people, which is that in this story, things are not fair.

When I was a theological student, a builder had large pallets of bricks that needed to be taken from the street to the back of a house which was to be extended. There was no rear access except on foot. Not even a wheel barrow could be taken through. The yard backed onto a steep hill; there was no neighbour who might provide access from another street. The builder said to me he would pay me by the hour, and that I should be pretty much done in two days.

Being a fit kind of goat, and a distance runner, and dare I say, egocentric, I decided to see if I could do it in one. I taped my gloves as I wore through the fingers, carried four bricks under one arm and three on the other, and jogged back up the slope after each load, hurdling the two low terraces that were the main cause of all the trouble. The lady of the house provided cordial and sweet biscuits, and I did it in a day.

The builder was well pleased and surprised! His son-in-law, my student colleague, told me later that he had said he expected he would probably have to pay for three day's work. He only paid me for one day, which I resented, and still remember!

Partners in Urban Transformation say the parable is told " to expose to Jesus' listeners how much all of us operate out of an unconscious perception of life as being about fairness." If our unconscious expectations about fairness are not brought to the surface we "will never understand, much less embrace the economics of the kingdom of God for (our)selves." Our notion that "'life should be fair' will keep on getting in the way. That belief must be purged if one is to embrace kingdom economics."

This, they say brings us to the next level of understanding of the parable, where "Jesus teaches that the new order of the shalom community will not be based upon fairness but upon justice-centered grace."

I reckon this gets to the nub of it. I am not extending the house, or working in the vineyard, (both kingdom of God images) to earn a living, or to get ahead. I am given, graced with, the opportunity to be in partnership with God. And that partnership is about working to bring all people to being everything they were meant to be. It's not about fair. And it is certainly not about self actualisation; being everything we were meant to be is a target that only has theological validity when it applies to everyone, not just the fortunate or the rich. It can only be an actuality when there is justice.

"I have come that you may have life, and have it in all its fullness," John 10.10 is a cry for justice. It cries out that once I have what I need- once I have found grace- I need to accrue nothing more. I am simply to give what I have found to others.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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