It's not what you think, Peter

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, [a denarius] he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.6And 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?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When 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.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. [a denarius] 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received… a denarius. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” [Greek: is your eye evil because I am good?16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ 

One of my childhood ministers told us this reading was about Christians who were cross that people who were converted on their death bed, or something like that, received all the same benefits as those who had been disciples for decades. "So it's a parable talking to us who 'have always been in the church.' It's a warning to us," he said.

Since this would be the first time a warning from Jesus didn't apply to me, I'm suspicious about the interpretation! That interpretation also ignores the fact that the parable is clearly a follow-up to the story of the rich young man. (Matthew 19: 16-30) Matthew tells that story and then has Jesus say, "For the kingdom is like…"  And the parable ends with the same words as the story of the rich young man: "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

Jesus said the young man looking for eternal life,

…  ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

So Peter, who knows that riches are a sign of blessing, that riches are to be desired—  No! Peter knows that riches are a sign of an unjust man!

Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Hieremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, LXXIV, 61). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. (Malina and Rohrbaugh)

 A rich man is an unjust man or the son of an unjust man. Peter understood  how giving away what we have means treasure in heaven. Perhaps he is even seeking to justify himself! That is, the text was not so much a case of "Look, we have left everything and followed you. We have nothing left. What then will we have in the future? Will you look after us?"  Peter was saying, "See how well we have done! We have given everything. What great rewards do you have for us?"

[Note: I think Peter was saying, "See how well we have done! We have given everything. What great rewards do you have for us?" But, on reflection, I'm not so sure he was free of the view that riches are a reward for righteousness, or the diciples would not have asked,astounded , "Then who can be saved?" (Matthew 19:25)

And Jesus says

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. 29And 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. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

In other words, "You will indeed be rewarded, but things are not what you think! But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a man, a landowner, (ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ) who …

Paul Nuechterlein alerts us to the significance of the phrase " a man, a landowner " which is hidden by the NRSV translation of Matthew 20.

This is the second of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:

18:23: anthrōpō basilei— “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35)
20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē— “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16)
21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs— “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
22:2: anthrōpō basilei— “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14)

Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this householder should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This would be most crucial for the fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious (see Proper 23A). I have come to frame Matthew’s Gospel as a encounter between God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” and human kingdoms. 

We can see a certain sensitivity to this in the NRSV, in chapter 18, when it comes to a 'one to one' identification of the kingdom of heaven and the story of a parable. It says there that "the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…"

Are  Ὁμοία (Chapter 20:1) and ὡμοιώθη  (Chapter 18:23) not so much like as in equal, but like as in similar but NOT the same? The kingdom and this story may be compared but are different…. 

A one to one correspondence between kingdom and some of the parables not only leaves us with God appearing to be a heartless tyrant; "And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire [impossible] debt. (Matthew 18:34) It suggests that Jesus who came preaching the love of God was supremely unaware of the unlovely nature of the God in his stories!

What if the problem is somewhere else?

Michael Hardin  said  (September 2014 in the Wayback Machine)

The notion of a “generous” landowner in the First Century is still inextricably entwined with the accrual of land that makes a joke of the jubilary themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is long since time for readers to abandon the easy association of the “owner” with the God who inspired Jubilee.

If, in the cultural context of Jesus, a rich man is an unjust man or the son of an unjust man, why would we identify God with this landowner?

Instead, Hardin says,

This parable is not intended to chastise us or its first hearers for our lack of generosity toward those God forgives in spite of their late coming to the work of spreading the Gospel. This parable leads us to take another look, a much closer look, at our understandings of God.

If we preach a God who gives out of great abundance, rather than from the abyss, we will reinforce a model that can only inspire in us a desire for “more.”

If we preach the faith of Jesus, we will preach a God who is first among being last.

He asks the very simple question, why do the people who began work at six am resent the apparent generosity of the landowner?

Once again, the character in our text who first appears to stand in for God exposes our culturally conditioned notions of the identity of the one Jesus knew as Abba. This “owner” gives out of his great wealth. He gives because he has the “more” that the resentful workers have been led to desire. They resent what he has paid them because he could have paid them more…

In other words, they want to be like the landowner, whereas we are called to follow Jesus; that is, to be like God. For, in the traditional male language, Jesus is God's Son, and to be like the Son is to be like the Father.

The landowner is "NOT the God made visible as described in [Philippians] 2." (Note that in the 2014 text the author seems to have had a slight brain fade and written Ephesians 2, although he is clearly referring to Philippians 2.)

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

Continuing with Hardin:

In the world of Jesus’ Abba, there is only forgiveness. Everything else has been relinquished as the Creator enters into the abyss …  In what world does the worker of the first hour complain about an “owner” who has given up ownership of everything but love, but forgiveness? …

The “owner” who is our God “pays” to each of us the whole of what there is to give. It is not until we make God into another “owner” who behaves as we do that resentment might grow up in us….

This parable is not intended to chastise us or its first hearers for our lack of generosity toward those God forgives in spite of their late coming to the work of spreading the Gospel. This parable leads us to take another look, a much closer look, at our understandings of God.

If we preach a God who gives out of great abundance, rather than from the abyss, we will reinforce a model that can only inspire in us a desire for “more.”

If we preach the faith of Jesus, we will preach a God who is first among being last.

This, I suspect, is why Matthew follows the story of the landowner with these words.

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

This is the God we have. And this is the cost of being "among the twelve." (cf twelve 19:23, 20:17)

We do not refuse to give because of the cost, or the danger; we give even out of the abyss, because this is the God we have.
So we do not give out of our riches, but with more to spare; we give all we have. Otherwise we model ourselves on the rich and the unjust, not upon the God who gives simply out of love.
We do not give in order to receive blessings; we give simply because we can.
We give because we have received treasure already.

In this kind of giving there is eternal life. It's not what you think, Peter. Yes, you have done well. But you have barely started, my brother.

Andrew Prior (2017)
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!

Matt 20:1-16 - Labourers in the Vineyard
Matthew 20:1-16 - Labourers in the Vineyard (2)
Matthew 20:1-16 and Dr. Temperance Brennan


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