In our studies on the parables of Jesus, I’ve been struck by how often the parables talk about money and economics. Perhaps, though, as Jesus’ teachings tended to make people upset, it’s not that surprising: nothing quite gets people as upset as challenging them about money, power, and their self-importance.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) challenges readers both about economics and their self-importance.
The traditional understanding of this parable is that of grace: like the day’s wage that each person is paid at the end of the day, all those who believe are given salvation (irrelevant of how long they have been doing kingdom work). Salvation by grace alone (not by works) is one of the often repeated themes in Paul’s letters, so while there is something wonderful about being reminded about God’s extensive grace, there’s not much surprising in this message. Nor does it fully explain the ending of the parable – the part where the landowner basically tells the ‘early’ workers to get over themselves and highlights the generosity of the landowner in making sure all those who’d worked received enough for their daily needs.
It helps to look at the context. This parable is probably being told to the disciples. The text surrounding the passage doesn’t give the best picture of the disciples: they rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, they ask what they’ll earn because they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus, and then two of them ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom (and the others get upset at their audacity). The parable then rebukes the self-importance and entitlement of the disciples, something that many of us ‘older’ Christians also tend to have. The challenge to the hearers of this parable is thus:
“Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated? . . . Even while we speak of justice, none of us is satisfied with average. We always think we deserve a little more.” Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 378.
As the text surrounding this parable talks a lot about money and our desire to get what we deserve, it is also important to wonder what the strange economics in the parable might have to say to us today. Amy-Jill Levine does a great job of pointing out how the justice portrayed in this parable is a justice that is not related only to saving grace but also to every day life:
“The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’ . . an economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough. . . . If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.” Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213, 218