Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sweating in the vineyard

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:1-16).

i) This is similar to the parable of the prodigal son in Luke. In a way it's similar to Mary and Martha in Lk 10:38-42. How many readers have a sneaking sympathy for Martha? 

ii) I think commentators generally let us down on passages like this. They adopt blandly pious interpretations. But surely there are Christians who feel sympathetic to Martha's complaint, the complaint of the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, as well as the complaint of the disgruntled workers in this parable. Out of piety, they suppress their reaction, yet that leaves the cognitive dissonance unresolved. 

Too often, commentators, when remarking on this parable, take the easy way out. But that sabotages the parable. Jesus is banking on the fact that listeners will naturally side with the disgruntled workers. When the reader is too quick to acquiesce to the position of the employer, we short-circuit the parable. 

iii) The reason for piously bland interpretations is that we want to be on the right side. In the parable, the employer is what's called a normative character. He represents the viewpoint of the storyteller. A reader can sense that the employer stands for Jesus. 

In many parables, Jesus is an explicit or implicit character in his own parables. Sometimes there's a parabolic character who's a stand-in or mouthpiece for Jesus. In the parable of the prodigal son, that's the Father. Once we identify the normative character, we feel compelled to agree with him since he represents God or Jesus (same thing) in the parable. And surely it's important to be on the same side as Jesus.

In this parable, the disgruntled workers stand on one side while the employer and latecomers occupy the other side. Which side will you take? Even if you secretly sympathize with the disgruntled workers, you feel that you ought to side with the employer and the latecomers since the employer is a spokesman for Jesus. 

iv) And there's a grain of truth to that. You don't want to be on the wrong side of Jesus. You're supposed to agree with Jesus, right? 

But it's a more complex than that. When he tells a parable like this, Jesus is adopting the role of a provocative storyteller. He expects the listener to bristle. In a parable like this, he's daring the listener to protest. That's a rhetorical strategy.

Yet when Christians let that roll off their back, it eliminates a necessary phase in grappling with the message. I think we're meant to wrestle with parables like this. The parable is meant to be aggravating. The parable is meant to be a bit galling. If, for pious reasons, you don't allow yourself to be aggravated; if, for pious reasons, you don't allow yourself to identify with the disgruntled workers, then you're not allowing yourself to be challenged by the message. 

Jesus knows the listener will have instinctive sympathy for the disgruntled workers. He knows we're thinking that if we were in the same position, we'd naturally be resentful, too, and so the effectiveness of the parable depends on some pushback by the reader or listener. If we roll over right at the outset, we've failed to take the barbed message to heart. We didn't let the message sink in. We didn't let it rub us the wrong way. 

And a problem with that reaction is that it leaves Christians ill-prepared for when we feel that we've been shafted. Because we didn't resolve that tension in our minds. We just shelved it. And that can come back to hurt us. 

The danger in reading a parable like this is to instantly agree with the employer, then pat ourselves on the back for taking the right side. But at a certain level that's insincere. Deep down we may not be persuaded. Thin piety buckles under pressure. Sitting in the pew, you can nod your head at all the right places, but when life rubs your face in the dirt, thin piety may fail you. Cheap piety is no match for costly discipleship.

iv) Jesus often tells parables that leave unanswered questions. That leave some issues hanging in midair. I think that's deliberate. We're meant to keep reflecting on the story. We're meant to keep churning that over. That's why some parables leave some issues unresolved. 

In this parable, I think the reader's unspoken misgiving is not so much that employer was unfair. Rather, the question a parable like this leaves dangling is, Why be good? Why resist temptation, why deny yourself, if you can do whatever you want, then repent on your deathbed? Why patiently wait in line, defer to others, when you can cut in line at the late minute? 

When someone goes to the front of the line and gets in first, it's not just a question of fairness. It makes people who were waiting in line feeling like fools. There's a sense of betrayal. If people who break the rules get away with it, it's stupid to play by the rules. Why not live for instant gratification, then have a deathbed conversion? 

In the parable of the prodigal son, the father tells the resentful son, "all that is mine is yours". But isn't the obvious comeback, "No, dad, what's left over–after you gave my layabout brother his share of the estate–is mine!" 

And this isn't just an issue that's hovering in the background of two parables. Rather, this is a complaint that cycles through the Bible. So often the faithful get the short end of the stick. That's a recurring complaint in Scripture. 

v) One interpretive issue to keep in mind that Jesus is fond of hyperbole. He often overstates the case to make a point. I'm surprised by how many commentators take the explanation of the employer at face value. But that's tone-deaf to Christ's rhetorical modus operandi. He frequently creates unrealistic scenarios to dramatize certain issues.

vi) When we watch a movie we tend to subconsciously identify with certain characters. We root for the good guys.

One issue is which group the reader relates to in the parable. Western Christians may naturally see themselves as the early birds in the parable. We've been laboring faithfully from the crack of dawn. However, a Third-World Christian might see the western Christian as the latecomer who has it easy. Many Third-World Christians lead wretched lives. Compared to them, many of us have far less to complain about. 

Mind you, just to observe that some other people are far worse off than you isn't much of a theodicy. But that's an argument for another day.

vii) So who do the latecomers in the parable represent? That's intentionally ambiguous and open-ended. It would be wrong to equate them with deathbed converts, although that may be included. 

On the one hand there are cradle Christians who've been exposed to the Gospel under very favorable terms. Who've benefited from a Christian upbringing. 

Conversely, there are unbelievers who had a godless childhood, with clueless, aimless parents. Neglected children. For instance, Francis Chan lost both parents as a child. He lived with an aunt and uncle, until the uncle murdered his wife right in front of young Francis Chan. 

Some of them are latecomers to the faith, but one can hardly begrudge them since they didn't have the spiritual advantages some of us enjoyed. While it's advantageous to cut in line, sometimes that offsets a prior disadvantage. So there are situations in which the spiritually privileged and underprivileged balance out at different times of life. Both sides can feel cheated or slighted if they fail to take everything into account. Cutting in line may compensate for spiritual deprivation early on. 

viii) Then there's the question of what makes this life worthwhile. Ironically, so many hedonists are miserable. They deny themselves nothing, yet they're chronically dissatisfied. Often resort to drugs and alcohol to fill the void. Hedonism is not a recipe for happiness.  

ix) Then there's the question of what makes the afterlife fulfilling. What's the nature of heavenly rewards? What rewards are we seeking? Is our eternal bliss based on comparing our situation to another saint? Should we be looking at others? Should we care?

For many Christians, the hope of heaven includes a family reunion. Spending eternity with those we love. Those we like to be around. If that's in part our notion of a heavenly reward, why should we care how someone else was rewarded? We got what was important to us, didn't we? 

Likewise, some ailing Christians look forward to rejuvenation. Restoration of health. Not to mention Christians who were born disabled. For them, a normal body will be a first-time experience. Why should they be concerned with how someone else is rewarded?

It's like brothers comparing Christmas presents. Even if one got a more expensive gift than the other, that doesn't make it a better gift if it's not what you want. 

Heaven isn't competitive. Having your deepest needs met is independent of how someone else's deepest needs are met. Presumably, it's not a question of getting a bonus, over and above what you need to be happy. Is it not enough to be happy? Happy at long last? Is it not enough to have your unrequited yearnings ultimately fulfilled? What does it matter how someone else is rewarded so long as your belated longings are finally met? 


  1. Good point about not hastening too quickly to agree with the narrator. I've always thought the younger son sounded like the sort of person who would do the same thing all over again and that the father in the Prodigal Son story sounded naive. But maybe that's just me.

    In any event, I would tend to think that Jesus is alluding cryptically to the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles in parables like the Prodigal Son and the vineyard, and several others. (The two sons, one of whom says he will obey the father and the other of whom says he won't, but then does.) If so, then they are a kind of prophecy, and the negative reaction portion is fulfilled by, e.g., the enormous animosity directed at the Apostle Paul by certain Jewish persecutors, because he was preaching to the Gentiles.