May 1, 2016

Matthew 20:1-16
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like

…a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers 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 laborers 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.’

For the Sundays that I am preaching until summer, about six Sundays, I am going to preach on six parables of Jesus. The approach is going to be to make a best guess as to what the content of the parable might have been before it was framed by the various gospel writers and the later tradition of Christian interpretation.

Jesus was framed. The historical person of Jesus told parables and pithy aphorisms about society, life, religion, war, peace, economics, and so forth. He used a phrase that is most commonly translated as ‘kingdom of God’ to refer poetically to a different way of living than the common life under occupation.

As his legend spread after his death, not only the legend of how we came back to life, but the legend of his storytelling, he was shaped quickly by the interests of those framing him.

This sharp-tongued peasant was built up into a literate rabbi, eventually, an anointed messiah, finally the incarnation of God. Along the way his stories were changed. Stories about him were exaggerated and invented. An entire religion was created that centered around an interpretation of him.

But the real guy, before all of this happened is interesting in his own right. He had some interesting things to say. The things that he had to say were specific to his time and place, to the concerns of the people for whom he felt kinship.

There has been a lot of scholarly work on the social, geo-political, and economic situation of Palestine under Roman occupation. In the course of these six sermons I hope to bring some of that out. I am indebted to William Herzog and his eye-opening book, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

That social situation, for instance is that 97% of the population was illiterate. Yet, Luke, has Jesus read. Why is that? Well, the author of Luke is literate. He certainly can’t have a hero be less interesting than he is. So he creates a story of Jesus reading from the Torah in the synagogue and even as a child impressing the scholars in the temple. It is fiction.

Jesus, of the peasant or perhaps artisan class, would have no need to read or write, not to mention family resources. Jesus worked for a living before becoming a homeless beggar, trading his clever repartee for food and lodging.

Another aspect of the social situation is that there was a pyramid of class. Gerhard Lenski and others following him showed how an agrarian class was structured.

• At the top was the ruling class, 1-2 percent of the population. They controlled about 2/3 of the wealth.
• The retainers, merchants, stewards and priests, made up 5-7% of the population. They provided services to the ruling class.
• Artisans were 5%. They made luxury goods but saw no profit. They were despised, living on the edge of destitution. Jesus might have been here, as a carpenter.
• Then peasants 70-80% living on a subsistence level. They worked the farms and lived in the towns and villages.
• Below them the unclean and degraded, 5%. They did the despised work no one else would do and lived in ghettos.
• And the bottom the expendables, 5-15%. These sold their children as day laborers and would hope to work as day laborers themselves and lived by begging if they lived at all.

The expendables are likely the laborers in today’s parable.

The ruling elite would not interact with these lower classes. They would do so through their stewards, in this parable, the manager. This is a parable in which Jesus specifically chooses the landowner of the ruling class, to interact with the laborers. Jesus is setting up a conflict between the ruling class and the 90% or so at the bottom.

Let’s begin with the gospel writers who are anonymous. They were not witnesses or followers of Jesus. They are literate, first of all. They are likely of the retainer class and thus make their living by serving the ruling class. They are removed not only in time, any where between 50 and 100 years after Jesus, but also removed in terms of class. They begin to frame Jesus and his parables in ways that privilege the ruling class even as they might softly criticize it. They spiritualize the parables.

This tendency to spiritualize the parables takes off in the history of interpretation over the centuries.

One of the ways this is done is to allegorize the parables and have the ruling elites be stand-ins for God. Here is a rule of thumb: whenever we hear a parable of Jesus about a king, a landowner, a landlord, a judge, a wealthy farmer, or a generic “rich person” be suspicious. Remember these are despised people by the folks whom Jesus represents. They are the bad guys. They are the ones who are the oppressors.

Yet in the interpretation of the parables, they are often allegorized as God. What’s up with that? Something smells.

This parable of the landowner and the laborers, we are told, is about God’s mercy and generosity. Even the poor sinner who comes to Jesus on the deathbed makes it to heaven. Those who have sat in church all their lives and were miserable for the Lord, toiling in his vineyard, when they could have been having fun, hanging out, being idle, because they thought that was the deal, don’t get anymore treats in the afterlife then the sinners come lately. They all get the same. They complain, but the landowner (God) says,

I can do what I want, I’m God. This is the deal to which you agreed. You got what you want. Why be envious of my generosity to these others?

In the words of John Calvin, in his commentary on this passage:

“…men have no right to complain of the bounty of God, when he honors unworthy persons by large rewards beyond what they deserve.”

Variations on that theme have provided the dominant interpretations of this parable. It all begins with the mistake of thinking that the landowner is supposed to be God in this theological morality play.

What if we looked at the story as if it weren’t in the Bible? A parable told by a peasant. If we removed Matthew’s editorializing of the first line, “The kingdom of heaven is like” and the last line “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” we have a curious story about a landowner hiring and paying laborers.

A landowner, is of the ruling class, one of the top 1-2 percent. His crop a vineyard, wine, not grain for food, but wine for profit. What was happening is that peasants who may have inherited some land lost it through debt, and landowners used this indebtedness to make land grabs. So the peasants who had a bit of land to grow food, lost it and then had to work for landowners on their mono-crops.

There are more workers than jobs. The landowner needs some workers, and hires them at a wage of a denarius a day. We don’t know what that wage is, but it is unlikely to be a “large reward” in the words of John Calvin. At best, we could call it minimum wage. What do we pay day laborers today? How much do undocumented workers receive per day to pick tomatoes? If it is such a large reward why aren’t we all lined up for it, right?

So they accept it, what other offer do they have?

After a few hours the landowner realizes he could use a few more laborers. So he finds others “standing idle” in the marketplace. They’re playing video games and smoking pot, right? No, they are not idle or lazy, they are hoping someone might hire them or else they will not eat and will need to beg.

The landowner doesn’t even need to bargain with them. “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” Whatever is right for whom, we might ask. They have no bargaining. They take the job without any agreement because that is all there is.

He comes back again later in the day near the end, and asks them “Why have you have been standing idle.” That is what the poor do, right, they stand idle? A condescending question. They answer “because no one has hired us.” Then he just orders them into the vineyard. No promise of paying what is right or anything.

The labor market favors the landowner.

The day is done and the landowner orders the steward to pay them. The original hearers of this parable would know what Jesus is saying. Landowner (the 1 percent), the steward (who serves the interests of the landowner, the vineyard (a luxury crop that has supplanted peasant land), and them, expendables, peasants who have lost their land, holding out signs on the freeway entrances that say, “will work for food.”

Instead of paying the first hour workers first and so on, the landowners specifically pays the last workers first and gives them the wage he agreed to pay with the first-hour workers. The first hour workers get their hopes up that this landowner might be different. He must have a good day and will offer us a bonus. But no, in front of all, he pays them all the same.

What the landowner has done is to shame them. Your labor is worth nothing. He is driving it home that he can pay them whatever he wants. It belongs to me, he says. The Torah says it belongs to God. We can also imagine that this land was owned by the workers before losing it to indebtedness. Salt in the wound.

Big box stores come in, put little stores out of business and they end up having to work for the box stores at wages that don’t support an individual let alone a family. This is the same story. Those who think raising the minimum wage to a living wage is a bad idea are not the people who make minimum wage.

What the landowner has done is to divide the laborers by creating enmity between them, and he has shamed them, taunted them, and finally, because they complained, he expelled them. They won’t get work again.

“You’re fired.”

Thus, the landowner keeps wages desperately low, the populace divided and has driven home the message that they are powerless to do anything about it, all the while by pretending to be generous.

What has happened in terms of the history of interpretation of this parable, the victims are blamed. They complain. They are ungrateful. They are envious. Who is good, like God? The corrupt and greedy landowner.

Who is to blame? The poor: envious, complaining, idle. This is from the book, Blaming the Victim by William Ryan:

“First, identify a social problem. Second, study those affected by the problem and discover in what ways they are different from the rest of us as a consequence of deprivation and injustice. Third, define the differences as the cause of the social problem itself.”

I am debating which book to have us read for Southminster Reads this summer. I thought about Unprecedented, by David Ray Griffin about Global Warming. But there is another good one. This is called Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado.

She writes from personal experience what it is really like to be poor. Here is one paragraph which is a bit of a parallel with our day laborers:

“There is something even worse than minimum wage. It’s called temp work. I bet the majority of Americans—unless they’ve experienced it for themselves—would be shocked to find out that companies regularly hire temps to work full-time hours. But because they hire these workers through temporary work agencies, they have to pay no benefits and offer no job security. To save a buck, companies will regularly hire such workers for years—years. And they do it because it’s cheaper than hiring labor directly, and they are legally entitled to do so….

…so when financially comfortable people with health insurance and paid sick leave and all kinds of other benefits that pad their wallets and make their lives easier and healthier think that the poor are poor because somehow we lack the get-up-and-go to change our circumstances…well, I’m not sure my reaction is printable.”

Oh, Linda, you are just envious, and idle, and a complainer.

Why did Jesus tell this parable and others like it? He did it to reveal the truth of what it is like to live in wrenching circumstances. He did it to critique the ruling elite of this world. He did it also to empower and educate. He did it to give vision to an alternative.

Once we remove the veil, we realize that without the temps, and the undocumented day laborers, and the minimum wage workers, and the third of Americans under the poverty line, without their work, this place shuts down. The power is not with the one percent or with the 7% retainer class. The power is with the people.

That is the message that got Jesus killed.

It is also a message that may save us all.

Amen.