by Rev. Collette Broady-Grund
Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
Does this story make you mad? From paying equal wages for unequal work, to the whole system of day labor that benefits only the landowner in the end, a lot of things in this parable are unfair, unjust even. If this story doesn’t anger you, you might not be getting the point.
Jesus begins a tale of a landowner and a vineyard, which hearkens back to many references from the Hebrew scriptures, as well as other gospel parables, casting Israel as the vineyard. God is often the landowner, or at least the tender of the vines. But, as usual, Jesus is going to turn these normal tropes on their head.
The story begins to unfold just as we’d expect: the landowner goes out first thing in the morning to hire day laborers to pick grapes and tend vines. In some places where produce is grown in our country, this is a familiar scene, though instead of gathering in the town marketplace, the day laborers show up at first light in the Wal-Mart parking lot and wait for the landowners and managers to pick them for work. A wage is agreed between them, and off they go.
Here’s where the story starts to get interesting. The landowner goes out again a few hours later, sees that there are laborers waiting for work, and hires them too, with a vague promise to pay them whatever is right. Maybe it’s the height of harvest and he can’t get those grapes off the vine fast enough, or maybe a number of his regular workers are quarantined at home with COVID-19.
But he comes out AGAIN, at noon, again at three in the afternoon, and does the same thing. And when he comes the final time, at the 11th hour, it’s clear the landowner doesn’t need this labor, yet he hires them anyway.
When he asks these 11th hour folks why they’re standing around all day, they say, “Because no one has hired us.” Though some readers will be quick to assume that these laborers slept in, or are just plain lazy, a look at our own agricultural day labor system suggests a different answer.
For day laborers picking food in the U.S., the ones still waiting in the Wal-Mart parking lot at the end of the day are not the ones that showed up late. Rather, they are the elderly ones and women who look like they can’t work as hard. They are the workers lacking steel-toed boots and PPE, because they can’t afford or access it. They are the people who speak almost no English, which will make the supervisor’s job harder. So, when the 11th hour hires say “Because no one hired us,” what they probably mean is, “because no one wanted us.” So far, this kin-dom of heaven doesn’t look much different from the United States of America.
But then, payday comes. The laborers line up as they’ve been instructed, starting with the last hired. And surprise! These 11th hour laborers get the same pay as those who worked 12, and 9, and 6 and 3 hours. No matter the work, the wages are the same. It appears this landowner is in favor of a universal basic income.
Or maybe this is a performative act of justice, meant to make him look good to his fellow landowners, but doing little to disrupt the unjust system of day labor, on which empires, both then and now, are built. As parables often do, this story raises many more questions than it answers.
Is God really like this landowner? In some ways, yes: equal love, equal grace, equal reward for all who labor in God’s kin-dom. The part of me that still thinks like a born and bred white American, a descendent of the Puritans who invented the Protestant work ethic, is irritated by this equality. I’m Jonah sitting under my dying vine, lamenting that God is merciful to THOSE NINEVITES too. That’s the part of me that needs to be reminded that the economy of God works differently than the economy of America.
That same part of me also needs to be reminded that God should not be easily equated with the landowner, who seems only concerned with this one day and its wages, but does nothing to dismantle a system that makes the rich richer and keeps the poor powerless. As we see image after image of laborers in the vineyards of California, working despite smoke-filled skies and a global pandemic, we must proclaim that God wants more than a generous day’s wage for these beloved people. It is not God’s justice that endangers the lives of those deemed essential workers so that the rest of us can stay safely home and order the produce they’ve picked for home delivery at reasonable prices.
Jesus came not only to be sure that those who had been left out had equal access to God’s power and healing, but also to put an end to the whole system of tit-for-tat, sacrifice for sin, and rigid social hierarchy. Like this parable, Jesus’ story is about coming out into our midst, calling not just the hardest workers, but those who are left out and left behind to join in the work of the kin-dom. Jesus’ story is about coming to the world again and again and again, not until everyone is laboring under a wealthy landowner, but until all are laboring together as equals in the kin-dom.
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