By the Rev. Darren Miner
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses a rather disconcerting parable to try to explain the inexplicable, namely, the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. I call this parable disconcerting, because the main character, the landowner, doesn’t act rationally. Any rational landowner would pay his workers according to the hours they had worked. But this guy does something quite different. He pays everyone a full day’s wages, even if they had worked only one hour. Why would he do that?
Well, consider the fact that the workers in question are day laborers. They typically earn one denarius a day, barely enough to feed their family for one day. So if they don’t get hired for a full day’s wages, their family goes without food. The landowner’s payment scheme in Jesus’ parable isn’t rational. But it is merciful. The landowner knows what’s at stake for these day laborers, and he makes sure that their families will all eat, no matter how few hours the laborers had worked.
Even so, the landowner’s actions are not “fair and equitable.” Presumably, the early workers could have been given a bonus. And if they had, we would have no complaint with this parable. But there is no bonus!
We are left with questions. What are we meant to learn from this parable? And how are we meant to go about interpreting it? Well, as is often the case with the Bible, the answers to these two questions vary widely. That being said, most interpreters understand this parable to be an allegory of some sort.
Some Church Fathers understood the parable to be an allegory about the salvation of the Gentiles. In this interpretation, the Jews are the workers who were hired first, while the Gentiles are the workers hired later. And they all get the same reward: salvation. The problem with this interpretation is that, when Jesus told the parable, there were no Gentile disciples.
Others have interpreted this parable in a more individualistic manner. The first-hired workers are people who have been faithful servants of God all their lives, while those hired later represent people who converted later in life. This makes a bit more sense. But it has its problems, since it encourages folks to defer the burdens of Christian discipleship as long as possible, in the knowledge that, in the end, the reward will be the same.
Moreover, this interpretation is contradicted by other teachings of Jesus. Elsewhere, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encourages his disciples to pray, fast, and give alms, so as to store up treasure in heaven. The implication is that good works do count for something in the afterlife, even if the Kingdom is not a strict meritocracy.
The problem with these allegorical interpretations, I think, is that they push the parable past its intended limits. Perhaps it is better to abandon the search for an allegorical interpretation that ties the whole parable together neatly and instead to be satisfied with learning a few disparate lessons.
I think it safe to assume that the landowner in the parable represents God; after all, Jesus says that this parable is a teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. If that one assumption is correct, we learn several important facts about the divine nature. We learn that God is a free agent, unencumbered by our limited human standards of fairness and equity. We learn that God is merciful and generous, giving to those who quite frankly do not merit his generosity. And most importantly, we learn that God is responsive to the needs of the disadvantaged.
But, if you ask me, Jesus also means for us to learn something about ourselves. That’s why, in this parable, the landowner does not give a bonus to the early workers. This so-called “unfair” and “unjust” behavior on the part of the landowner is meant to get our attention and to make us question our own attitudes. The landowner responds to the grumbling of the disappointed laborers by accusing them of envy. The charge, of course, is really aimed at Jesus’ audience—in other words, at us! The point of that one disconcerting element of the parable is to make us aware of our own tendency to feel envy, to covet the blessings of others.
Jesus ends his teaching with a saying: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Well, with all due respect to Jesus, I think there is another saying that works much better as a finale to today’s parable (and as a finale to this sermon): “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need” (song lyric by the Rolling Stones).
© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.