Peter Grimwood explores alternative meanings of Jesus’ parable ‘the labourers in the vineyard’.
In Matthew chapter 20, Jesus tells an enigmatic story. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard” it begins. The landowner agrees a day’s fee and sets them to work. A bit later in the morning he hires some more, and they get to work in the fields as well. At five in the afternoon the landowner encounters some unemployed workers who have been standing around all day because nobody hired them. He recruits them too.
When evening comes, all the workers line up for their pay. The boss pays everyone the same fee, those who had toiled all day, and those who turned up at the last minute. And he insists on paying the last to arrive first. As you might expect, there is some resentment about this. “This lot only worked an hour”, they grumble. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
The vineyard owner dismisses their complaints. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” he asks. “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So it is that in the kingdom of heaven, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
In the Authorised Version of the Bible, the boss says “I will give unto this last, even as unto thee” as he talks to those who had been hired first. That phrase ‘unto this last’ was picked up as the title of a famous essay by the nineteenth century social prophet, John Ruskin, which is still in print.
There are a number of ways in which we might read this story – keeping in mind the central idea that God is generous and that there are no limits to his generosity.
First, we might see this parable as an account of how God in his limitless generosity calls women and men at any age and makes no distinction between those who are called first and those who are called later. This entry into a fellowship with God brings spiritual blessings which enriches the lives of the called and the saved and makes no distinction between them. God’s blessing is a kind of enlightenment, a source of special knowledge which, we must hope, entails an outworking in terms of love for those less blessed or otherwise disadvantaged. The emphasis is on calling. It is not about achievement or effort, even for those who bear ‘the heat and burden of the day’. We are saved by a generous and gracious God and not by any efforts or merits of our own. Salvation is by faith in a gracious God.
A second and completely different reading might focus instead on ‘the last’. Who are these last? While we might want to draw parallels to the unemployed of our own time, our own social and economic issues aren’t what Jesus is addressing. If we imagine the circumstances in which Matthew’s gospel was written – a world in which the gospel was being taken to the non-Jews for the first time, we might think of the last in this way. Gentile Christians, including ourselves, are the last hired. God’s promises to the first hired, that is to say to Israel, remain valid.
In the parable the last hired are paid first. (Verse 8) This exposes the envy of those who think they deserve more, an envy which exposes our unwillingness to accept the freedom and abundance of God’s generosity. Is there a hint of anti-Judaism here? Perhaps! But it is corrected by Paul in Romans 9-11, where he writes that God’s promises to Israel remain in effect but that Israel has tripped upon the ‘stumbling block’ that is Jesus.
Thirdly, and most pertinently to the concerns of Joy in Enough, Ruskin addressed the parable as a criticism of the economics of his day – and perhaps ours too. Yes, economics is indeed a dismal science if it sees humanity as nothing more than the wheels and cogs in a productive machine. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Human worth is not to be measured in terms of cash, nor is greed and avarice to be placed on a level with loving kindness and generosity. Ruskin insisted, and we might well agree with him, that we humans are motivated by the spirit rather than by calculations of material self-interest.
Consequently the science of economics is based on a misunderstanding of human nature. As Ruskin wrote, laissez-faire capitalism (the common sense of our time) is mammon worship and we need to remember what Jesus said about that. It’s quite simply a modern form of idolatry and idolatry is what God deplores. God is generous and consequently those who worship him and follow his Son must practice generosity, particularly towards those who stand most in need of it – the last hired. God’s economy is based on loving grace, not on market forces, and is thus compatible with the nature of the universe as God has created it.
Once upon a time, a time within recent memory, labour was more secure than it is today. Casual labour seemed a regressive practice to be done away with. Now we live in a world of zero hours contracts, labour sub-contracting and freelancing of various kinds. Trade Unionism seems to be an idea whose time has passed. Consequently the parable of the labourers in the vineyard seems as relevant as ever.
Once upon a time we Christians, especially Methodists, were good at speaking up for the kingdom. Once upon a time we worked tirelessly to end slavery and the slave trade. Once upon a time Christians and Trade Unionists were natural allies speaking up against poverty wages, loan sharks and insecure working conditions. Once upon a time a time a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster intervened in a dock strike to secure a just settlement and became a hero for the working class.
Imagine the kingdom Jesus speaks of – God’s Kingdom coming to us, bringing love, peace and justice for all. A kingdom where human need matters more than human greed, the kingdom of Jesus won by his victory over death.
The people with all the money smile and call it a fantasy. But we know that God’s reality is more powerful than theirs. Love wins. You can call us dreamers but we’re not alone. Not at all. We can overcome because we’ve done it before, and God is with us.