The Parable of the Owner of the Vineyard who hires workers throughout the day and then pays the workers who were brought in at the last hour a full day’s wages is startling. Most preachers use it to teach God’s abundant mercy and generosity and how we shouldn’t grumble like the workers who thought they should have gotten more than the agreed wage because the workers at the last hour got such a good deal.
But a few months ago I came up against a challenge to this interpretation in Reading from the Edges by Jean-Pierre Ruiz. He argues that the owner of the vineyard, far from being generous, was playing power games with the workers, particularly with his rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Mt. 20: 15) From the standpoint of someone who is vulnerable to people who have power over them, this question sounds oppressive.
Should we jettison the traditional interpretation of this parable? The best way to answer that question is to look at the character of the landowner. In the traditional interpretation, there is a tendency to assume that the landowner stands for God. If that is correct, then the matter is settled. Who can argue with God? But note that Jesus introduces the parable by saying “there was a man, a landowner.” Moreover, we have this same pattern in the surrounding parables, such as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding, In each case, the landowner or the king is “a man.” Unfortunately, the NRSV obscures this phrasing. Matthew has gone out of his way to stress that the landowner is a man, thus questioning the likelihood that the landowner stands for God. We see the same pattern in greater intensity with the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who seems righteous by treating the otherwise forgiven servant harshly for being unforgiving himself, but this man, a king, in turn is vengeful and unforgiving. The man, the owner of the vineyard with the wicked tenants is also vengeful. The man, a king, in the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding is hot-tempered and violent with much less excuse.
The Man, a Landowner, in this parable, seems to come off better than the other landowner and the kings. He does not cheat any workers out of their pay, and seems to be generous in giving the workers at the last hour the full day’s wage. One can understand, though, the grumbling of the workers who toiled all day and were exhausted. The owner blows these workers off with a rebuke that, though a far cry from the vengefulness of the authority figures in the other parables, is insensitive. Ruiz is quick to pick up on the capriciousness of this landowner. His untactful response to the longsuffering grumbling workers reminds them that they are fully at his mercy and they have no recourse if they have any complaint of the way they are treated. Ruiz says: “the lesson is not about generosity or his magnanimity but about his own power, about their dependence on him, and about the insignificance of their own toil.” Such workers in Jesus’ time were in the same position.
Can we salvage the traditional interpretation? I think we can, to some extent at least, if we note the human distortion. The second rhetorical question of the landowner is still apt: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Again, the landowner is being insensitive and judgmental, but envy is a huge human problem. We don’t do our work as effectively as we might if we are focused on whether or not somebody else seems to get a better deal. We really need to be weaned from our envious tendencies just as we need to be weaned from our instinctive vengeful attitudes as the preceding parable reminds us. However, as the vengeful violence of the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is not very helpful in teaching forgiveness, the Man, a Landowner, is not helpful in healing anybody’s envy. On the contrary, the landowner uses his power to stir up envy and divide the workers against each other, a typical trick by those in power. Since the king and the landowner are humans and not God, we can see them as mirrors of us. The formerly forgiving but vengeful king spurs on the vengefulness of the affronted slaves. The power games played by the landowner lock the workers in resentment. These examples show that teaching forgiveness and weaning people from envy are undermined when people try to use strong-arming power to further these ends. We can take Jesus’ conclusion as a commentary on the landowner: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Ruiz says “today’s immigrant laborers know more than enough about being last.” So how are they first? It is these “last” who are the first to reveal the distortions in the human mirrors. It is these last who are the first to show us our need for God’s forgiving love and generosity that our distorted humanity obscures.