At the Master’s feet - Week 7:
Read: Matthew 20:1-16
First let us understand the literary context of our text. Our last passage, 18.21 dealt with forgiveness, you’ll recall. Now Matthew pointedly brings the Markan pericope about divorce into the context of forgiveness: if God commands us to forgive then forgiveness should deal with the problem of marital break-up. Note that Jesus says It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives (19.8). Matthew follows this with an episode in which Jesus points to little children as signs of the kingdom of heaven (19.13-15), and then moves to Jesus’ answer to a rich young man who asks him, Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? Jesus answers by telling this young man to go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (19.16-30). This prompts the startled disciples to ask, Then, who can be saved? (19.25b) and to assert that they have already given up everything to follow Jesus,so What, then, will we have?, showing that they haven’t yet grasped the point Jesus is making.
These stories, which lead up to our passage and set its context, all have this in common: they illustrate Jesus’ teaching that self-interest has no place in kingdom living. Having understood this, we are ready to tackle 20.1-16.
Once again we see how a parable by Jesus is filled with surprises and how these surprises shock us into thinking about how the parable’s message affects our own lives. This shock tactic of overturning attitudes and behaviours we think of as normal and right draws a sharp boundary between the kingdom of heaven and life as we know it in this world, making us aware that, because we are called to live in God’s kingdom, there are attitudes and behaviours which must be unacceptable to us, even though abandoning them is not only uncomfortable but even, perhaps, unthinkable to our sinful human nature.
As is always the case, on the surface the parable is easily grasped: a landowner hires labourers for an agreed wage (v.2), but then hires other labourers whom he agrees to pay whatever is just (v.4), hiring these additional labourers at noon, three o’clock, and five o’clock (vv.5-6). At the end of the day he instructs his manager to pay them all the usual daily wage (v.9), regardless of at what point in the day they were hired. Not unexpectedly, those who started work at the beginning of the day feel they have been treated unjustly (v.12) and say so forcefully. The landowner, however, argues that he paid them the agreed wage and so can’t be accused of injustice (v.13). He further argues his right to act as he has done (v.14b-15) and asks why he can’t be allowed to be generous (v.15b).
The difficulty of this parable obviously centres on the question of whether or not the landowner, who of course stands for God, has acted justly or unjustly towards the first-hired labourers. There’s no question that his generosity applies to the labourers hired at later times in the day, but what about the poor fellows hired first: don’t they have a legitimate complaint for it is surely quite reasonable to expect to be paid according to the number of hours one has worked?
The landowner’s argument is surely sound: he paid them the wage agreed between them (v.13) and so can’t be accused of injustice – he upheld his end of the contract they entered into. There can be no argument here; and neither can there be any argument with his generosity towards the labourers hired at later times. The difficulty lies in the first-hired labourers’ argument that they should also have been treated generously rather than purely contractually.
If the point of the parable is that God’s justice is not like human justice, that is, purely contractual, calculative, that argument seems to be contradicted by his calculative treatment of the first-hired labourers. So the parable sets up a debate about the nature of God’s justice in the kingdom of heaven and about the nature of God’s generosity: does everyone benefit from it or only some? Typically with the parable genre, there is no easy or definite answer.
The parable certainly means that God’s justice goes beyond calculation, beyond what the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, called “the economy of exchange” (that is, the world in which it is impossible to give a gift to anyone because one always has to calculate the appropriate response to whatever ‘gift’ one is given, with the result that no ‘gift’ has actually been given: appropriate responses have been calculated. Derrida argues that a “gift” as something given but requiring no response, simply cannot exist in daily human intercourse – indeed, Derrida questions whether Christian theology allows for it). The parable suggests, precisely, that God’s justice, while it involves fidelity to contract, also goes beyond the contractual when other factors are relevant.
What ‘other factors’ would these be? To answer this we have to understand something of the social background to this parable. Day labourers were the poorest of the poor, for whom a day’s wage (a denarius) was the minimum for survival. The landowner’s usual daily wage would have been this denarius, and he chooses to pay the same wage to the others, men utterly desperate for work in a context in which unemployment was rife (as is made clear by the fact that men were standing idle in the marketplace (v.3) throughout the day).
In such a context the landowner, being a just man, pays all his labourers the minimum on which they could survive, thus sending a message that he will under no circumstances be part of the injustice of paying men so little that they wouldn’t be able to feed themselves or their families. All these men, who live desperate lives in that they have no secure income, would be able to live for one more day.
Hence the landowner is a just employer, with a heart that sees beneath the obvious calculation of reward for hours worked, to the human need for food and security for all. Calculative behaviour is inadequate to human need which is why the landowner is truly a figure standing for God, illustrating a focused insight into human need as the motivating force of God’s rule, even in the apparently-calculative realm of economics.
Questions for Discussion
1. Outline the events in the story told in the parable.
2. How would you define “justice”? Do you think that the landowner behaved with justice? What does the parable say about the justice of God?
3. Notice that the first-hired labourers were quite happy until they compared their pay with the pay of others. This suggests that a negative emotion (in this case, resentment) is aroused easily when we compare ourselves with others – do you agree? Is it ever a good thing to do so?
4. What is the message of the parable for us as disciples? What are the challenges in living out this message?
Tim Long, 18/02/2014