To tell a parable, at least according to the Greek mind, was to throw something. We often say that the one who speaks without intention or thoughtfulness is merely “throwing something out there.” In that act, the speaking person is just trying to make something stick. Parables are both dissimilar and similar to that. Dissimilar due to their always being said with intention and extreme mindfulness, for the point is to declare ethical wisdom; yet, similar in that the parable is thrown out there with the goal of making something stick, and when executed properly, the parable contains a certain power of being and remaining memorable. Even though it’s an entirely “made up” story, the parable is a dependable vehicle for transporting the goods of ethical wisdom.
And the ethical wisdom that Jesus chooses to throw out there in this story of these laborers working out in the vineyard—a tale that begins the twentieth chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel—is divine justice. What does it mean that the last will be first and the first will be last? According to human presumption forged from rational thought, that would seem to be contradictory and even, perhaps, unjust. But the tension between what humans expect to be just and the kind of justice that Jesus is calling his followers to—has certainly been building in Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ teaching. It should not be surprising that we see this tension because one could argue with much legitimacy that Jesus’ entire teaching project was to exalt the poor over the rich. To come into the Father’s kingdom means that you must become poor. Not merely monetarily poor, but poor in spirit. Remember that Jesus begins his preaching ministry on the mount with those words that strike at the heart of human presumption: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they belong to the kingdom of heaven.
While the tension undoubtedly begins there with those words in Matthew 5, it’s nearing a climax in chapter 18, which records the disciples being overly concerned with their status in God’s kingdom. Continuing over into the next chapter, it’s there where Jesus is tested by the Pharisees in their question about marriage. These Pharisees are not so much the epitome of hypocrisy as they are the paragon for something much more disturbing, at least according to the values Jesus expresses, and that is human presumption. Instead of falling at his feet, they assume in their folly that they are entitled to test him, which means, as any grade school student can tell you, there is an implicit authority structure in that assumption. The tester is always, at least, a notch above. Jesus uses the occasion to throw out his wisdom, effectively bypassing the Pharisees and placing attention on more worthwhile subjects. (Matthew shows this by removing them from the narrative until historical necessity forces their return. They are mere bit players that serve the narrative.) No one is poorer than eunuchs and children. Lev 21:20 and Deut 23:1 demonstrate how the law saw the eunuch, and Jesus’ own disciples illustrate in their rather gauche behavior how society saw children—but in both cases, it’s Jesus who opens up the gate of the kingdom to the poor. As he tells that young, wealthy ruler, it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? The riches of this life fill the need for God and presumption takes over. So the master teacher gives the ultimate test to this young man in order to examine how he sees himself. Go and sell everything. Identify yourself with the poor by becoming poor! He couldn’t do it. The audacity of poverty was too much for him. But, as Jesus expresses to his disciples, this is the calling of the disciple. It’s a calling for those who are first in terms of their privilege—to shred it—to become last—in order that in the end, you might become first. Ultimately, the road toward discipleship includes this shredding of all human presumption. I’m not entitled to anything in this life, except that for which God gives me. I do not have to work toward my own vindication, I’m totally secure in the hands of God, which alone will vindicate me in the end. My life counts, not because of the salary I earn or the position I fill or the one who kisses me in the morning, but because it’s lived in God.
Divine justice eradicates human presumption as it works to make one poor in spirit. And this happens within the vineyard of life. Work, according to a strict reading of just the parable, is of course the manual labor of everything that’s involved in getting a vineyard to produce most fruitfully, which a parishioner informed me this past week is really akin to farming. The movies may glamorize it, this former vineyard owner said, but that particular work is real dirt-in-the-fingernails toil. So it should resonate with all of us when we read of these poor laborers who’ve worked all these long hours and they wind up taking home the same amount of pay as those who didn’t work nearly as long. In discerning however the wisdom that the parable is unfolding, it’s from this perspective that we start to understand that work means something more here. The church fathers tend to see the vineyard as the environment for the cultivation of virtue, and therefore the real work being done is that of satisfaction. Becoming consecrated, holy, or set apart—all for a specific purpose, namely to be used to accomplish God’s will—means being transformed from the old ways of living. The kingdom of heaven has descended; now there’s a more ascended way to live. Instead of a zero-sum transactional sensibility where angst and anxiety must always be felt, for if you don’t stand up for yourself no one will, the wisdom present in this parable carves out a different option. Rest secure in the gift-giver! Every gift that comes from God is good, because God is good. What these grumbling workers chose to focus on was what they had done to earn their pay in comparison to the others who came later, forgetting of course what the original deal was that they had struck with the owner. You cannot deny it: the owner was just in that he paid every cent that was due on that particular deal. Only human presumption—the arrogance imbedded deep in the heart of entitlement—can lead one to think that the owner has acted unjustly.
And that’s just the sort of moving-the-goalposts that’s occurred in this story. The deal was in place and a certain amount was owed—that is, until human presumption took over, and now I’m entitled to more because the standard changed when more people joined the work force and now they are getting more for less. Again, notice that the focus changes. Instead of concentrating upon the existing deal, attention is now directed to what others are getting. When I say “deal” here, that’s parabolical language that really points to relationship. Getting to the heart of what the parable really means, necessitates us realizing that the workers are all disciples of Christ, the foreman is Jesus the Messiah, the owner is God the Father, and the environment of the vineyard are all the circumstances that bear down upon us in our lives. The circumstances that occurred in that vineyard caused those grumbling workers to think less of the owner, to see him as unjust. Their faith in that man was circumstantial, because the greater force in their life was a sensibility that they were entitled to more.
What Jesus calls us to is not a circumstantial faith—but a real and an abiding faith in the goodness of God’s character. We workers must know intimately our owner. We must put ourselves under him, knowing that every good gift that we receive from him is not one that we’ve earned and are therefore entitled to, but that it’s a gift of grace. And that level of faith is connected to hope. We can rest secure in his character knowing that he’ll vindicate us in the end. And so this level of security—this freedom, if you will—allows us to do the actions of poverty.
Part of what makes this parable so much fun is that it shocks the senses. Everything about the human experience screams that this owner is being unjust in his dealings. And yet, if you humble yourself, if you put yourself under it’s wisdom, quite possibly what it may reveal to you is just how presumptuous your human experience really is. The wisdom in this parable exhorts us to go low. Remember that in the kingdom of God: the last, the poor in spirit, will be first. And that is just, just as much as it is true.