It’s not easy to put a large table cloth on the ground for a picnic. Have you ever tried it? On a calm, windless day it’s just a matter of shaking it out so it spreads and settles down slowly. But if there’s a little wind, even just a breeze, it becomes near impossible: the fabric billows, the corners fly – you want the cloth to behave in a tame, domesticated manner, but it wants to be a banner, a kite, or a sail.
A good parable is like that. You expect somebody would know how to lay it out on the ground, nicely and orderly, but it just won’t lie still. It’s full of possibilities and surprises; every time you hear it, it’s new, it’s deeper, challenging, confusing, comforting.
Imagine you take this little gem of a story about a vineyard owner to the business round table, the next time they have a luncheon downtown. Entrepreneurs, executives, managers – they listen how this peculiar workday unfolds from first light to pay time, and they wonder what kind of business man the landowner is and how he ever managed to stay in business.
Then you take the story to the union hall, if you can find one, and they try to keep calm while they explain to you why you can’t pay some workers for one hour’s work what others make in an entire day.
Now imagine you take the story to the corner of the parking lot at Home Depot where out-of-work men gather, waiting for someone to hire them. They laugh as they listen because they know how hard it is to make a full day’s wage with part time labor. They know how hard it is to watch truck after truck drive by – and very few trucks come around after noon. Not a lot of people are hiring these days. On the way home you hear on the radio that the unemployment rate in Tennessee is at 9.8% and that 1 in 6 Americans now live in poverty.
When Jesus first told this parable, many farmers in Galilee had lost their land, and they had to make a living as day laborers. Mid-size and large farms, many of them owned by absentee landlords, were usually operated with day labor rather than slaves; it was much cheaper, and there was an abundance of landless peasants. Farmworkers in Galilee were poor, underemployed, and heavily taxed by the Roman authorities.
One denarius, a small Roman coin, appears to have been the going rate for a day of field labor, but a denarius wasn’t much. You could buy 10-12 small loaves of pita bread for a denarius. For a lamb you had to pay 3-4 denarii; for a simple set of clothes, 30 denarii.
The landowner in the story is very peculiar. He goes out early in the morning to hire laborers, which was the usual time. But then he comes back at 9 to hire more, and you say to yourself, “Well, he finally realized that he needed more hands to get the work done.”
When he comes back at noon, you wonder if he knows what he’s doing or if he is one of those rich city slickers who bought himself a vineyard and a winery. And then he comes back in the middle of the afternoon, when everybody is dreaming about quitting time, and he keeps hiring – and you are running out of explanations that would make sense of this kind of behavior. Has he been in the sun too long?
But that’s not the end of it. The sun is already low in the west when he returns again to the marketplace, and he hires every last worker he can find. The day began in the familiar world of the tough Galilean rural economy, but it ends in a world that looks and feels very different.
Imagine you got up at dawn to go to the corner where they pick up day laborers. You know that if you get hired, you can get some bread on the way home and your family will eat dinner. But you don’t get picked in the first round. You go to the other side, hoping to have better luck over there, but you don’t. The younger ones are hired first. The stronger ones are hired first. You cross the road again, hoping for better luck on the other side, but it’s noon already. You decide to check out the Labor Ready office on Gallatin, but they tell you to come back tomorrow, and to be there early. So you go back to the marketplace, and just when you decide to call it a day and walk home, this landowner shows up and asks you, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”
The economy has tanked and you find yourself pushed to the margin, and you already feel like a left-over person, no longer needed, unnoticed, forgotten, and this man calls you idle. This man doesn’t know how long you have been on your feet. He doesn’t know how hard you have tried to find work. He doesn’t know how hungry you are and how much you dread coming home tonight with empty hands. Did he just call you lazy or work-shy?
“We’re here because no one has hired us,” you say.
“You also go into the vineyard,” the landowner replies.
And you go. You’re not doing it for the money, or you would have asked him how much he’s paying. You go because …, who knows. You go because you want to be useful, because you are somebody, because you want to contribute and participate. You go and work in the vineyard.
Soon the manager calls everybody to line up, starting with those hired last, starting with you. You barely got your hands dirty. How much could it be for an hour’s work? A copper penny? It doesn’t really matter. It won’t be enough to put bread on the table. It’ll be another dinner of wild field greens for you and the family, organic and locally harvested!
Now the manager puts a coin in your hand. It’s a denarius. It’s a full day’s pay. It’s unbelievable! You turn around to the people behind you, “Look at this! A full day’s wage!”
The news travels fast to the end of the line, where the ones hired first are waiting to be paid. Imagine you’re one of them. You’ve worked twelve long, hard hours. You are dirty, sweaty, your clothes are sticking to your skin and your back is aching. Talk about eating your bread by the sweat of your brow! But you’ve heard the news and now you’re looking forward to a little bonus, and your back is already starting to feel better.
You move to the front of the line, and the manager puts a coin in your hand. It’s a denarius. One denarius. It’s unbelievable! You turn to the people around you, and they are just as upset as you are.
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us. You have wiped out the distinctions that are so important to us and to our sense of justice and fairness.
This story comes with more than just a breeze; the air is charged, a thunderstorm is brewing. You expect somebody would know how to smooth it out on the ground, nice and square, but it just won’t lie still. This story will continue to challenge, confuse, and comfort us, depending on how and where we enter it.
This little story holds the pain and the hope of those in every generation who are treated like left-over people. All those in the company of sinners and tax collectors who are not pious enough to be considered righteous and worthy of divine reward, and yet Jesus welcomes them into the kingdom. The story holds the pain and the hope of all those in the company of landless peasants who feel like they are no longer needed or wanted, and Jesus insists that their needs and dignity matter.
But this little story also holds the anger and resentment of those in every generation who worry that too much mercy for others will only breed further lack of effort on their part. All those in the company of the self-made upright who cannot imagine themselves as recipients of gifts they didn’t earn, but whom Jesus welcomes with equal compassion as he welcomes notorious sinners. The story holds the anger and resentment of all those who look with envy on those they deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of the joy of God’s reign than they are.
This little kingdom story holds a mighty surprise, and whether we respond with joy or with grumbling depends entirely on how we see ourselves: Have I been working since the break of dawn, or am I only just beginning to get my hands in the dirt in this vineyard? I like to think that I’ve been working for a very long time, but what if all my busyness since the break of day was only idleness in the eyes of the owner of this vineyard? This little story is full of possibilities and surprises; every time you hear it, it’s new, it’s deeper, challenging, confusing.
One thing I know: God is not like some absentee landlord who shows little interest in us but much more like the quirky vineyard owner in our story. The God who meets us in Jesus is one who comes and seeks us, as if the day was not complete until each of us has done at least a little vineyard work. God comes and finds us, sometimes early, sometimes late, and will not rest until we’re found, every last one of us. And at the end of the day, we all receive the fullness of what God so generously gives: life. Life that is nothing but life.
 Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKK 1/3), p. 146