Workers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt
Isaiah 55:6-9, Matthew 20:1-16
The parables of Jesus are masterful constructions, deceptively simple in their appearance. Very often they are seen as similes, helping one understand more complex truths about the kingdom of Heaven, using imagery with which people would be familiar. There is of course truth to that way of approaching parables. Often though, parables do more than that. They get under our defences and expose us – to ourselves. In so doing, they stand as judge, forcing us to choose one way or another. We are unmasked in our ways of thinking, be it about life, the world or God.
I would like to suggest that the key to interpreting the parable comes from the question the owner asks at the end: ‘why be envious because I’m generous?’. Envy and generosity, are the two options laid before us, on how we would choose to live. There is the owner, the Lord of the Vineyard who goes out at dawn, morning, noon and even at close of the day to hire workers for his vineyard. What he does in many ways makes no economic sense. To hire workers at the earliest seems sensible, but to hire workers throughout the day, especially the last hour would be irrational. The ones at the end of the day, would be those least fit to work. It would also take some time for the workers to reach the vineyard, considerably shortening their work time. To pay them the same as the workers from the morning, does violate our sense of justice. We naturally want to question this owner, along with the workers from the morning, on his sense of fairness. In the marketplace, what he does would be unjust. But this is not really about the marketplace. This is talking about a particular view of the world, where everything is seen in terms of transactions, of economics. I have given of my labours and I expect to be compensated fairly. This fairness is based on competition. The value for my work comes not simply from what I have done but, on the value, given to another’s work.
This vineyard owner keeps ‘going out’ and ‘returning’ in search of workers, throughout the day. Not lacking in wealth, it is strange that he would go out himself, the whole day to find workers. The words, to ‘go out’ and ‘return’ however, mirror the ‘going out’ and ‘return’ of the Son and the Spirit from the Father. Within the Trinity, the Son is begotten and goes forth as a Word of Love arising from the Father’s heart. Receiving his being from the Father, he gives of himself freely and completely, returning in love, to the Father. This love is the Spirit, breathed forth between the Father and the Son. This love which is generously poured out from the Father’s heart, is what causes the world to come into being. All of creation is held in being by the constantly proceeding Word of the Father (Heb 1:1). It is in coming back to the Father, that all the world finds the meaning of its own existence. Compared to the dynamism of creation brought about by the movement of the Trinity, the best and greatest accomplishments of man are the equivalent of standing still, idle, like the workers in the marketplace.
This vineyard owner is at the marketplace already, at the crack of dawn looking for people. The best workers would find work in the morning and there would be some competition for them, giving them bargaining power. He agrees a wage with the people he hires then. But as the day progresses, he doesn’t settle on a rate, only promising to pay what is ‘just’ even as the chances of finding work later would decrease. At the end of the day, he simply tells them to go to his vineyard. Even the promise of a just pay is not given them. The very opportunity to work comes to them as sheer gift, for they know well, they have nothing to trade. They have been saved from going back ashamed that no one wanted what they had to offer. All this makes economic sense.
As he starts paying them however, this semblance of rationality seems to go out of the window. There is no agreement with the workers who come at the end. All they have is hope in the master’s goodness, but his goodness is far greater than they could have expected. Having been saved at the eleventh hour, to be paid for a full day’s work comes as an even greater surprise, an even greater gift. It is this experience of the workers, of receiving their livelihood as gift rather than a transaction which helps explain the parable.
Modernity is predicated on the lie that we belong to no one. Being orphaned, spiritually, we try to find our worth from all kinds of things – be it work or anything else we can exchange. And the Word comes to squarely confront this lie. Your life belongs to God. It has meaning in as much as it is given back to God in gratitude.
At the beginning of the day, the master ‘agrees’ with the workers a denarius. This word to ‘agree’ is the word from which we get ‘symphony’. He wants to draw them, so that they can work, they can resonate, in symphony with him. Having received their work at the start of the day, they forget that this opportunity to work itself comes from the goodness of the master. Ideally, in working with him through the day, they could let go of their transactional state of mind, and see themselves and everything they have as a gift. Gift which comes from the generosity of the master. In going out and coming back so many times, he has probably managed to do more work than any of the labourers. He gives them what they expect, in the hope that they will be drawn into something greater. In the vineyard, they are given a place, which will not be taken away from them. They are brought into a family. But at the end, they refuse. They complain that they have been made equal with those who came last. Their value comes only from their work, won through competition. Someone has to lose for someone else to win. The owner still addresses them, and does so personally, once again calling them into relationship with him – ‘Friend!’. They could do more in symphony with him, than anything they could in their own strength. If they trusted in the master’s goodness, they could have more, from the one who gives generously than they could through competition. But they refuse to see things with the eye of the owner. They go away from the vineyard, clutching only their denarius, back to their orphaned existence.
This Word comes to you and me with the same challenge. Where does the value of your life come from? When we begin to see and receive everything as gift from the goodness of God, we also realise that our very existence comes as a gift of love from the heart of the Father. We can give back our lives to God simply trusting in God’s goodness. And be God’s gift to a world in desperate need of it.