Pentecost 19A/Creation3A, 2011
Matthew 20:1-16

A Liturgy is also available


The story of the ‘Workers in the vineyard’ is a very controversial parable indeed.
It was a problem for the early church.
And it’s a real problem for the contemporary church.

Many of those who offer guidance as to how this story should be heard,
know of these difficulties, and so have ‘spiritualised’ it,
and suggest the emphasis should be on the rich vineyard owner’s
or generosity.

And they have turned the owner into a God-like figure
saying, this is how God is: graciousness, good, and generosity.
But such an interpretation goes against the parable itself.
The parable “is about God’s kingdom, not about God”.  
(Verhoeven 2007:49)

While others, not that way inclined but still not so sure,
suggest what they reckon it is not:
not a story on social security
or full employment or a minimum wage.

What’s going on?
Is this parable about comforting people or challenging people?

From Matthew’s exclusive use of the original Jesus parable
it would appear he favoured the former rather than the latter.

So let me see if I can unravel some threads and offer a comment or two,
adding to both your opinions and the opinion of others.


Hardly any other parable in all of the gospel tradition
upsets the basic structure of an orderly society,
as does this one.
So a little bit of background stuff will be necessary.

First, this story has about it, a very strong Jesus echo.
That is: Jesus undoubtedly said something very like this.
So it is going to be difficult to avoid Jesus’ penetrating gaze as we reflect on it.

From all we now know about the culture of Galilee of these times,
the storyteller’s picture is fairly typical.
• Rich rural land, especially in the lake area, was being taken over by the big city ‘Macquarie Street’ farmers.
• Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper.
• Small farm owners were losing their land.
• Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.

Second, in a society organised along the lines of a patron-client ‘pyramid’ system,
the ultimate patron was at the pointy end - the emperor or Caesar, Son of God, Saviour of the World.
And power worked its way downward from him.

His clients became patrons for other clients who became patrons for...
“And their fleas have fleas!”
(Scott 1989).  And so on.

Such an arranged social order guaranteed that:
• no one was equal, and
• every social engagement or offer of work, was a contest
to determine one’s place in the hierarchy.

And by golly, you worked darn hard to preserve your position,
or to knock someone out off theirs,
if it meant you could climb a rung or two.

So back to the parable...
This parable violated this orderly system.
This parable turned this ordered world upside down.
This parable from Jesus was indeed “subversive speech”. 
(Herzog 1994)

How?  And what is the ‘twist’ in the tail, this time?


The parable seems to suggest people are to be treated according to their needs,
not according to their deserts or position within the hierarchy.
And that is indeed a very worthy ‘kingdom’ value.

Let me share some of the comments of parable’s scholar, B. B. Scott, on this interpretation:
“In a society where peasants were crushed by debt and were being displaced from their land, (Jesus’ concern for the poor as expressed in this parable is) a concrete program to rebuild community.  The empire of God is clearly part and parcel of this rebuilding”. 
(Scott 2001:132-33)

While I more often than not find Scott’s suggestions very helpful,
I reckon we still might be tempted to ‘spiritualise’ this story
if we were to stop where Scott wants us to stop.

So what else do we need to hear in this story?
Well I reckon we can also hear it as ‘subversive speech’.

The storyteller brings together two social extremes:
the rich elite,
the poor expendables.

And they are brought together for just a few moments or days,
when the elite (the rich landowner) is in urgent need
of the expendables (the growing pool of subsistence day labourers).
At harvest time.

So at this point, the workers seem to have some power,
- their bodies and energies - in the situation.
But because they were forced to accept occupations which quickly destroyed them,
and that they are ‘poorly organised’, to use a modern concept,
they lose that power, and the landowner
is able “to conquer them by dividing them”. 
(Herzog 1994:95)

With this in mind, let me offer this opinion from New Testament scholar, William Herzog:
“(the vineyard owner) smothered the truth that he was dependent on them and, as a result, that they could have power but only a power that grew out of their solidarity.  Divided, they would fall one by one before the withering hostility and judgment of the elite”. 
(Herzog 1994:96)

So where has the storyteller put the ‘twist’ in the tail?
Don’t believe all you hear...

There are those in positions of power who claim or pretend
they are the appropriate guardians of the values of the age.

Take a breath.  Step back a bit.  Imagine a broader perspective...
The reign of God stands in sharp opposition to their claim...
The oppression and the exploitation of others
no matter how it is dressed up to look otherwise,
is not a ‘god given’ virtue.  Period.

Nor is it the way it has to be...

So the ‘twist’ in the tail of this parable undermines
the ruling elite's self-serving structures and institutions.
Or, the realm of God is not more of the same.

And that is some ‘twist’. Even for modern ears.
Especially for modern ‘church’ ears,
where most of us have become consumers of religion
and want to be comforted by Matthew rather than challenged by Jesus!


Justice was at the centre of Jesus’ spirituality.  Period.
And he did this by inviting people to re-imagine the world
to regain control over their lives and their livelihoods.

It is a conceit of conservative Western middle-class christianity and politics
“that Jesus... limited himself to spiritual matters”. 
(Herzog 1994:264)

People, especially the must vulnerable people in society,
not only have rights, but because they are people,
have a right to claim their rights - in spite of the ‘big end of town’.

From our own recent past in this nation
I am sure you can bring to mind several instances
when the most vulnerable in our society needed support
from people who had justice at the centre of their spirituality.
Human dignity.

But, you know, if any of this was ever to get out
into the so-called ‘real world’ of political industrial relations debates
and market-driven economic solutions,
then that storyteller would very likely be
ridiculed, demeaned, called a ‘leftie’ or ‘heretic’, or even killed!

Such is the real power behind this controversial and dangerous story.

Herzog 11, W. R. 1994. Parables as Subversive Speech. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Scott, B. B. 1989. Hear Then The Parable. A Commentary of the Parables of Jesus
. Minneapolis. Fortress Prss.
Scott, B. B. 2001. Re-imagining the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Verhoeven, P. 2007. “The First will be First” E. F. Beutner (ed). 
Listening to the Parables of Jesus. Jesus Seminar Guides. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.