Day Labor in the Vineyard -- Part 1
Jesus often used stories to teach. And they were memorable. Most of us would easily remember the tale of The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Talents, and so forth. Most of these stories connect with our sense of right and wrong. They may challenge us to do better, but they do not challenge our sense of what is right and what is wrong. That is not the case with the story that I plan to cover these next few days. It comes from Matthew 20:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’
“When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16, NASB)
The Early Workers
Most assume the hired men picked grapes, although the story does not say. You should know, however, that constructing and maintaining a vineyard was one of the most labor intensive activities in Israel. Unlike grain fields, the vineyards were completely enclosed with a stone fence to keep out animals and thieves. The owner had to construct one or more watch towers to guard the gates. He had to bring in large stones, arrange them next to each other in rows, and train young vines to follow them. The plants needed constant pruning and cultivation. New plants took years of this care before they bore fruit. The wine presses were not wooden tubs as you might picture. They were hewn out of solid rock. Consequently, it doesn't matter whether the landowner hired men to chisel, pick, prune, dig, move, or stomp, the work was hard.
Assuming, however, the landowner hired harvest help. The September harvest days were still hot. The work day was from 6:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening. Subtracting time off for rests and lunch, everybody worked about 10 hours. Through most of the year, the vineyard could be tended by the servants and possibly a few regular hired hands, but, during harvest, the landowner needed extra help to pick the grapes at their peek. Early in the day, he would send his servants to the vineyard to begin work, while he went to the marketplace to get help. This is the backdrop for the parable before us.
To feel the full force of the bad feelings felt by those who hired on first, imagine yourself to be one of the first workers hired. Your day would go something like this:
You wake up early, maybe 4:30 in the morning, and rush to the marketplace. It is harvest time, there will be many other men looking for work there. If you get there early, you will have a better chance to be hired. If you're hired, it will mean payment of a denarius or a day's wage. It will also mean, according to the Torah, that you could eat your fill today while you work. If you are not hired, you will go both hungry and unpaid. Your family will not have all it needs to live on.
One landowner sees you and asks you to work in the vineyard. You agree to work for a denarius, and he hires you on the spot. You feel good. The day is going well.
When you arrive in the vineyard, you see the servants already working. You see that this is a good harvest. You see row after row of vines draped on large rocks. In the cool of the morning, the work goes easy. Shortly after 9:00 another group of workers arrives, and another shortly after noon. The day is getting hot. Your hands get sticky, sweat drips in your eyes, your back begins to ache, and the bugs come to fly around you and bite. You still have the second half of the day ahead of you. A denarius just barely provides what you need each day. As the day goes on you wish that such hard work could earn a better living, but nobody ever pays more than denarius, and this is better than begging.
Shortly after 3:00 in the afternoon, a fourth group of workers shows up. You see why this is good. Without the extra help, all the grapes could not be picked.
Most of the day is over, you begin to look forward to the end. At 5:00, with only a single hour's work left, another group of workers arrive. At 6:00 work is halted, you stand up straight and walk to the table where the foreman will hand out the day's wage. This is funny: the foreman asks you to wait at the end of the line. You look all the way to the front, and you can easily see how the line is organized. In the front, there is an unruffled group who clearly only worked the last hour. From the front to the back each man seems to take on deeper and deeper purple hues. For some reason, even though you have worked the longest and would like to go home soon, you will be paid last.
Up ahead you can see the foreman hand a denarius to each man who only worked an hour. This encourages you. You've worked 10 times as long as they. The landowner must be glad for the large harvest and is paying everyone extra. When your turn comes, however, the foreman hands you a denarius and tells you this is what he paid everybody.
What are you to think? You have worked harder than anyone else. You have picked more grapes than anyone else. Surely the landowner benefited more from your work than from those few who only worked an hour. They had only begun to warm up and get good at it, before they could quit. They didn't even have to stand in line very long. They spent most of their time eating.
Three InsultsI think you will agree with me that you and the other early workers feel a threefold insult. The first insult is being sent to the end of the pay line. After working hard all day, you had to stand and wait longer than anyone else to be paid. The second insult is being paid the same as men who only worked one hour to your ten and who hardly had to wait in line. The third insult is being called envious when you complain. You have no legal case, but in your heart you really feel you have an over-arching moral complaint falling on deaf ears.
What is Jesus trying to teach here? In providing an answer, I will look at what the commentators have had to say. Then I will actually connect this story to its context and develop a more fitting answer.
Tuesday: What the Commentators Say.
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