Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Day Labor in the Vineyard -- Part 2

I left off yesterday with several workers who felt very insulted indeed. They had been the first to work and the last to be paid. They were paid a denarius for working 10 hours, but there were others who were paid a denarius for working 1 hour. When they complained, they were forced to admit that the landowner had fulfilled the contract and they had no right complain.

Do you feel good about the situation? Would you have been comforted by the landowners words?

Although I have not read anyone else say this, I think that it is nonetheless true. You are not supposed to feel good about the situation. The fact that the parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven and God leaves you no option but to find a real peace about the landowners dealings with the laborers.

What the Commentators Say

You need to feel the dilemma this parable presents. It is the tension created by the story that carries Jesus; teaching and purpose. Jesus begins this parable by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out ..."  All agree that the landowner represents God. So, is the landowner just in what he did?  Is God just if he does likewise in a similar situation?  What is this similar situation?  All interpretations of this parable seek to resolve the tension it creates. 

Some commentators resolve the tension by arguing that the denarius paid to each group had a different value. This view says that the earliest workers were paid with gold coins, the middle groups with silver, and the last workers were paid with bronze coins. This view, besides being desperate, is easy to discount for two reasons: first, there is no archeological evidence for such coinage; second, there is no evidence in the parable for it. The landowner even says, "I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you."

Other commentators argue that the later workers were better workers than the first. In this view, the early workers goofed off, ate more than they picked, and made frequent runs to the water trough. The last workers, however, made up for the laziness of the first. To back up this argument, the commentators reason that the landowner had to continually go and hire new workers, because the first crew did not do their share. If they had, the landowner would not have had to go hire more. Because the landowner agreed to pay the first crew a denarius, he kept his word and did so. This view is more plausible than the idea of different coins, but it still suffers from a lack of internal evidence. If this was the crucial point, the story would state it. The landowner would have said, "My friend, you goofed off, but these others busted their backs to make up for you." 

In spite of the discomfort it causes, it is hard to escape the central dilemma of this story. The landowner paid someone who only worked an hour the same as someone who worked 10. Not only that, he clearly says that it is a matter of his choice and right to do so. It is not a matter of fairness, nor of good labor relations, but of his generosity. So, what might that teach us about God and the kingdom of heaven?  What does it teach us about living lives for Messiah?

Before giving my view, there are two more interpretations I want to mention. Some see the grumbling workers as Pharisees whose zeal and hard work for the law and tradition made them believe they would have a greater reward. This view draws a parallel between the grumbling workers and the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. This view has some merit, but the Pharisees worked against Jesus and against His Father, but those workers who worked all day did the landowner good.

By far the most popular view equates being hired with salvation. Those who hired on early are those who believe early in life. Those who hired on in the last hour are those who believe in Messiah at death's door. The denarius represents eternal life, which is given generously without regard to works. This is the view I held for a long time. Its main problem is that it excludes the concept of a believer's reward for good works. As Paul writes:

According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, NASB)

Indeed--and this begins to foreshadow my own development--the very verses prior to this parable has this exchange between Jesus and Peter:

Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. (Matthew 19:27-30)

So Jesus speaks of great reward for leaving everything to follow Him, and then He says, "But many who are first will be last; and the last, first." The connection with the parable is obvious, because the parable closes with the same first-last-last-first formula. There is no equality in these words of Jesus. Beyond salvation, He will give according to what we have done (or perhaps left behind). Clearly some will receive from Jesus more than others. This verse and many others directly contradict the idea of equal reward for unequal effort toward the kingdom of God. As I will show, the parable does, in fact, have application close to the idea of salvation without works, but there are other clues in the broader context that let us know what Jesus is teaching here. And that I will pick up tomorrow.

Wednesday: The Structural Hiding of Information

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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