Thursday, June 26, 2003

Day Labor in the Vineyard -- Part 4

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is not a feel good story. This series of lessons has been exploring it to fully understand its meaning. If you are just joining this brief study, you should start at the beginning. Click here to do so.

As I have shown, the rich young man who came to Jesus asking, "what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” had a day laborer mentality when it came to the Kingdom of God. The man wanted eternal life, and he was willing to work for it. But he was not interested in the giver. I have asserted that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about that mentality.

Today I want to spend a little more time on the landowner and our choices.

The Landowner

The attitude of the day laborers in the vineyard was to work, get paid, and go home. The early workers received that for which they bargained. The landowner, on the other hand, was generous and gave all the other workers, regardless of hours worked, what they needed to take home and feed their families. In the context of the payment desk, what the landowner did seems unfair. But what would you have thought if he had not hired any other groups of workers, but had sought them out afterwards and gave them what they needed? It is obvious that such a scenario somehow does not create the problems the parable does. But, what substantive difference, really, is there between obtaining a little work and being generous and just being generous?

The landowner was being consistent with principles in the Old Testament. Below, I give a commandment and then an historical illustration of the commandment in practice:

‘Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10, NASB)

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, that you may eat of the bread and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” So she sat beside the reapers; and he served her roasted grain, and she ate and was satisfied and had some left. When she rose to glean, Boaz commanded his servants, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not insult her. Also you shall purposely pull out for her some grain from the bundles and leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her.” (Ruth 2:14-16)

Boaz's compassion towards Ruth's situation always amazes me. You can see how he puts the full spirit of the Levitical commandment into practice. You should also be able to see the same of the landowner in Jesus' parable. As the landowner was generous and merciful to all the workers, so our God is generous and merciful to us.

The Better Path

I wrote yesterday that those like Peter who have "left everything" to follow Jesus do not figure in Jesus' parable. That is not strictly true. To be sure, they are not mentioned in the parable, but they are implicitly there. The landowner does not need day laborers everyday. For the day in and day out operations, he would have his own family and his servants. When the landowner went to find more workers in the market place, the family and the servants would already be in the vineyard working. It is possible that they continued to work even after the day labor quit for the day. As Jesus said:

“Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?  So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

Of course, many of the servants would be longing for their freedom, but the Scriptures speak of another kind of slave:

“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. It shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also you shall do likewise to your maidservant. It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the Lord your God will bless you in whatever you do. (Deuteronomy 15:12-18)

At the end of six years, a slave could either leave with back-pay or join the team as a permanent slave. Such slaves have committed themselves to their masters interests. It is no wonder, then, that Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and John all referred to themselves as bondslaves of Jesus Christ. They were not day laborers in the Kingdom, but workers dedicated to its success.

That is what Jesus offered to the rich young man. He told him to sell everything that he had and to come and follow. He could join the team and be part of the Kingdom and seek its welfare. We we choose to do so, our years of service are "worth double the service of a hired man" and yet at the end of the day, we will say, "I only did what I ought to have done." This is the better path and the path that promises great satisfaction.


And here we come to God's fabulous economy. The first shall be last. The day laborers who work all day with their eye in the end of the day and the single denarius that the landowner will owe them will find themselves embittered. They were the first hired, the last paid, and the least satisfied. The bond-slaves, who worked much harder and had no freedom, will eventually come to rule the vineyard.

Are you working for a denarius or for the vineyard?

Friday: The Paradox of the Unexpected Hanging


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