A RIGHTEOUS WAGE
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2015; Non-Lectionary Sermon
1 Samuel 30:7-10, 18-24; Matthew 20:1–16
“When [the landowner] went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle
in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard,
and I will pay you whatever is right.’”
My younger brother Dave attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania — a good Presbyterian school. I went to visit him there one day years ago, and he gave me a campus tour.
One of the buildings he showed me was the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights — an ornate stone structure that resembles a Greek temple. Kirby Hall is named for Fred Morgan Kirby: a wealthy businessman who donated the money to build it the late 1920s.
Mr. Kirby had done rather well for himself. At the tender age of 23, he committed his life-savings of $500 to purchase a variety store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He had a partner in the venture, a man named Charles Sumner Woolworth. Together, they opened the first Woolworth’s “five- and ten” — the cornerstone of a retail empire.
Mr. Kirby took an active role in designing the college building. He also specified exactly what sort of teaching would go on within its walls. There’s a dedicatory plaque just inside the entrance, declaring that Kirby Hall is “for instruction in the Anglo-Saxon ideals of the true principles of constitutional freedom, including the right of man to own property and do with it as he will; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and incidentally the right to sell his labor as he chooses…”
Mr. Kirby was a Gilded Age captain of industry through and through. He was anti-socialist and anti-union. He didn’t want any left-wing ideas taught inside his building!
So, why am I telling you this story? It’s because Mr. Kirby also directed that something else be carved into that stone plaque: a verse from the Bible. That verse is Matthew 20:15, which comes from today’s New Testament lesson. In the King James version it reads: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” To Mr. Kirby, that verse seemed the perfect biblical justification for the capitalist, free-enterprise system.
Turns out, the joke was on him. The scripture verse he chose doesn’t say what he thought it said. This is the danger of what we call — in the world of Bible study — “proof-texting”: pulling a verse out of its context, so it means something completely different.
I wonder if anyone ever explained to Mr. Kirby that the person who speaks that line, in Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, is the landowner: who’s anything but a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. What he does, in the parable, sounds downright socialist. This is the boss who, at the end of the day, pays all his farm hands exactly the same amount of money: regardless of how many hours they’ve worked!
Christians have been trying to wrap their minds around this parable ever since. It’s a baffling tale, with a provocative surprise ending.
Let’s recap the plot. It’s harvest time, and the vineyard-owner is desperate to get his grapes picked before they rot on the vine. So he does what farmers have always done when they have a ripe crop in the field: he goes out and hires himself some temp workers.
The story’s more than 2,000 years old, but the details are still the same as you see today, in any industry that relies on short-term, unskilled labor. The workers gather, each morning, in what we call today a muster zone. (There’s one of these in downtown Lakewood, by the way — mostly for construction workers and groundskeepers.)
The landowner shows up at his local muster zone just before dawn: “I need a dozen farm hands, to pick my grapes.” The first dozen men in line step right up, and follow him back to the vineyard.
“What’s the wage?” they ask.
“Standard rate,” he replies. “One denarius.” A denarius was a silver coin.
Well, the landowner soon realizes he needs a lot more workers. So, he goes back at 9 am, then again at noon, and again at 3 p.m. The last group of workers he hires at 5 pm. The law of Moses says farm workers are to labor from sunup until the first star appears in the sky. That means this last group of workers will only pick grapes for an hour or so before it’s quitting time.
Now, each of these later cohorts of workers had asked the landowner how much they’d be paid. “I’ll pay you whatever’s right,” he replied. The Greek word for “right,” in this verse, is the same word translated elsewhere as “righteous.” He promises them a righteous wage. (Remember that; it’s important.)
At the end of the day, all the workers line up to receive their pay. First in line are the 5:00 gang: the men who’d only worked an hour. They walk past the boss’ manager, who presses a silver denarius into each man’s hand.
The sunrise crew watches this action with astonishment. If these Joshua-come-latelys are each getting a silver denarius, then they — who’ve been working hard all day — are going to be rolling in dough. What a generous boss this is!
But then, they can’t believe their eyes. Next comes the 3 pm group. Same story: one silver denarius. It’s the same with the noon hires, and with those who started at 9 am. When the sunrise crew works their way up the line, they too get one single denarius.
“Now, wait just one minute,” they say to the farmer. “This isn’t fair. You paid everybody the same!”
“Did I break your contract?” asks the landowner, in response. “I did not. We agreed on one denarius, and that’s exactly what you’re holding in your hand.”
“But what about the others? Their hourly rate is much higher!”
Now here’s where Mr. Kirby’s favorite Bible verse comes in: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
He continues: “Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
So, what does this crazy parable mean? Bible scholars, over the years, have struggled to come up with an explanation. One of the most popular interpretations is this: Jesus is addressing the problem of Jew vs. Gentile. The sunrise crew represents the Jewish Christians. They’ve been following the law of Moses for generations, but when all these Greeks and Romans waltz into the church — converts from paganism — lo and behold, they get welcomed right in, without so much as a bar mitzvah (let alone, a circumcision)! And then there are those deathbed converts: if they’re sincere about their repentance and their profession of faith, they make it into heaven too!
This is a problem Peter deals with in the book of Acts — and Paul in his letters — but it doesn’t make sense here, in a parable Jesus tells. Here’s why. It doesn’t make sense because of who’s in Jesus’ audience: his disciples. Like their Master, they’re all Jews. There’s no resurrection yet, no Christian church. As far as anybody listening to this parable is concerned, they’re all Jews together, students in the school of Rabbi Jesus. Not until the miracle of Pentecost will it begin to dawn on them that maybe their little community is morphing into something different. It won’t be until Peter has that strange dream in the book of Acts — of the great sheet descending from heaven, filled with clean and unclean animals, all mixed together — that they’ll fully realize that they’re becoming a Christian church that welcomes Jew and Gentile alike.
So, if Jesus’ parable isn’t about the tensions within a multi-cultural church, then what’s he talking about? Is Jesus fulfilling Mr. Kirby’s worst nightmare? Is he turning out to be — God forbid — a socialist? Is the landowner’s righteous wage, in this story, an example of paying workers according to what they need to live, rather than what the market will bear?
I don’t think that’s the right explanation, either. There’s a clue to the meaning of this parable in the very last line. Jesus concludes his tale of wacky, out-of-balance economics with this saying: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
If I had started the scripture reading a little earlier, you would have said: “That’s familiar. We’ve heard it before.” The very last line of the preceding chapter is exactly the same: “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Matthew, in fact, is bracketing the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, on either side, with an identical verse — a proverb.
So, let’s back up and see what leads Jesus to share that proverb the first time.
He’s just laid on his disciples a very challenging teaching — one that our friend Mr. Kirby probably didn’t like very much. It’s the famous saying, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Well, Peter and the others hear this, and they think they’re in a pretty good place. “What about people like us?” Peter asks. “We’re not rich. We’ve left everything to follow you. What are we going to get out of this?”
Jesus’ answer reminds me of a parent, assuring a small child that Santa’s going to leave a truckload of goodies under the Christmas tree. “Don’t worry about that, Peter,” he says. “You guys are going to sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everybody who’s done what you’ve done — leaving houses, fields, fishing nets and family for my sake — will get back a hundredfold. Not only that, but you’ll have eternal life.”
It’s then that Jesus lays that proverb on them for the first time: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Right after that, Jesus launches into this disorienting parable, the Laborers in the Vineyard. He concludes it by repeating that proverb, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Once we understand the larger context, it becomes clear who this parable is directed at. It’s directed at the disciples. They are the first who will end up last. Those disciples were so delighted to hear Jesus tell them about the twelve thrones with their names on them, that Jesus feels the need to take them down a peg. The disciples are like the first crew of pickers in the parable. They’ll get what’s coming to them: but so will a lot of others.
“Don’t worry,” he’s telling them. “You’ll get your heavenly thrones. But they won’t be the only thrones in the kingdom of heaven. You’ll get your silver denarius, as well. But you’re going to see a whole lot of others walking around heaven with the same shiny silver coin! And don’t you dare get resentful: because the Lord our God is generous beyond your imagining!
The setting for this parable is so psychologically true-to-life. We all have a desire in our heart of hearts — a fantasy we carefully nurture — of being better than other people. We’re constantly keeping score, comparing ourselves to everyone else around us. And don’t we want to come out better than them, in the end?
New Testament scholar Robert Capon, building on the financial symbolism in this parable, says that we — like the disciples counting up their heavenly reward — are fond of practicing a kind of spiritual bookkeeping. We dream of arriving at the gates of heaven with such a massive credit balance that those gates will spring open for us of their own accord.
Jesus tells this parable to puncture any such fantasies. Listen to what Robert Capon says:
[Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1989), p. 55.]
So, what appears at first, in this parable, to be bad news for those workers who started picking at the crack of dawn is actually very good news indeed. It wouldn’t have mattered if the vineyard owner had given them ten denarii apiece, or even a hundred: because citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is not paid for with silver. It’s paid for with blood, the blood of the cross. And that’s someone none of us could ever earn.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks the Lord.
No, not envious. Grateful. Grateful that he welcomes us to come to his table and feast on the fruits of his harvest.
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.