The Parable of The Workers in the Vineyard! The big question is; ‘is the landowner unjust for giving the same wage to the grape pickers whether they had worked all day in the heat or just for one hour in the cool of the evening?’
The grapes were ripe and urgently needed harvesting, that is why the landowner needed an army of workers to gather the crop. At the time, the workers, the agricultural labourers in Palestine were having a tough time. The Romans had imposed enormous taxes on agriculture, which meant that most of the smaller farmers couldn’t afford to pay the taxes demanded by the state. The result was that these smaller farmers had been forced to sell their land - vineyards - to the larger agricultural operators, land owners, who were in a financially more secure situation; but even those larger combines had to economise by using cheap labour, in the main slaves or day labourers. Very few farms could maintain themselves. The social conditions in Palestine in the first century meant that the former farmers who had had sufficient land to earn a living, had lost everything and now worked as day labourers. They were hired in the morning and paid in the evening. A modern analogy could be those who work on hourly contracts; it suits some, but depending on so many different factors, can cause grave problems for others. Intermittent employment for an agricultural worker in Palestine meant a life of penury, just as it can in our own society.
An agricultural worker earned just enough in a day’s work of picking grapes to be able to feed his or her family the next day. If the worker was not hired in the morning, that family’s children would go hungry the next day. Those conditions are reflected in the parable. One can imagine the anger of the workers who had been working all day to receive no more than a latecomer who had worked only one hour. They demanded justice. So what is the meaning of the parable?
On the one hand, the parable describes the Palestinian society of the time where it was every person for him or herself, a society we may think that is not unfamiliar to us. Everyone struggles to earn a living; some are successful, some are not. It’s the old story of ‘them and us’, the great divide of wealth. It breeds conflict, envy and power struggles, even between those in the same social class. Thankfully, society was held together by the law, just as it is today. That is a summary of a society Jesus wants to change. Jesus is seeking a new society; a society where everyone is equal, where work means dignity, and no one will go home in the evening consumed with worry and anxiety. So, what is this society Jesus has in mind? Well, it is working for God’s cause, where everything is shared, even worry. In the world of the parable this new society has not yet come to fruition. It is this new society Jesus wants for all peoples of the world to enjoy. The only person in the parable who is giving an example of this society of equality is the landowner.
The disciples and followers of Jesus have cottoned on to Jesus’ desires for humanity, and understand the need to abandon their own rivalries and help one another for the new cause.
Also, one can understand how Jesus’ contemporaries were outraged by his new ideas on how society should operate, with forgiveness replacing condemnation, where sinners and tax collectors, the untouchables were welcomed with open arms to sit at the table in solidarity and companionship with Jesus and his companions. Jesus’ new society will turn the social world upside down; it makes the lowest into the highest and in doing so causes deep anxieties and scandal among those who cannot accept Jesus’ new ideas. The future is bright for those who accept Jesus’ hopes for the future. It promises a new reality where equality is not a political war cry, but a heartfelt desire to love ones neighbour as oneself.
[C.f. Jesus of Nazareth: Gerhard Lohfink]