Yesterday’s gospel reading was the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). This is the story in which the workers hired at the end of the day are (against all usual employment practice!) paid the same as the workers hired at the beginning of the day.
Our pastor preached a very helpful sermon on the passage. One particularly interesting point was that the owner of the vineyard will have known from the start how many workers he needed that day, and will have hired all he needed. So when he went back and hired more workers he was having compassion on people who had not found any other work that day. Similarly, when he paid the latecomers a full day’s wage he was doing so to ensure they would have enough to feed their families that day.
What I wanted to post, though, was a thought of my own regarding this passage. I was struck by the way in which it is taken for granted that the original workers have no basis to feel aggrieved, and that the employer’s behaviour is perfectly just. The workers had agreed a fair price, and that’s what they got, so how dare they complain when their employer uses his own money as he chooses.
The political uses to which that interpretation of the parable can be put in contemporary circumstances are left as an exercise for the reader.
However, I think it is critical to the meaning of the parable that the employer’s behaviour is indeed unjust and capricious. If this scenario were to play out in real life – and in a sense it does, for example where women workers find out that their male counterparts are being paid more than them – then the early-doors workers would have a genuine grievance.
This is partly because the employer could be argued to have taken advantage of them by entering into a contract with them while withholding from them crucial information about his intentions. Had they realised he would pay the same for an hour’s work as for a day’s, the workers could either have waited till later to start work, or negotiated a better rate.
Second, in more explicitly Marxist terms, the employer’s behaviour highlights the way in which the fruits of the early-doors workers’ labour – their surplus value – is expropriated from them by their employer. How is the employer able to pay the late starters the same as the early birds? Because the early birds’ labour has generated enough value for him to do so and still make a profit, with the early birds only receiving a fraction of the value their work has produced.
Even if you don’t buy those specific explanations, I do think Jesus expected his audience to be somewhat taken aback – even outraged – by the employer’s behaviour, rather than simply thinking, “Well, it’s his money, he can do what he likes with it. What’s their problem?”
Like all of Jesus’ parables, this story is intended to teach us what the kingdom of God is like. The conventional reading presents us with a kingdom of God that is like a just (but generous) employer dealing with ungrateful workers. However, if we shake off the notion that Jesus is teaching us how real-life labour relations ought to be conducted, then we can see that the point of this parable is to show us that the kingdom of God is not like the relationship between employers and workers. God’s compassion leads him to behave in a manner in which no sane employer would ever behave, and similarly we are profoundly misunderstanding the nature of the kingdom if we see ourselves as God’s employees, getting a fair reward for our efforts, fairly bargained and agreed between him and us.