When the Landowner is not God

day laborerBy Tommy Airey, adapted from a sermon on Matthew 10:1-16

Most interpretations of Jesus’ “parable of the landowner” equate the vineyard owner with God and the workers with God’s People or humanity at large.  God is seen as “generous” and “equitable” with the people and expands the population of those who, by grace, are ushered through the heavenly gates.   The grumbling worker at the end of the story is representative of Israel at large or the Pharisees, chief priests and other Jewish leaders who confronted Jesus during his life and ministry—the lesson being that we should all be thankful for God’s equal treatment and unconditional generosity and kindness.

Infused by the scholarship of William Herzog and his former student Ched Myers, there is a more compelling and contextual interpretation of Matthew 20 flowing out of the “minority report” of the radical discipleship movement.  Fortunately, nothing in the parable forces us to assume that the vineyard owner in the parable is God!  Instead, like a political cartoon, the parable is an exaggerated representation of what life was actually like during the time of Jesus and in the culture of the very first hearers of the parable five decades later. Instead of offering us heavenly principles that permit us to rest easy, the parable functions as a jarring illustration that prods us to face reality.

If the vineyard owner is not God, then who is he? In first century Palestine,  a vineyard usually required 4-5 years of preparation before the wine business began to make a substantial profit. Someone who operated a vineyard owned multiple properties so he could pay the bills until he hit the jackpot with his long-term investment!  He diversified his portfolio by hoarding properties from subsistence farmers who were forced to foreclose because they could not pay their debts. As Jesus lamented earlier in Matthew’s narrative,

For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Eventually, the wealthy landowner would hire these former subsistence farmers as day laborers to work during planting and harvesting seasons. Knowing the laws of supply and demand, the landowner would only hire them one day at a time, keeping the supply of workers large and thus keeping wages at their minimum. The landowner was a crafty businessman who played by the rules of “the bottom line.” He tells the second group of workers: “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” (Matthew 20:3-4)  The landowner always sets the terms of the business deal.

The workers of the vineyard in agrarian societies were debt-ridden, homeless and usually lived only 5-7 years once they became day laborers.  They did not get work everyday, spending the rest of their hours begging to make up for the lack of a living wage. These “expendables” worked long hours in the hot sun and would rarely risk questioning the unjust, inhumane practices of those who hired them.

In the parable, what happens to the one worker who openly questions the paying practices of the landowner? He is shunned and humiliated in front of his fellow workers: “Friend,” the wealthy landowner responds, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go.” (Matthew 20:13) Clearly, the vineyard worker is not really a “friend” of the landowner (the Greek word for friend here is hetaire, not the more common term which denotes a peer relationship: phile). When the vineyard worker questions the “justice” of the situation, the landowner naturally assumes the power position and speaks condescendingly to him.

Indeed, day laborers in ancient Palestine would have been treated worse than slaves because slaves were actually a human capital investment who worked for the owner every day. The wealthy landowner only treats his workers with dignity and respect if it directly benefits his economic bottom line.

The presence of the landowner in the parable is peculiar.  He shows up both in the marketplace to hire workers and at the time of their payment. Usually, both of these jobs were reserved for the manager, who only gets a cameo appearance in the parable. The landowner, in real life, would not need nor want to do the dirty work of head-hunting and wage-negotiating. All the grumbling and groaning of injustice coming from the workers would be aimed at the scapegoated manager, leaving the landowner free to spend the day on other investments–enjoying the fruit of cheap labor without any of the hassle or burdened conscience of his dehumanizing business practices.

Jesus, though, places the landowner in the middle of all the action so that the hearers of the parable will never forget who is at the root of the unjust system. It is always the landowner who decides to foreclose on the debt-ridden farmer and it is always the landowner who decides to pay the meager wage. This wealthy investor boasts, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matthew 20:15)

With this callous mentality, the landowner shatters the spirit of God’s jubilee provision for all humanity demanded in the Hebrew Bible:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor.

The socio-economic behavior of the landowner in the parable (joined by the investor class in 21st America) is deeply at odds with a God who is viewed throughout Israel’s Scripture as a landowner who creates, covenants and cares for the precious vineyard of Israel. Jesus tells a parable that mirrors reality.  The point being, as always, that it doesn’t have to be this way.

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