by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 20:1-16
Fairness is a concept we learn early in life.
“No fair. Her cookie is bigger than mine.”
“It’s MY turn.”
“Why do I always have to set the table? It’s not fair!”
Children are quick to protest if the treats or the chores are divided in ways that seem unfair to them. Two children having to share the last piece of cake will insist it be halved so precisely that you need a surgeon’s eyes and hands and scalpel to do the job to their satisfaction. And someone will still protest, “He got the bigger piece.”
By adulthood we’ve learned that life isn’t “fair.” We’ve also observed that sometimes true justice—setting something to rights—demands more than fairness, more than simple equality or parity. Sometimes putting things to rights requires special emphasis—as in the phrase “Black Lives Matter”–or preferential treatment, as in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the preferential option for the poor.
While George and I were living in Nashville, and long before transgender bathroom rights became a justice issue, “potty parity” was the rallying cry among women insisting the new football stadium for the Tennessee Titans have twice the number of restrooms for women as it did for men. After all, women need twice as much time in the restroom as men. Someone even conducted a study that revealed women spend on average 89 seconds in a public restroom, versus 39 seconds for men. To prevent doubly long lines for women, it was argued, the new stadium needed double the number of facilities for them.
Here’s another example of unjust fairness. While it is important that parents and teachers not show favoritism, each child is unique, so treating every child in the family or classroom exactly the same is not possible and nor is it a guarantee that each child will be treated according to her or his needs. Sometimes the just and right thing to do is different for each child.
God’s justice goes beyond one-size-fits-all fairness. We’ve talked before about the difference between biblical charity and biblical justice. The Bible calls us to do both but emphasizes justice much more because justice hopes to deal with root problems and systems. Today we contrast fairness and justice, specifically God’s intentions for economic justice.
Traditionally the parable of the landowner giving equal wages to day laborers regardless of what time they started work is interpreted to mean that God favors those the world finds least deserving. Like all good parables, this one makes us squirm if we recognize our own protests of “it isn’t fair” from a privileged position and recall that the justice preached by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus isn’t fulfilled by simply dividing up the piece of cake evenly but by creating right relationships and making people whole and empowering “the least.”
That understanding of justice is consistent with Matthew’s overarching theme that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the least and the last and the lost. In today’s Gospel text, the vineyard owner rebuked the laborers who began work early and who later complained that others who worked less received the same wages. For them the “fair” wage was the same as a “just” wage. But in God’s just economy, all God’s children should receive their daily needs.
However, the author of Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed has a different take on this well-known parable. William Herzog calls into question the assumption many make about the identity of the landowner. I hope you’ll consider an alternate way of viewing the vineyard owner to see how parables can work on us in different ways. Remember that parables operate not as allegories but as prompts to start discussion. Jesus was provoking his listeners to think through situations more than prescribing actions or preaching a morality tale.
If you’re open to a fresh reading of this parable, consider who or what the landowner might represent. Most think the landowner is a God figure, in part because he’s the one who judges and rewards. The landowner, like God, judges our actions, has the prerogative of rewarding us, and is, according to Matthew, especially generous to those who come last. After all, in God’s upside down realm, the last shall be first.
But what if the landowner does not represent God—at least not to the original audience Jesus spoke to? What if those who first heard this story identified most with the laborers and therefore did not automatically assess the powerful landowner as a good and just character? Herzog argues the landowner represents those who exploit an unjust economic system for their enrichment. If we know more about the actual culture in which Jesus lived, we will view the landowner with suspicion. Again, keep in mind that the parable Matthew shared and that we have just read was no doubt altered from the way Jesus told it at least fifty years earlier, so Matthew adjusted the theme of this story for the needs of his community.
Time doesn’t allow me to develop fully the argument that Jesus did not create the landowner as a God figure. But you can at least understand why Jesus’s listeners would have viewed the landed elite and the wages the landowner offered with cynicism. With socio-historical evidence, Herzog explains the significance of the landowner’s social class, the role of the steward, the actual value of the workers’ wages (far below what could make subsistence existence possible), and the practices of hiring day laborers known as “the expendables” who lived brief and horrific lives until they died of malnutrition and disease (84).
Once we understand this economic context, Herzog thinks we can see Jesus depicting the landowner, in his original telling, as using this “unfair” wage not for justice’s sake, but for shrewdly playing the oppressed workers against one another. Herzog explains that what seems in Matthew’s version a kindly and patient explanation about the wages from the landowner is said condescendingly to the laborers. (The word “friend” in v. 13 is a word in the Greek that merely feigns courtesy.) (92).
Furthermore, the Jewish peasants who’d been dispossessed of ancestral lands would have heard the landowner blaspheming God when he asked rhetorically, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” because the Torah taught that Yahweh owned the land and all were tenants on Yahweh’s land. The landowner and the whole system, of course, had violated the Torah’s requirement that all debts were to be cleared after seven years and that every fifty years in the Jubilee year the land was to be redistributed so that great disparities in wealth didn’t develop (94).
If we read the parable as Jesus might have first told it in his economic context, we see Jesus critiquing a whole system that had lost its capacity to provide for those who’d fallen into harsh circumstances, that had privileged the privileged who kept accruing more and more privilege, that had destroyed mechanisms previously created to give the poor a safety net.
Of course, Jesus’s original oral version of this parable did not survive intact. Scholars assume Matthew retained much of it but adjusted it for his audience, an early Jewish sect following Jesus and becoming “the church.” He did so to teach them about how to help usher in the kingdom of heaven, which is the way of God Jesus revealed. Our version now has softened the subversive themes. Of course, Jesus’s and Matthew’s themes are not incompatible. But Jesus’s original version of this and other parables he told while wandering the Galilean countryside exposed, subversively, the systems that created the peasants’ economic oppression. And this particular Jesus parable may have insinuated that if they blamed one another for their low wages and allowed the oppressor to pit them against one another, they would be blaming the victims and playing into the hands of the oppressor. Can’t you just hear the three groups of laborers in this story resentfully railing against one another? Do you see how injustice is perpetuated when the downtrodden turn against one another at the instigation of the oppressor?
Jesus may have even suggested a particular strategy by setting the story at harvest time when field laborers had their only chance for some influence over the elite since the laborers were needed at that precise time else the harvest would be lost. And Jesus may have assembled the parable’s contrasting characters in order to represent the highest and lowest of the economic strata and thus unveil for the oppressed the disparity between their stations in life. In doing so, he could suggest that if the poor banded together–and at harvest time–they might gain some economic power through solidarity.
If Herzog is right, Jesus was using the original parable to rally workers to band together for a more just system–and Matthew decades later adjusted the story to suit the needs of his congregation as they learned to care for one another, especially the least among them, especially at a time when that sect of Jews was being pushed out of the synagogue. In both uses of this parable we see examples of a formula for justice—not fairness. The Bible is looking at a whole economic system that leaves people out—but holds out hope for a justice that cares for those very ones out on the edges.
At the heart of biblical justice is concern for the poor and marginalized. The Hebrew Bible prophets decried rulers and nations that took advantage of the widows, orphans, and poor. Following in their footsteps, Jesus condemned the greedy who grew rich through unfair taxes, unfair wages, unfair laws. We misread the Bible if we think Jesus wants only to enter our hearts rather than entering and affecting, through us, the market place and the political sphere as well. We misunderstand Jesus if we think he cared about souls and not bodies, about transforming individuals and not society. We skew the Gospel if we forget Jesus started his ministry by announcing his purpose was to bring good news to the poor; that Jesus convinced Zacchaeus, who’d built his fortune on the backs of the poor, to renounce and reverse an unjust tax system; that Jesus blessed the poor and spoke woe to the rich.
Jesus cared deeply for the poor. Maybe before he was killed he was strategizing brilliantly about how the poor might incrementally, subversively, collectively change the systems that kept them poor.
In these fractious and anxious times in our nation and world, the Spirit of God is still at work among us. Let us be alert to ways the Spirit of Justice can break open creative possibilities for a more just world. In the urgent the words of the chorus we sang earlier: “If not now, if not now, tell me when?”
Would you pray with me for that very opportunity?
O God, I believe your Holy Spirit still today can mix human genius and compassion so that your people can envision just systems. I pray that our political leaders will stop using your people as pawns in political games and instead address climate change, create a just healthcare system, renounce war, decry racism, feed the poor. God of justice, forgive us for our foolishness when so much is at stake. And use us, each of us here today, as instruments of your peace and justice. Amen.
Herzog, William R. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
See also the seminal work to which Herzog alludes:
Freire. Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. 9th ed. (originally published 1968). New York: Seabury.