Readings: Matthew 20:1-16, Divine Love & Wisdom 47 (see below)
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Today we have our second parable in a row from the lectionary, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. At this point, we find ourselves almost three quarters of the way through the gospel of Matthew, where several chapters are devoted to Jesus teachings. In a few more chapters, Jesus will sit down to the Last Supper, and the events will play out that lead to his death and resurrection. But for now, he has a lot to say about the kingdom of heaven.
The imagery in this story is one that the disciples and their contemporaries would be very familiar with. It is common in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel to be described as a vineyard with the owner of that vineyard being God, and harvest time or the collecting of wages as a time of judgement. So, ancient hearers were primed to think about this story in transcendent terms, and to wonder what it means for the kingdom of heaven to be made manifest here in this world.
Like all the parables, there is a “surface plausibility” that draws us in. We recognize and understand this world of hiring people and working for pay, we understand that grapes need to be harvested, and it is the owner who must make that happen. Last week we were talking about “talents” being the most valuable kind of coin in those days, and now today we are talking about a denarius, one of the smallest. A denarius was the basic wage for a manual laborer, but even so, it was barely enough to support a family. So, in the beginning, the landowner was acting as one might expect - fair according to custom, but not particularly generous. But then suddenly, the landowner starts acting a little differently. He keeps looking for workers even though he hired some already. Huh, we might wonder, why is that? Is there a bumper crop this year? He hires more people, and then still more people, and then even at 5o'clock in the evening, when there is only one hour left in the day, he hires more people. Whatever, we might shrug, it’s his vineyard.
But then, it gets even more strange. He pays everyone an equal amount, no matter how long they have worked. Obviously, we expect the workers hired later to get a commensurately smaller amount of money. We don’t have any expectation that landowner would stiff them, he seems like a good guy, but one twelfth of the work should equal one twelfth of the money, right? And so, the folks who have been working all day long are a bit perplexed. Well, they think, if the last workers get a denarius, then we should get more…Surely, if the landowner has enough money to pay the last workers extra, then surely he has enough to pay us extra too. When he doesn’t pay them more, it seems unfair. We may well relate to these workers, as it understandable to want to look for symmetry in things; fairness and equality and consistency are often ways that we all make sense of the world.
But instead of things going in the normal way, the landowner starts acting different from our expectations. Certainly, he has a right to do what he wants with his money. But what does that mean for the way that *we* understand the world? The way in which we understand who deserves what? Because surely we are not supposed to run our businesses in this way? We can’t just pay people whatever we want, whenever we want? Can we?
As we talked about last week, the purpose of parable is so that we might question our systems, question the way we look at the world. Parables help us remember the limits of our systems, and remind us they are human systems not divine systems. In this parable, we are being shown that the economy of work, and the economy of love are two different but inter-related things.
I recall from seminary that one of my professors came to an understanding about this parable through his own experience of parenthood. He spoke of the joy and love he felt at the birth of his son, and that upon learning eventually that they were pregnant again (with twins even) he worried that he could never love them as deeply and as fully as his first child. But of course, we know the end of this story, we know that miraculously, when his twins were born, his ability to love expanded, and he loved them just as much, and in ways he couldn’t have imagined. We sometimes underestimate the expansiveness and the resilience of love. We love more and more according to our willingness to be opened up.
And this is because the love doesn’t come from us. All love comes from God, a constant inflow according to our willingness to accept it. Last week we spoke about the infinity of God’s forgiveness…and of course that forgiveness is simply a function of the infinity of God’s divine love. Human systems are often run on the assumption of scarcity, but the economy of love is built on the opposite - love’s abundance.
How then, are we understand this parable, where we see the apparent collision of two economies based on very different assumptions. (Here I use the words economy not in a strict financial sense, but in a more archaic way, to express the way something is organized and thought about). There is the economy of work, the arithmetic of fair-minded give and take. We do this, we get that. But love doesn’t work that way; it can’t fit into a budget or a business plan, and it is way more expansive than one kind of system can express. And additionally, Swedenborg tells us that in the spirit, “uses, or ends, reign,” (1) by which he means that the spirit not only looks to what might be good or right in any given moment, but also looks towards the end goal, and is always striving for the best possible outcome that supports human thriving, loving and growing long term.
So, the gift of this parable is that for a moment, the veil was drawn back and the economy of love was revealed. For the workers who were hired last…there was no indication they were not working due to any fault of their own. When asked why they were not working they replied “No one has hired us.” The parable doesn’t tell us why this was the case, but we know from this world there are plenty of reasons why work cannot be found that are out of a person’s control. Perhaps by this time, these workers were starting to panic, for the day was almost done and they would not have the money they need to support their households. What a difficult and stressful life is the life of day laborer. But in the last moment, someone *did* hire them. Okay, they think, at least I’ll make a little bit. Imagine their relief then, to get a whole days wage, a wage they had given up on. Sometimes what is *fair* isn’t the same as what is *just.* It was not fair that the last workers should get a whole day’s wage, I think even they would agree. But was it not also unjust that their families should not have food to put on the table? The economy of love was looking for more than the economy of work that day could provide. It was looking to fill hungry bellies, to help the downtrodden feel like they were seen and they mattered.
But even so, all the talk of love doesn’t necessarily make it feel better when you have been working hard, and you see someone else rewarded for less work. Years ago, my daughter’s response to this text was “Ugh, I hate that parable.” I opened my mouth to expound but she stopped me: “Don’t try to tell me the moral - its just not fair!” Believe me, I get it. On the face of it, lack of equality can sometimes feel extremely discouraging and diminishing. We must note that the structure of the parable is key. This is not a situation where all the workers were all hired at the same time, and some worked hard and some did not and the owner decided to be generous to all anyway, maybe not even paying attention to who was working the hardest. This is not what happened in this parable. The parable is instead asking about what should happen to those who are left behind by our *systems*, and the instructive part, the lesson, is in how the first workers chose to view the situation. They were certainly justified on grounds of fairness. But were they viewing the situation with eyes of justice? What the text translates as “Or are you envious because I am generous?” is literally in the Greek “is your eye evil because I am good?” What kind of eyes were these first workers using? What were the ultimate outcomes were they looking for? Were they looking with an eye of love?
The first servants were wanting equality and they were seeing equity. These are similar but not identical ideas. The first is about equal treatment but the second is concerned with equality of outcome. The first workers were looking for equality of hourly wage, and let us not forget, with good reason. Equality is important. We are lucky the owner seemed to be a good person. He could have been cruel and erratic, could have decided to pay all of them differently hourly wages just because he didn’t like some of them. Principles like equality of hourly wage are very good when they counter things like racism and sexism. They express love in their own way, through order, and the inherent value of each person and each person’s work. But, equality or sameness is not the *only* way to serve the principle of love, because love also looks to ultimate outcome, to the end goal. The first workers were clearly not thinking in this way, being only concerned with themselves. Did they have in mind the families of the last workers? Probably not. Sadly, we are all human, and often times, we only want fairness and equality when it serves our own needs. Economies based on scarcity do have a downside. They induce us to live into the insecurity of constant comparison and how can we not find ourselves self-centered in that context. We forget that, as we heard in our Swedenborg reading, the nature of true love is to see something from another’s perspective, to be happy when others are happy. And so we are reminded, God’s love is calling us to look above and beyond human systems, and to look at them clearly, in order to see whether they are helping or hindering love becoming manifest.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and it's Heavenly Doctrines #48
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.
6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.
10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?
14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.
15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Divine Love & Wisdom 47
Divine love and wisdom cannot fail to be and to be manifested in others that it has created. The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. Truly, the essence of all love is to be found in union, in the life of love that we call joy, delight, pleasure, sweetness, blessedness, contentment, and happiness.
The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves--that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites. True, they both unite us; and it does not seem as though loving what belongs to us, or loving ourselves in the other, is divisive. Yet it is so divisive that to the extent that we love others in this way we later harbor hatred for them. Step by step our union with them dissolves, and the love becomes hatred of corresponding intensity.