Laborers in the Vineyard: a Difficult Passage?

Posted by on February 22, 2014 in Biblical Reflection | 0 comments

Grapes for Vineyard ParableScripture: Matthew 20:1-16

After a pause for six weeks of meetings, we can now go back to our “Difficult Passages in Scripture” theme.  Does this passage from Matthew 20 surprise you?

I want to bring several sources to bear on this Scripture.  The first, of course, is the scripture itself, and its commentary in The New Interpreters Study Bible.  The second is this poem called “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, a poetess born in Maple Heights, OH (now lives in Provincetown, Mass.) and winner of both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that many modern spiritual writers are quoting these days:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The third is this passage from Rev. Cam Miller, in his “Subversive Preacher” blog of this past Wednesday 2-19-14:

The fourth is this poignant blog of 2-20-14 by Rachel Held Evans, an Evangelical:

“I asked my friends to share their Sacred Scared here because I wanted to prove to you that folks who are showing up BIG TIME and doing REALLY hard things are just like us. Everybody is the same. No one has it all figured out and No one ever will. We just gotta show up for our dreams and each other before we’re ready. We can be scared and still show up. We can be completely UNHEALED and still show up. We must just show up in all our beautiful, messy glory. Because all the good and all the beautiful in the world is created by people who show up before they’re ready. – See more at:

“Imagine that you have a new friend that you just love, and she’s coming to your house, and you finally liberate yourself enough to skip the panic-clean before she arrives. You decide that you trust her enough to walk in and see your messy house and you just KNOW that she will GET IT. She will LOVE that you just Let It Be for her. But she walks in and instead of flopping down on the laundry covered couch, she starts cleaning up the mess. Your mess is making her too uncomfortable. She starts to FIX IT instead of appreciating your mess as a trust offering. How do you feel about that?

“Let’s not try to fix each other’s Sacred Scared, if we can avoid it. The people in this series are letting you in to see their Real, Beautiful Mess. Let’s not try to fix them, because they don’t need to be fixed. Neither do you. Let’s just try to find some comfort and love and maybe even Me Too in the offerings.”

– See more at:

I’ll add a fifth, from the edgy book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, pp. 55 ff.   I could probably add a sixth, if you have the time to listen to Joan Chittister’s talk to a women’s forum on TEDX: TEDx Talk in Fact and Faith Conference Dec. 9, 2012.  Or read her meditation 10, which you can find here: and in which she quotes Rumi:

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving—
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows
A hundred times
Come, come again, come.

I. But let’s start with the Scripture:

The passage is pretty well known and has a standard interpretation, brought about by the words of Jesus at the end.   God’s empire is NOT like the empires people are used to.  It challenges the way we’re used to act and are acted upon by our superiors.  NISB says these were probably poor day laborers without any artisan skills.  They worked for a denarius, which assured them of, at best, a subsistence existence.  The availability of workers throughout the day suggests an oversupply and rampant unemployment.  The landowner uses wages to unify rather than divide (rich—poor gap).  The Interpreter’s Bible says that verse 15 should be translated: “Is you eye evil because I am good?”  I.e., he wants them to see in a new way and adopt his social structure.  But, we shakily ask,  is this meant to be economic theory and advice?  What would such a practice do to capitalism?

At first glance, this passage seems to be a simple story about being generous.  The take-away could be only: Be generous!   But we know that in our present culture, any employer that would try this would quickly find him or herself in trouble with the union and probably in court, because of the manifest injustice to those who worked for long hours and were paid the same as those who worked for a fraction of that time.   Ok, so the early birds agreed to that wageis ; but at the end of the day, it seems they had every right to complain (“I agreed to it not knowing that you were going to pay a full day’s wages to those who only worked the last hour!”) .

When we start drawing out implications, such as why Matthew included this story, and what Jesus was really saying, and was the landowner a stand-in for God, and are we the workers—those of us who “get it” from the beginning and those of us who get up late and are clueless for most of the day?  –Now we realize we are in deep water and many people will caution us not to take our interpretations too far (such as to suggest that Jesus was once again upending the social and political power structures).

II.  Now, in order to see how the other five sources fit with this scripture, I’ll move to the fifth, and tell you something about Pastrix,  the autobiogrphay of Nadia, who grew up in Denver, Colorado and after years as a stand-up comic, a depressed alcoholic, and an iconoclastic teenager who also had to contend with Graves disease from age twelve to age sixteen, with her eyes bulging out of her face—after all of this, she felt herself called to be a pastor to the down and out, the marginal, and people whom the ‘righteous’ do not usually accept—and a Lutheran Pastor, to boot.  Pastrix is an insulting term for a female pastor.

Two things I want to draw from this book: one, her comments about grace on page 48, and then the passage that tells about her first sermon, to a group of LGBTQ people after the ELC changed its mind about homosexuality and allowed ordination of gays in a permanent relationship (p. 55).

Concerning Grace, she points out that Grace is not God being an all-forgiving Good Guy, but “It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word.  I am a God who makes all things new” (p. 49).  And then when she applies the concept to the parable about the laborers in the vineyard, she maintains: “This is exactly, when it comes down to it, why most people do not believe in grace.  It is [flippin] offensive (p. 55)!”

This is, she maintained in her sermon, NOT a parable about workers, but a parable about the landowner (God).  “What makes this the kingdom of God…is the fact that the trampy landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the marketplace.  He goes back and back and back, interrupting lives…coming to get his people.   Grace tapping us on the shoulder (p. 57).”

Mary Oliver says: “you do not have to be good…the world calls to you.”  Rumi says: “Come, even if you have broken your vows a hundred times.”  Rachel Held Evans says:

Everybody is the same. No one has it all figured out and No one ever will. We just gotta show up for our dreams and each other before we’re ready. We can be scared and still show up. We can be completely UNHEALED and still show up. We must just show up in all our beautiful, messy glory. Because all the good and all the beautiful in the world is created by people who show up before they’re ready.

Rev. Cam Miller says: “..not only do we not have to be good…we do not have the option to be good.”

And: The whole idea that a god capable of creating such exquisite and delicate beauty as evidenced in the Cosmos, also operates as a parsimonious punisher of human foibles, is childish in the extreme.

The fact that Christian theology has not moved beyond Old World notions of original sin, heaven and hell, salvation for the good and eternal punishment for the bad, God causing Jesus to die on the cross and in so doing somehow saving us from our badness (Atonement) is tragic.  There is so much at the heart of Christianity, in the Gospels themselves that reject these ideas.

Finally (whew!), Joan Chittister, in her powerful TEDx talk stated that we all finally come to the realization that perfection is “perfectly impossible.”  She claims that we are at a crossover moment in time;  That whatever was considered true up to this time will no longer be considered true;   That the classical worldview that has God personally creating everything, with hierarchy built in and the male as a pinnacle of creation has been blown apart by the theories of the big bang and evolution.  The new view is that God’s creation is a work in progress and we are given the responsibility of making choices for new and better life.  Failure is a part of this, but we can learn from failure cooperate with God to choose new growth and help bring about a better world.

Whether we find this God at the beginning of the day, the middle of the day or the end of the day doesn’t matter.  The important thing is that we find him/her and accept his/her invitation to get to work!

I know that there are those out there who could find thousands of sources that reaffirm the classical view of creation and a traditional image of God.  The question is whether these sound like good news, are life-giving, and give hope for our planet?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *