Equality, Generosity and Concern for Workers’ Needs, Part 1

Equality, Generosity and Concern for Workers’ Needs, Part 1 September 19, 2023


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 

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About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.

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?’

‘Because no one has hired us.’ they answered. 

He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

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.’ 

The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 

So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 

‘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.’ 

But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)

I cannot express in words how much I love the parable in this week’s reading. I have my own history with this story. I was first introduced to its depth of potential years ago when I read John Ruskin’s Unto The Last, an essay he published in 1860. Ruskin lifts this parable out of religious interpretations created by privileged, propertied, and powerful religious apologists who diverted readers’ attention from how they benefitted from an inequitable economic system. In harmony with Jesus’ ministry in the tradition of the Jewish prophets, Ruskin treated this parable by addressing its social and economic implications. 

Let me unpack those implications a bit. 

Religious interpretations typically circle around themes from individuals getting a ticket to the same heaven to populations converting “late” to Christianity. (Traditionally this has been a foundational theme of colonialism.)

Yet Jesus did not show up in his society solely as a religious teacher or spiritual guru. He didn’t even show up as a priest within the temple state of his day as John the Baptist’s family did. Anyone who reads the Jesus story alongside the tradition of the Hebrew prophets will immediately see that Jesus was standing in the Hebrew prophetic justice tradition. 

In the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see Luke 4:18-19), there are ever-present, ever-strong, social and economic justice themes. We’ll begin with these, next.

(Read Part 2)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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