Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20: 1-16: The Laborers in the Vineyard

One of the things that strikes me about this passage is how easy it is for me to put myself in the place of the workers who were “first” and who felt slighted by the vineyard owner, and, conversely, how hard it is for me to put myself in the place of the workers who were “last” and were paid the same wage. Maybe you can feel it, too. A palatable sense of injustice, a nagging “what the hell”? The parable invites us to let go of that wondering about why workers who toiled all day long in the vineyard should get paid the same wage, albeit at the end of the line, as those who showed up at 5 o’clock and were paid at the front of the line. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like; if you don’t like it, that’s your problem. That’s what the parable seems to be saying to us. Indeed, the vineyard owner throws our outrage right into our faces. It’s my money; can’t I do whatever I want with it, he says. I can’t help it if you are envious of my generosity. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. That’s the way of the kingdom. Get over it.

But I have a hard time letting go of my sense that the first unjustly became the last. There’s nothing about the parable that doesn’t lead us to believe that all of the workers were in a tough spot at the beginning of the day. The image that comes to my mind when I read this parable is the many day laborer pools all over the city of Atlanta, where men (mostly), brown-skinned men (mostly), and, I imagine, undocumented men (mostly), congregate at the side of the road and wait for white (mostly) employers to come by and hire them, for daylong construction jobs, to help out around the house, or whatever. I remember the pool of guys down by the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon near my apartment where I used to live, men who huddled together in hoodies and jeans on cold winter mornings. I am sure that many pay day laborers fairly enough, I suppose, but no one hires a day laborer in Atlanta because they really want to strengthen the local economy. Day laborers are hired because they’re the cheapest option that the black market in labor provides.

The parable permits one to imagine that the workers hired at the beginning of the day were just as desperate as those hired at the end. At the beginning of the day, the first were simply luckier than the last, though of course at the end of the day, the last end up being luckier than the first. Nothing prevents us from believing that the first and the last were equally unfree, in the sense that none of the workers had much meaningful choice about the kind of work they could do. If someone is willing to hire them, they’ll probably do it. If the wage is low, they’ll probably still do it. The thing about the marketplace is that you can only really participate meaningfully if you have something to offer. Markets work on the rule of quid pro quo – a “this” for a “that;” I give you something, and you give me something in return. So, the more you have to offer in the marketplace, the more empowered you are to participate, to use quid pro quo to your advantage. And the more you can put in, the more you will get out. But if you don’t have anything to put in, you don’t get anything in return. These workers seem to have only one thing to offer: their work. And because there is such a glut of workers to offer their labor for sale, just as there are innumerable labor pools in the city of Atlanta and all over the country, work comes cheap. The landowner of course has the upper hand.

So, it may be true that the first workers of the day got lucky and were hired first – lucky in the sense that perhaps nothing distinguished them as workers in comparison with their colleagues who were hired later in the day. The cohort that was hired first very well might have been the cohort hired last. And yet even though the first workers were lucky at the beginning of the day, I feel on some level that they were cheated. The landowner claims that he honored his contract: he said he would pay the first workers a certain wage X for a day’s labor, and indeed he did.

But doesn’t the contract that the landowner made with the first workers implicitly say two things: first, that a day’s labor is worth wage X, and second, that if a worker completes a day’s labor, he will receive wage X in return for his work? Well, the first workers received wage X in return for their work, the second part of the contract. It seems, however, that the landowner implicitly changed the terms of the first part of the contract when he hired other workers to complete part, even a small part, of a day’s work for the same wage X. Common sense would say, I should think, that a fair treatment of the first workers would involve the landowner’s acknowledgement that he effectively changed the terms of the contract by the end of the day, and that the first workers should be paid at a rate reflecting the changed terms of the contract. Thus, by the end of the day, wage X was deflated: wage X at the end of the day is only worth the last part of a day’s work, which the last cohort of workers received. And so the first workers should be paid wage X times the number of parts that ultimately composed a full day’s work. Doesn’t that make sense?

What I ask myself what I think I mean when I judge the landowner’s behavior to be unjust, I am aware that I am basing my sense of justice on an idea of fairness, and my idea of fairness in turn on the rule of quid pro quo. I think the landowner’s actions are unjust because they are unfair, and unfair because he unilaterally alters the terms on which the exchange for the early workers’ labor is valued, and then does not honor the real value of their work. The landowner is the empowered party; again, the workers have nothing to leverage their engagement in the market other than the value of their labor. Without consulting the early workers, the landowner effectively re-values the workers’ labor, but then pretends that he has not done so. He effectively makes a new contract, and then he breaks it.

Questions about justice are questions about what is due. There are many ways to flesh the meaning of “due,” and thus many approaches to justice, which we will discuss more in this class. In the marketplace, what is due is determined by contracts that establish the terms of exchange. Market justice is quid pro quo: you and I agree on the terms of our exchange, and justice is served when we both honor the terms of that contract. Injustice in the marketplace, by contrast, happens when one party to a contract fails to provide their part of the exchange.

One thing that strikes me is how profoundly our American sense of justice is conditioned by our experiences in the market place. I wish I could say that our dominant moral formation happens in our families or in our communities of faith. But I dare say that it happens in the marketplace. Our sense what makes life good and how we should make decisions related to the good life – our moral awareness, in other words – is shaped in profound ways by our formation in market settings as buyers, sellers, customers, consumers, workers, owners, bosses, and the like. We instinctively reckon costs and benefits, even in non-market goods, like friendships, love, churches, and the like. We know bad deal when we see one, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard shows us what appears to be a bad deal. That’s precisely because we know justice on a deep, visceral level through the lens of quid pro quo.

I’ve heard theologians try to explain away the apparent injustice of the vineyard owner. One theologian with whom I studied in graduate school argued that this parable illustrates the difference between love and justice. Justice, he argued, is what is due, and the landowner paid the early workers their due, according to the original contract to which both parties agreed. The love of God, this theologian argued, “always rises above the demands of justice, but never falls below them.” By giving the later workers the same wage as the earlier, the landowner demonstrates the impartial and other-regarding love of God. The landowner, in other words, meets the demands of both justice and of love.

It seems more likely to me that the parable does not show a just God according to the terms of a contract, but rather demonstrates the limits of market justice. Consider what comes next, on the day after the setting of the parable. Imagine that the next day, all of the workers who received the landowner’s wage again congregate in the labor pool, again waiting for the landowner or some other employer to hire them. They’re still relatively disempowered participants in the marketplace. Their primary asset is still their labor, and labor probably still comes cheap. But they all took home an equal wage the night before, and so they are all now a little less threatened by the rule of quid pro quo. In the marketplace, as I said already, one can only get if one has something to give. Well, the landowner has ensured that everyone who worked with him the day before is, at least over the span of a day, an equal participant in the market system the next day. All of his workers have both their labor and a day’s wage to offer in the marketplace. And so all have a little more to offer, and thus a little more power to receive in return. There are more decisions the workers can make as empowered participants in the marketplace.

I think the parable is saying that the kingdom of heaven is a place in which the logic of quid pro quo doesn’t determine the possibility of human flourishing. To the extent that market participation empowers persons to live the human lives that God intends, it is a good and necessary thing: markets can invite creativity, ingenuity, individual agency, and commitment to work. But the kingdom of heaven is a place where the bottom line, the threshold requirement, is empowerment to participate in the life of the kingdom – what we sometimes call social justice, where what is due to all human beings is empowerment to participate in social and political life. In the kingdom of heaven, the last shall indeed be first and the first shall indeed be last, if what makes the “first” first and the “last” last in the earthly kingdom is the moral logic of quid pro quo – the capacity to participate only if one has something to offer. We are to appreciate but also to consider the limits of market justice, and strive to empower the least, the lost, and the left out to participate even when the market says they have nothing to offer.

About the Author

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John Senior is the Director of the Art of Ministry Program and Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

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