Scripture: Lectionary 421: Judges 9:6-15. Psalm 21:1-188.8.131.52.6-7. Matthew
Parables are teasers. They make us think; they puzzle us, and often we
fall into the habit of taking them literally or making them tell an
allegory by saying this means this in the story and this means that. True
parables have one point they are making and very few are good parable
creators. Jesus is the best and the rabbis who follow him are quite good
too. He startles us and challenges us with them and must have had a smile
on his face as he saw the reaction on people when they listened to him.
Today’s parable is one that bothers us westerners for we take it literally
and even allegorize it.
The Semite enjoys all forms of wisdom sayings and the parable is among them
listed as part of the mehalim that we are familiar with in Proverbs and
Wisdom literature. Jesus being a pure Semite through and through learned
this art of teaching early and made it a part of his ministry to the crowds
and to his disciples. We see his quick wit and humor in them.
Our parable of today is entitled the parable of the laborers in the
vineyard. It is unique to Matthew who is directing his Gospel about Jesus
to a divided community of Christians (Gentiles) and Jewish Christians (Jews
by birth). How is he able to keep them together? We need to know the
context and purpose of Matthew’s Gospel then we can approach each parable
within the framework of a bigger picture of life in the time of Jesus.
Matthew does us a favor by making most of the parables he recorded as
parables of the kingdom of God. Now, strange as it may seem, there were
people who had control of much money in his time and Matthew better than
the other Evangelists knew about such “Captialists.” In any system and
even in our own families and communities the ones who control the money can
do with it what they want. As independent people our bank account is just
that — ours and ours alone. It is not a question of justice when we hand
out some of our money to someone; it usually is a generous act on our part.
Most Americans on listening to this parable get upset and feel the parable
advocates injustice and we say it is unfair. Already we have fallen into
the Semitic trap that a parable can cause us, that is, to take it literally
and forget what the bigger picture and context is for the parable Jesus
delivers. We feel that those who came at the last hour were cheated. But
let us be realistic. If it were our money we could do with it whatever we
want–gamble it away, give it to the poor or to the Church or even try to
hide it away.
Matthew however is the Evangelist who has the bigger picture of the Church,
his Church in mind as he presents the parables of Jesus to his readers and
leaders. The parable can help the Church to stay together if they
understand the original meaning of it as Jesus presented it. We miss the
point if we think it is a question of justice and rewarding the “Johnny
come lately” laborers. For Matthew it is about those who have only
recently come into the Church from among the Gentiles and have mingled with
those who were there from the beginning–the Jewish Christians. Rather
than be jealous or angry we should be glad that both Jew and Gentile are
being brought into the Church. We rejoice that those who came just lately
into the faith are as welcomed as those who were there from the start.
By keeping in mind that Matthew’s Gospel is primarily the ecclesial or
Church Gospel we get inside the meaning of this parable. It is concerned
about both Jewish disciples of Jesus and Gentile disciples who have
recently joined him. “Whenever one is admitted, one is admitted to full
participation; the reign does not become the property of those who first
sought admission, even if they are officers.” (J.L.McKenzie). So the
parable is not about a just wage nor about an unfolding allegorical story
but about God’s overwhelming generosity and God’s sovereignty. Amen.