Sometimes when we read parables in the New Testament, we overreach by looking too deeply for something that is not there or making complex allegories (stories with hidden meanings) out of simple tales.
I’ll use the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) as an example. It starts with the words “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” These words are the key to understanding this tale. Matthew tells the story of the landowner of a vineyard who needed laborers to harvest his grapes. The Gospel doesn’t mention the exact time the landowner first went to the marketplace to hire laborers, but I would guess about 5:30 a.m. He returned to hire more at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m.
Some critics ask, “Why didn’t he hire enough workers at 6:00 a.m.? He doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing!” Remember—this is not a true story.
At the end of the day, the boss paid the workers, and to their surprise, he gave everyone, no matter what time they were hired, the same pay—a day’s wages. Those hired first “grumbled.”
I might have grumbled too. I imagine myself having finished picking grapes for twelve hours in the hot Middle Eastern sun, carrying the heavy baskets to the cart, dumping them, and heading back to pick some more. Then I look at the guys who were hired at 5:00 p.m. when the sun was not so hot and who perhaps picked one basket of grapes. I filled fifteen. Why didn’t I earn more denarii?
The boss reminded the workers, and the readers, that this was his money, his land, and his grapes. He could do whatever he pleased—even be “generous” (Matthew 20:15).
Is this parable an allegory? Maybe God is the landowner. The Jews could be the first laborers hired. The Pharisees would be the nine o’clock hires, but I have no idea who the noon, three o’clock, and five o’clock hires are, so this story fails as an allegory.
Some have suggested that the story has an anti-Semitic tone, but I doubt the Jewish Jesus would tell an anti-Semitic story.
After reading Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s take on this parable, it dawns on me. I’ve over-reached. Remember that the story began “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” and that “generous” was another key word.
Next, let’s not forget that day laborers are very poor people, existing on a day-to-day basis. If the dad doesn’t work, the mom can’t buy food, and the children might not eat that night or the next.
The kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who understood that if he didn’t hire every day laborer at the market, many families were going to go hungry. So, he was generous, despite the grumbling.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is a kin-dom message for us Followers: we too need to reach into our pockets, give money to the homeless and those who help them, hire the poor, support projects that give poor children a chance to be educated, welcome strangers, stop the Trump administration from separating families, and realize how richly blessed we are.
This parable is not some complicated allegory. It only makes sense as a message to be generous and make this a better world to live in.
How do you see this parable?