Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Today’s Gospel story is a parable, which means, in the Bible, that it’s a story told by Jesus, about himself. A parable is a story with metaphors – not meant to trick, but to give greater insight to the listener.
Very often, Jesus’ parables mean Trouble. He does that on purpose, so that his parables can be heard by people and accepted by them as Trouble. Jesus hits us with Trouble first, then gives us comfort. He never gives us an immediate, easy, ready-made comfort – through Jesus’ teachings, we learn to be suspicious of easy comfort and prosperity, because it so often ends up in calamity and despair. My theological professor once said, “You tell others that it is the teachings of Jesus you admire. Then you pay attention to what he actually teaches and you quickly find yourself among his bewildered disciples. Questions. Teachings. With Jesus, be careful what you ask for.”
Okay – here’s Jesus’ dose of trouble for the day:
It opens with ancient farming. The owner of a vineyard goes out to hire day labourers. Hiring for such work was always done early in the morning. The owner and the labourers agree on a denarius for the days’ work. A denarius. Now, this is the root of the problem in this story: All the labourers, no matter what time they were hired and for how long they worked under the scorching heat, each of them receives a denarius at the end of the day. The story tells us that labourers who were hired at 6 am and the labourers who were hired at 5 pm were paid just the same – with a denarius. So the men hired first get very upset and argue with the owner. Actually, they have been watching, as the owner decided to give the pay, “beginning with the last and then going to the first”, they have been watching the others receive a denarius, and they assume that the owner will be proportionately generous. They expect to receive more than those hired at the end of the day, but the pay that falls into their hands is a denarius – just the same as the workers who came last. So, they make their argument with frustration: these last worked only one hour, and you make them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day’s work in the scorching heat?
Obviously, the root of the conflict lies in the fact that all the labourers have received one denarius equally at the end of the day, even though they have not done equal work. However, I think that the greater trouble that awaits us is in the next part of the story. I am quite sure that, for the first audience of this story 2000 years ago, the amount of the day’s pay was a discomfort to hear. The value of a denarius at the time in Palestine would place all these workers among the very poor. A denarius a day was worth about twenty dollars, an amount that could support one person, not a family, at the level of minimal survival. It is a historical fact that, by all accounts, day labourers lived hard and often short lives. Trouble.
Learning this sociological fact, it feels weird to hear Jesus says, metaphorically, as the owner in this story, “Are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I have sometimes wanted to argue with him, “Jesus, you say the last will be the first, and the first will be the last and that you are generous – but are you sure about what you have just said? One denarius would put them all among the very poor – that’s barely enough money for a day’s bread!
Very often, or almost always, Jesus’ comfort for us comes after leading us into Trouble. That’s his character. We need to see what the comfort i after this message of trouble.
The biggest trouble for me in this story lies in the fact that the day labourers are competing among themselves just for a small reward that could barely support their family. They accept that they have to work hard for twelve hours a day in order to get the money to live – the early-hired workers are probably happy that they will earn money that day. The conflict arises when those who have been working hard all day – feeling lucky all day, because they will be able to buy their evening bread, feel unlucky and resentful at the end of the day, when all are rewarded equally. Taking a larger view, the workers should be happy that many families will have bread to eat that night – but they’re not. We sympathize with the early workers – we’ve all been in their place. We’ve also all been in the place of the late workers – but maybe we’ve forgotten that part. There is enough money -that rare resource- for all, but the just distribution – no more and no less than was promised, breeds conflict rather than content, especially among the poorest of the poor.
Why does today’s parable reminds me of my personal story? Because at that time NAME and I both were in a situation where we needed to be paid attention. We needed each other’s attention. Being paid attention was our rare resource, our denarius. However, my own racism that was unnoticed until then undermined his deep desire to be fully given authority. Name was among the oppressed and the broken, in terms of racism which is currently losing its grip and power in our world but still shapes too much of our thinking. I was also among the oppressed and the broken in terms of gender and racism. However, I was the oppressor at the time, when I made my choice to appeal to power and knowledge – and chose the white person. Later when we went on the picnic, on the bus back home, Name asked me and the others, “What image comes to your mind when you think of Africa?” I answered, “Desert.”, because I always dreamed of visiting the Sahara Desert.
He said, “I have always wondered why people often relate Africa with animals, They tell their children stories of animals in Africa, while Africa is crowded with people and their life stories.”
I reflect on our parable, today, from the perspective of the broken and the rare resource they are in need of. Sometimes this rarity causes conflicts and competition among the broken, among the dispossessed. However, when you are in desperate need of that rare resource, a denarius is acceptable. It is good, for now. It is a gift. It is your daily bread. Manna.
From the perspective of the comfortable, being paid a denarius is Trouble – a threat of true discomfort.
From the perspective of the dispossessed, a denarius is a surprise. A gift.
In the story, the owner asked when he went out to the marketplace to find his prospective workers, at 5 pm, at the “eleventh hour”, just one hour before the sunset, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said, “Because no one has hired us.”
They must have felt so unlucky – they must have been so worried, so convinced of their own shortcomings – and then that one sweet hour of work, that life-sustaining coin at the end of the day – a token of their own value.
One more perspective to add: Encountering Jesus is more like hearing a whisper than meeting with thunder – the big thunder of Manitoba. You need to pay very keen attention to Jesus’ voice if you intend to hear his message. He’s telling us the truth, a small ‘t’ truth. You may say, a denarius whisper. Hard won, rare. A minimum which can sustain our lives day by day, but not so much we can bank it and relax. For the brokenhearted, the one denarius whisper that satisfies and comforts our need at the level of minimal survival spiritually, emotionally, physically, is a gift. Not a curse, not a reminder of how little we can be reduced to from the prosperity we now know. It is daily bread. It is manna.
From the perspective of the dispossessed, the brokenhearted, a denarius can be immense – a true, sustainable blessing.