This Sunday, we have another challenging parable from Matthew’s Gospel! It may not be a scary one, as we have almost gotten used to, but this one can certainly leave us with mixed feelings: The parable of the “Generous landowner”:
A landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for the usual daily wage. As the day goes by, the landowner returns several times to the market place to hire more laborers, from 9:00am to 5:00pm. When the day is over though, instead of paying each one of the laborers based on the time they have spent working, the landowner asks the workers last hired to come forward and offers them the same daily wage that was agreed on with the first workers. Unsurprisingly, it makes these ones quite unhappy while the landowner declares “having done them no wrong” and praises himself for his generosity.
So as I was reading and re-reading this story, I was torn by two approaches:
– On one hand, I can’t help but agree that indeed, the landowner has done “nothing wrong” and has proven himself fair to the early workers and generous with the latest ones.
– On the other hand, something is really bugging me and I can’t help but feel that I don’t really like this guy, or maybe I don’t really like this story. I can’t really explain why but something inside of me tells me that this is not how things should go / this is not how things should end in a perfect world.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t preaching in a perfect world, was he? Parables aren’t fairy tales or a Hallmark movie, here to make us happy and contented with the way things are. Moreover, at some level, I think that if the parable is in a way annoying, it may prove that it works, that it is doing what it is supposed to do. A famous theologian said that we should read the Bible not so much for the answers it may provide, but for the questions it leads us to ask.
So what questions does this parable invite us to wrestle with?
– On a first level, it certainly invites us to think to very concrete, down to earth problems. Quite evidently, Jesus questions the way our society and economy work, and it’s interesting to realize that things haven’t changed that much in 2000 years: Not only do we assume that only those who work deserve a salary, we also assume that the more you work the more money you deserve.
But Jesus questions this understanding. It looks like first, those who don’t work aren’t necessarily responsible for not working, being lazy. They’re not working because “Nobody has hired them” and it seems that the landowner ends up hiring them not so much because he needs them but out of generosity. As he pays them a daily wage, even for having done so little, he gives them the opportunity to buy dinner for themselves and their families. He does not keep tabs on who’s doing what. He understands that everybody needs the minimum to live. It’s not their fault if they’re poor.
This understanding is disturbing to us, of course. It’s always easier to believe that we have what we have because we deserve it, because we have worked hard for it. But if we look at the reasons why we have what we have, if we “check our privilege” as we say (White privilege, inheritance, education, health, functioning family…), we may realize that our good fortune isn’t all our doing. Certainly the landowner realizes that and it leads him to share his resources.
Second very down to earth assumption this parable puts into question is our belief that we should always make more money. The more we work, the more we should make. By sending back the worker of the first hour with their full daily wage but nothing extra, the landowner claims that this is enough for the day. And indeed, the daily wage is what you need to get you through the day. Of course, it reminds us of the story we have just read in the Old Testament about the manna. God gives us our “daily bread”, gives us each day “enough”- or at least, we should live in a world where there is enough for everybody. We know of course that it isn’t a reality. Our wealth is not necessarily a blessing from God, our wealth can be what hasn’t be shared with others. We don’t deserve to have more resources than others. It just happens because it’s the way our economy works. I don’t know if Jesus was what we would call a socialist, but he certainly asks tough questions to the way we understand capitalism.
Without developing any further on those issues, I think the bottom line is that Jesus resets human economy on divine economy, reminding us that, in the eyes of God, each of God’s children is precious, deserving and valuable. Now how does it lead us to live and to treat others knowing that, as individuals but also as a society?
When we ask this question, I think we come to the heart of the parable and this is really where I would like to dwell on a little today. As I have mentioned earlier, the parable has been graciously named by the editors of this version of the Bible “The parable of the generous landowner” but I don’t think that generosity is what strikes us in this man. I think that what strikes us is that he is disliked: by the workers of the first hour, by the people who were listening to Jesus, by us who read the Gospel. We don’t hate him, as I said, we acknowledge he has done “nothing wrong” and even proven himself generous but he disturbs something inside of us – our sense of fairness, our sense of how things should go – we don’t even know if the workers of the last hour like him – Maybe they think he is a fool for doing what he does. If I had to rename the story, I would call it “The parable of the disliked landowner”, and I would do that not only because I think it is more accurate, but because I think this is the point Jesus is making:
This man has the “courage to be disliked”, as we say, and this is what makes him an exceptional character. He has the “courage to be disliked” not because he just wants to live his life as he pleases or he really wants to do something even if it was bothering or shocking to some people, he has the courage to be disliked for the sake of doing the right thing, for the sake of living according to his conscience, for the sake of reaching out to the less fortunate and to give them an opportunity to thrive. And as I thought about it, I realized: Well, this should indeed be the heart of Christian living, shouldn’t it? This should be what true morality should be?
But what have we done with morality in our world? As I was thinking about it, I realized how often it is that basically our morality is about being liked by others. We want to be nice to people, we want to please them – and there is nothing wrong with that, of course! But there is nothing wrong with that as long as it still leads us to do the right thing. Yet often, as we try so much to please people, to make them happy, we just conform to live in the world as the world is, instead of trying to transform it. If the landowner had paid everyone according to their work, he would have been a good landowner, he would have done what was expected and people would have been happy with him. But as he chooses to pay everybody the same, and to make a statement out of it (asking the workers of the last hour to come forward so everybody see they receive full salary), he challenges our assumptions, he disturbs our sense of fairness that often supports our selfish or at least quiet lives. The disliked landowner puts everything into question and cuts open our hearts, and he can do that because he has supreme freedom having the “courage to be disliked” – Not wanting to be loved as a motivation for his actions.
He is of course, a messianic figure. As he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus certainly identifies with this landowner. Jesus came into the world to announce that God loves and treats everybody the same way, to announce that there a no privilege, no good deed or false piety that can save us, and people hated him for that and put him to death.
So this week, I invite us to think about the motives of our actions. Do we do what we do to be loved or do we do what we do because we think it’s the right thing to do? It’s normal to want to be loved, valuated, appreciated, but I think Jesus invites us to look at a higher level: Not acting nice to people so they would like us and we can enjoy this good version of ourselves they send us back in the way they look at us (which is basically seduction), but acting doing what we truly believe is the best interest of others / the best we can do for them given a certain situation. Not to teach them, not to show them, but to give them the best we have to offer.
Christian love isn’t about pleasing people, it’s not about being well considered by those who are going to make us feel good about ourselves, Christian love is about lifting up, raising up our neighbors starting with the most needy. In this understanding indeed, the last will be first, and the first will be last.