Shuck and Jive

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A "Generous" Man? -- A Sermon

A “Generous” Man?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 24th, 2010

Jesus used to tell this parable:

Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And coming out around nine a.m., he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.” So they went.

Around noon he went out again, and at three p.m. he repeated the process. About five p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?”

They reply, “Because no one hired us.”

He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.”

Those hired at five p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached, thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.”

In response he said to one of them, “Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
Gospel of Jesus 4:4-21

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Matthew 20:1-15.

You may have seen a series of commercials regarding a certain bank.

In one particular commercial a man is sitting at a children’s table with two little girls.

He says to one:
“Would you like a pony?”
She smiles and answers,
He pulls out a toy pony and gives it to her. She smiles. She is happy. She has a toy pony. To the second girl he asks,
“Would you like a pony?”
She also smiles and answers,
He makes a sound, clicking his tongue, and in walks a live pony. The camera stays on the first girl while we hear the man say to the second girl:
“Here you go this is for you.”
says the second girl.

The first girl says,
“You didn’t say you could have a real one.”
The man answers,
“You didn’t ask.”
While the camera stays on the first girl as she narrows her eyes, the narrator says:
“Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.”
So is the man with the pony generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the guy is right. The first girl didn’t ask for a real pony. Not only that, she was perfectly happy with her toy pony. It was only when the second girl received a real pony that the first girl saw that it seemed unfair and gave the man the evil eye.

Only then was she filled with envy.
Only then did she begrudge his generosity.
She should just buck up right?
They are his ponies, after all.
He can do what he wants.
The first little girl is just greedy and spoiled.
She is self-righteous.
She doesn’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the man who owns the ponies.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Is the owner of the vineyard generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the owner is right. Those who worked from 6 a.m. on did agree on the bargain they had made with the owner. They seemed OK with that agreement. He didn’t go back on his word. He paid them what they had agreed upon. It was only when they saw that those who worked less also received the same pay that it seemed unfair and so gave the owner the evil eye.

Only then were they filled with envy.
Only then did they begrudge his generosity.
They should just buck up right?
It is his vineyard. It is his money.
He can do what he wants.
Those who worked all day are just greedy and spoiled.
They are self-righteous.
They don’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the owner of the vineyard.

That is how we are supposed to read this parable. It is an allegory for grace we are told. God is as gracious to the deathbed convert who throughout his life ignored his religious duty and spent every Sunday morning in idleness, debauchery and pleasure as God is to the faithful church mouse who sat on a hard pew each and every Sunday morning after long Sunday morning, and always paid her tithe and always did the dishes after every potluck.

In the end it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to heaven. God grades on the curve. Works are irrelevant.

It is all about God’s grace as David Buttrick in preaching on this parable writes:
Look, in God’s world everything is grace, amazing grace. You can’t earn grace, you can’t deserve grace, you can’t be moral enough to merit grace. Grace is handed out free to sinners, while the self-righteous who won’t accept “bleeding charity” take their pay and go." Speaking Parables, p.117
There you have it.
What looks like injustice…
What seems like injustice… only so because we are not looking at it through God’s benevolent and generous eyes. It’s not fair but it is the way God works, so just buck up. Hallelujah.

Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Then we have this other complication. Not only does the landowner give the late hour laborers a little extra cash because he is generous, he does it in front of everyone, paying the late hour workers first.

What could possibly be the point of that except to make a point?
What is the point exactly?
That because he owns land he can do whatever he wants?
Does he do it to shame these first hour workers?
Does he do it to make a show of his generosity?

The owner says:
Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money?
Actually there is. It is called the fair wage law. Of course, they might not have had such a law in first century Palestine, but they knew about fairness and wages. The Hebrew prophets talked about justice to the poor on a regular basis. Jesus did too.

The landowner says:
Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?
say the workers.
“It is not because you are generous that we are giving you the evil eye. It is because you are arrogant and a grandstander. You think it is fun to play with people’s lives. You make a spectacle of us. You devalue our labor.”
The owner might reply:
“Now wait a minute. I am concerned about the late hour workers and their plight. If it weren’t for me they would have nothing. I have been moved by compassion at their condition and I offer them more than they have earned. Out of my own pocket I put food in their stomachs. I have created a social safety net. Isn’t that what you left wing socialists are all about? Don’t hate me because I am a generous capitalist.”
And thus the question we have to answer.

Is the landowner just and generous or not?
Before we go further with that, we should say a couple of things about parables. We tend to interpret them as allegories or as illustrations that make a moral or theological point. In this case, the landowner is a stand in for God and the moral of this parable is God’s amazing grace for the undeserving.

I suggest that parables in general including this one are not allegories. They are open-ended invitations to view the world differently than previously we have viewed it.

Whenever Jesus tells a story about landowners, judges, kings, and those with authority and power, we should be very skeptical that that character is a stand-in for God.

If we see this landowner as God, we will have to engage in a great many gymnastics to make sense of it.

We don’t have to see the landowner as God. The landowner could be just a landowner. The meaning, the empire of God, could be within the text of the parable or outside of it.

Is the landowner generous? He says he is.

However, a silver coin or a denarius a day will make no one rich. Whatever agreement he made with the workers you can bet it was for a subsistence wage. He apparently had plenty of landless peasants available to work his vineyard. If one won’t work for a denarius, ten more will.

Now we should start asking some questions.

Why are there landless peasants?
Where did they come from?
Who owns the vineyards?
Who profits from the harvest and the marketing and the taxation of this fruit of the vine?
Finally, who gets to drink it?

We don’t know.
We can be sure that Jesus knew and
his landless peasant audience knew, and
the vineyard owners who were listening in knew, and the
compromised religious authorities knew, and the
political authorities who eventually executed him knew.

You can bet that none of the landless peasants enjoyed the fruit of the vine. You can also bet that they all knew the words of the Hebrew prophets such as Micah who when speaking about the great day of the Lord said:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:3-4a)
Everyone shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees.

That is the empire of God.

The empire of God is not getting a denarius a day if you are lucky harvesting someone else’s vine. That is the empire of Caesar.

In early first century Palestine, as Herod built his mini-empire he had to fund his projects. You don’t fund massive projects by dealing with individual people and their puny little vines. You bring in agribusiness. You find whatever means you need to drive those inefficient people off their land and give it to large landowners who can then turn a profit.

This is the context for our parable.

The parable is a fiction but the setting is a real as a hungry child.

The hearers of these parables would recognize a landless peasant hoping to get hired to work in a field that used to be his daddy’s.

At the end of the day what the landowner has succeeded in doing is to pit the laborers against each other. It is similar to the huge coal companies in West Virginia, Kentucky and Southwest Virginia who pit people against each other. They say the same thing all the time,
"Mountain top removal mining creates jobs."
That is not true of course. Mountain top removal mining uses far fewer workers than conventional mining. A small number of people have these jobs. Others do not. The people who live there are embattled and embittered against one another. Meanwhile, mountains are destroyed forever and billions of dollars flow into the pockets of energy companies.

I am starting to meddle, aren’t I?
I am not talking about religion anymore, am I?
Religion is about Jesus dying for your sins so you can go to heaven.

You know, Jesus talked about two things more than anything else.
These two things were NOT abortion and homosexuality.
They were economics and something he called the empire of God.
Money and Power.

The empire of God is not an empire anymore than the school of hard knocks is a school. The empire of God is a metaphor for a way of seeing actual empires. One of the things we need to see is the empire of Caesar in all of its manifestations.

Empire loves spectacle. It loves to demonstrate its power and to spin itself as benevolent power.

I think this is what Jesus is illustrating in this parable.

First of all, in Jesus’s world you give to charity without a big show. This is Jesus speaking just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 6:1-4:
“…when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden.” Matt 6:3-4
And yet in our parable the landowner has a big show at the end of the day in which he pays the late hour workers more than they deserved and then tells the early hour workers how generous he is. His point is to grandstand. He is demonstrating both power and phony generosity. He is giving away ponies to some and not to others.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Just a few verses after today’s parable in Matthew 20:25, Jesus tells James and John who are fighting over power, about how things work in the empire and in contrast how they should behave:
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…”
In our parable, the landowner lords it over them:
“Is there some law against my doing what I please with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous.”
It reminds me of the television commercials for British Petroleum. The commercials are all spectacle about how great BP is. They show local folks working hard day and night processing claims. BP is creating spectacle. They are creating image. They want to be seen as generous, honest, and caring, when in fact, they are doing everything they can
  1. to conceal and downplay the destruction,
  2. to take the least amount of responsibility for it as possible, and
  3. to pay little as they can get away with paying.
BP is a corporation. That is what corporations do. We think it is all perfectly normal. Yet...
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
I read this parable as Jesus exposing an unjust system shrouded in spectacle.

This spectacle of spin--this show of “generosity”--is what those who control wealth and power do all of the time. Jesus exposes this spectacle with this anti-Empire parable.

Where is the Empire of God in all of this?

As Jesus said elsewhere it is among you, within you, and outside you.
  • Perhaps it is in the discussion we have within ourselves and with others about justice, fairness, stewardship, generosity, and our daily bread.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is about opening our eyes to how power works and how money works.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is asking whether or not the way power and money works is the way it must work or should work.
Perhaps the Empire of God is asking how it could work.



  1. I like the way you interpret this parable, but I'm not convinced it was intended that way. I still can't see past the opening line "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner", it seems clear that the KoH IS meant to be represented by the actions of the landowner character....
    And, the pony story does have some significant differences to the parable, so "pony" is not an accurate reflection of it.

    1. The pony story uses a grammatical trick to perpetuate unfairness, the parable does not. The workers in the parable story agreed to a wage that was clear, the pony girls’ reward was deliberately ambiguous.

    2. The workers had no opportunity cost by accepting the work early or late. It's only in hindsight that we artificially impose some kind of opportunity cost. However, the late workers, we are told, found NO work in the intervening period. Therefore, while their marginal return appears greater, it is in-fact the same; 1 unit per day.

    I'm open to reinterpretation of the parable, but I'm not sure the pony story really helps, and I find it hard to look past the introductory sentences, which really do seem to empathise with the landowner...

  2. Hi Phil,

    Thanks for the comment! The beauty of the parables is that they get us thinking!

    1) The pony illustration on my end was for rhetorical effect, although I do think the similarity between the two is key: in both cases the "generous" one makes a spectacle of "generosity" and power. And the justified ill feeling that was created was intentional in both cases causing division between the two girls and between the laborers.

    2) The workers are not really paid the same. The late hour workers are paid more. They are paid more per hour. The labor of the early workers has become devalued.

    The easy question is this: Could any employer get away with this and would it be seen as just? The answer is obviously, no.

    3) The only reason that we think the landowner must be just is because we read parables allegorically. The landowner must be a stand in for "god" and therefore whatever he does must be just and fair. That is the trick of the parable.

    The phrase that we translate, "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner" does not require an allegorical reading. Jesus is inviting reflection upon kingdoms and the kingdom of Heaven. It might be better rendered, "Consider this parable in light of the kingdom of God" or something to that effect. could be an addition by Matthew to set up the story. The gospel writers will add lines and put them on the lips of Jesus to summarize the meaning for the reader.

    We don't know the original context of the parable. We only have Matthew's rendering of it.

    Or it could be that Jesus was deliberately spoofing the notion of kingdom of heaven so they could rethink kingdom heaven.

    "Here is the kingdom of heaven." Then he provides a story that represents bad theology or the kingdom of Caesar to create discomfort for the hearer.

    Just because a parable begins "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner" doesn't mean Jesus meant the story to be taken allegorically.

    Again, I appreciate your comment!

  3. And yet another way to consider this parable is in light of what we see happening here, today. Some people work to make a living. Some don't, and get welfare, which is subsidized through taxes, and charity, which is subsidized through someone's generosity. We hear a lot of people say things like "he should get a job and support himself," "I don't see why she should get paid to sit and do nothing when I have to work," and so on.

    Could the parable refer to the notion that we shouldn't feel envy or anger over generosity shown to some whom we, feel don't deserve it? We are all shown generosity at some point.

    When it is shown to us, we obviously feel we deserve it, for whatever reason. How often are we critical of others simply because we don't see why they deserve the generosity they are shown?

    Of course, the show the landowner makes of his act of generosity is curious, and the tactic of pitting people with common interests and needs against one another is older than the Bible. For these reasons alone I am more apt to think of this parable as a warning to people who may be duped by false generosity that in the long run may affect one's self interest negatively.

  4. thanks john, I agree that the apparent grand-standing seems to be key to the whole parable. Although, it could be there simply as a literary device to enable the early workers to be present whne the late worker are paid..

    I still take some issue with the fairness assessment. These workers still got the same pay for the whole day, becasue there was no oppotunity cost by taking the work early. If there had been another opportunity to work elsewhere (for, say, the first half of the day), then it would've been unfair.

  5. Snad,

    Good, good thoughts.

    Could the parable refer to the notion that we shouldn't feel envy or anger over generosity shown to some whom we, feel don't deserve it? We are all shown generosity at some point.

    That is how I have read this usually, and what I lose with my current reading.

    If the landowner is God and good then that is the notion of this story.

    I read the landowner as a crook and a tool of an unjust system.

    In my view, the bad guys are not the poor who worked all day for a pittance that they had to haggle for. Nor are the bad guys the late hour laborers.

    A silver coin a day is crap. It is like our minimum wage. Who can really live off of it? It is not a just wage it is just the best they can haggle for when there is a surplus of labor.

    Our moral indignation should be against the landowner who claims that he owns the vineyard in the first place. Who really does have right to the fruits of the land? What is land worth? What is labor worth? Those are some of the questions the parable invites us to ask.

    The Empire of Caesar wants us to make it about envious labors jealous over the "owner's generosity." That is their spectacle.

    But when we keep it as a squabble between the day laborers we miss the bigger issue of an unjust system that has exploited them all.

    Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the central theology of land is that God owns it and we are all stewards.

    That theology includes justice for the land itself, for those who work it (including animals), and for a just distribution of its fruits. That is why they had the Jubilee year in which all debts were forgiven and land went back to its original caretakers.

    The point of Jubilee is to prevent monopolies of land as we have in this parable.

    That is why this parable is so radical. Jesus is challenging the entire notion of absentee landlords and landowners who have removed people from their lands forcing them to work as day laborers.

    The landowner is not "god" but has taken over the role of God. Ultimately, he is under the judgment of empire of God.

    For these reasons alone I am more apt to think of this parable as a warning to people who may be duped by false generosity that in the long run may affect one's self interest negatively.

    That is what I think too. Beware says Jesus of those who like to make a show.

  6. Although, it could be there simply as a literary device to enable the early workers to be present when the late worker are paid..

    Paul Verhoeven "The First Will Be First" (The Fourth R 16, 3 (2004), 3-10) says something similar. He points out that Matthew "cheats" by skipping the middle people. The first hour workers wouldn't have expected to receive more because they would have seen the middle of the day workers receive the same and by the time they get paid they would have known they were going to get screwed.

    Verhoeven sees that as a clue that Matthew changed the order of the payment. Originally, he suggests, Jesus paid the first workers first then down the line the same. He thinks this would have been better. He writes:

    "With this order of payment there would be a real buildup, an escalation of outrageous behavior, which corresponds to a similar build-up in the parables of the Merciful Samaritan and the Prodigal Son."

    Even given that reading, the focus is in the wrong place. It is still grandstanding.

    The first hour laborers don't need a lesson. They worked all day for a pittance. They aren't the bad guys. They have a case. What is going to happen the next day? Can this landowner be trusted?

    As I have said, I think we need the context of day laborers and landowners. This parable is then a critique of the empire of Caesar or the "domination system."

  7. Walmarts are a great example. : )

    As well as factory farming, and on and on...

  8. Phil,

    I now see your point about opportunity cost. That does make the owner's case stronger. The late hour workers weren't paid for doing nothing. They would have worked had work been available. He pays all the same for showing up whether or not they work in the field or not.

    This makes the parable on the whole even better as it is ambiguous and the hearer has to choose whether the empire of God is a little bit of mercy even as it comes with a big show and a pitting of laborers against each other, or a critique of the system of landowner/peasant.

    Thanks for pointing that out!

  9. Like Phil, I enjoyed your treatment of this parable, but I'm not convinced that is it's intent. I see the parable as complementary to Matt 7:21-23--
    "21Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
    22Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful" works?

    The parable can be seen as a caution to those who assume that their faith and/or self-assuming righteousness will earn them a firm spot near the head of the celestial table. And further, it can be interpreted as an argument against the doctrine of justification by faith. But that's a long argument.

    That said, I enjoyed the message of the sermon. It makes important points, and it says a lot about the power of parables.

  10. Thanks David!

    Good thoughts. I like that message of criticizing self-righteousness, too. I think it is how Matthew and the later tradition has used it.