Matthew 20:1-16 – The 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, September 21, 2014
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard…” (Matthew 20:1)
What’s your favorite Bible passage?
My childhood response was Proverbs 14:34. Look it up, if you want. I’d found it on the inside page of a Bible at my grandparents’ house and memorized the words. Whenever I quoted that verse as “my favorite” in Sunday school classes, teachers looked befuddled. Why hadn’t I chosen the popular John 3:16 (like other kids did), instead of an obscure Old Testament verse? As a kid, I didn’t know what the Proverbs passage meant, but I enjoyed the odd reactions.
I’d bet few claim Matthew 20:1-16’s story about a landowner hiring workers as a “favorite.” In the parable, a landowner was desperate to harvest his Zinfandel and kept driving his dented Ford F-150 to the nearby town. He needed workers, lots of workers, because a good Zin waits for no one. Any card-carrying union workers? Bring ‘em. Any undocumented workers? Bring ‘em. Any slow, fast, inexperienced, and veteran vine dressers? Bring ‘em. Back and forth on the dusty roads, with newly hired hands crowding the truck’s bed, the landowner tried to meet his grape need.
The workers were hired early and often. The workers were promised payment. For some, “the usual daily wage.” For others, “whatever is right.” For a few, there were no promises other than work.
The day ended.
Every damn worker was paid the same.
No, correction, every blessed worker was paid the same.
No—in the most painful correction for me as a preacher, teacher, or human being—simply every worker was paid the same. The workers were not damned or blessed. It also didn’t matter, apparently, if they were skilled or unskilled. Worst of all, it didn’t matter when the workers started working. The humble woman with five mouths to feed that labored until her fingers bled was paid exactly the same as the whiny teenager who stumbled onto the field at 5:12pm . . . and took two bathroom breaks within a half-hour.
Jesus didn’t describe the workers (or, for the most part, other persons in other parables). We have no idea what they were really like. Me, I love adjectives. Humble woman. Whiny teenagers! Undocumented workers. Damned workers or blessed workers.
As a preacher, teacher, and human being, I want to categorize ‘em. Good. Bad. Happy. Sad. Calm. Desperate. Selfless. Selfish. But there was no basis for comparison based on their personalities or backgrounds.
I don’t think I’ve every preached or taught this parable and not had someone complain . . . I DON’T GET IT!
Because, even if we drop away the descriptions—and admit that it doesn’t matter if it’s a hard-working single mom or a drunken bum working the system to get a denarius for a six-pack—paying someone the same for one hour or ten hours was, is, and always will be unfair.
Yup, this was, is, and always will be no one’s favorite parable.
Fortunately for you, I’m here to reveal the secret of what Jesus really, really, really meant by telling this tale.
In the NRSV, Matthew 20:15 read: “are you envious because I am generous?” James Breech, in his excellent The Silence of Jesus, translated the verse this way: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
It’s that evil eye.
Don’t we institutionalize that way of looking? Many years ago, in the 2008* campaign for president, I recall certain angry words that were exchanged between the candidates. (Actually, many angry words in that and every other campaign are exchanged, but the memorable words were, well, funny and stupid and consumed way too much newspaper ink and digital space.) Barack Obama, attacking John McCain’s views, said you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Oink! The McCain camp blasted back, protesting that Obama’s comments were sexist and an insult to Sarah Palin (she being the hockey mom with Revlon red lips). Insult. Injury. Jealousy. Hostility. Attack. Counter attack. I laughed. I cried. Everyone was only using their evil eyes.
And yet, here’s the not-so-secret secret that I struggle (every blessed day) to remember. My eye is evil. Yours too.
As a kid, I memorized a Bible passage I didn’t understand. I just liked how the adults reacted, how they looked at me. How much time do we waste trying to upset or unsettle others? How much time do we ruin comparing ourselves to others?
I understand just enough of Jesus’s parable. Truthfully, Matthew 20:1-16 will never be my favorite. And it’s far easier to fret over why someone working a full day gets as much as someone working an hour . . . but I better keep reading. This parable is eye-to-eye with me. Oink!
It’s not how others look at us. It’s how we choose to look—critically or lovingly—at them.
*Though I could’ve easily selected another “evil eye” example, I stuck with this old piggy one. Why? ‘Cuz I’ve spent most of my recent writing efforts on finishing a draft of my novel! I wrote a version of this essay in 2008 and decided to re-run it after a little tweaking. Time is limited and precious! I’m sure you’ll either understand or cast a digitized “evil eye” my way.