The Equal-Pay Vineyard Story.

Matthew 20.1-16.

Jesus tells more than one parable about vineyards, and sometimes Christians mix ’em up. Whenever I refer to “the parable of the vineyard,” people sometimes assume I mean the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, or the tenant farmers who murder the vineyard owner’s son. I’ve tried to call this the Generous Employer Story, but if you don’t put “vineyard” in the title people don’t know what you mean—“Wait, is this a new parable?” No it’s not.

So I call it the Equal-Pay Vineyard Story. Because everybody gets paid a denarius at the end of the story, even though some of ’em didn’t work all that hard. The punchline is about how the landowner does this because he’s generous, so maybe it oughta be called the Generous Equal-Pay Vineyard Story. But instead of making the title longer and longer, till it winds up telling the story for us, Jesus may as well tell the story, right?

Matthew 20.1-16 KWL
1 “For heaven’s kingdom is like a person, a landowner,
who comes out first thing in the morning [6AM] to hire workers for his vineyard.
2 Once the workers agree to a denarius for the day,
he sends them to his vineyard.
3 Going out the third hour, [9AM] he sees others loitering in the square
4 and tells them, ‘You can also go to the vineyard,
and I’ll give you whatever might be fair.’
5 He goes away again, and comes back out at the sixth [12PM] and ninth hour, [3PM]
and does the same thing.
6 Around the 11th hour, [5PM] he comes out to find others standing around,
and tells them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
7 They tell him this: ‘Nobody has hired us.’
He tells them, ‘You can also go to the vineyard.’
8 When evening comes, [6PM] the vineyard’s master tells his vineyard manager,
‘Call the workers, to give them their pay—
starting with the last, till you get to the first.’
9 Each of those who came at the 11th hour gets a denarius.
10 So the first to come, thought they would get more—
and each of them also gets a denarius.
11 Those who got paid last grumble against the landowner,
12 saying, ‘These last-hired worked one hour, and were paid as much as we?
Those who bore the weight of the day, and the heat?’
13 In reply, the landowner says to one of them,
‘Friend, I’ve not wronged you. Didn’t you agree with me to work for a denarius?
14 Take your denarius and go.
I want to give this last-hired what I also gave you.
15 Or is this not allowed me?—to do as I want with what’s mine?
Or is your eye evil, because I am good?’
16 In this way the last will be first,
and the first, last.”

I translated “is your eye evil” Mt 20.15 literally. But just to remind you, the “evil eye” has nothing to do with cursing anyone, like our culture has it. To ancient Hebrews it was an idiom meaning “greedy person.” And there are a lot of greedy people, both back then and now, whose Mammonism gets triggered every time they see generosity. They rage whenever someone gets a massive paycheck, whether it be a CEO who gets an outrageous bonus, or an entry-level employee who makes way more than minimum wage: “He doesn’t deserve that,” or “Why are you paying your people so much?” or “Any moron could do that job; how dare you overpay morons?” They’re as enraged as if it personally harms them for others to prosper. It’s karmic thinking, and wholly inappropriate behavior for Christians. And Jews. But it’s everywhere, so Jesus includes it in his story.

Cultural background stuff.

The ancients didn’t measure hours like we do, figuring 24 equal hours between midnight and midnight. They figured the day was 12 hours long. Regardless of whether it was winter, with short daylight hours, or summer, with long ones: They simply stretched or squashed their “hours” so there’d still be 12. The first hour was the first hour; the 11th hour was the last; noon, where the sun is highest, was in the middle.

But conveniently for the Equal-Pay Vineyard Story, it takes place near the ancient grape harvest. Modern Israel harvests ’em in late August, but in Jesus’s day it was mid-September, near the vernal equinox, when the day was actually 12 of our hours. Harvest was right before Sukkot (הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת/ha-sukkót, “Tabernacles” or “Tents,” the fall feast; in 2021 it’s 20–27 September). Holidays tended to coincide with harvests, because the LORD commanded Israel to tithe their harvests, meaning they took a tenth of it and consumed it, right then. So harvesting was a time of celebration. And generosity; the LORD commanded that too. Every third year you gave your tithe to the storehouse for the needy. (And since they still wanted to party, they simply did it on a budget. Or sometimes spent a whole other tenth.)

Not everybody in ancient Israel grew the same thing, nor harvested at the same time, which is why this landowner could find so many idle people in the town square: Their harvests were done, or they were waiting on their current crops to finish growing. I’ve heard preachers claim there might’ve been an economic depression going on, and tons of people were out of work, and that’s why the landowner was so generous: He wanted to do something for all the starving, unemployed people in his community. It’s an interesting idea, but Jesus didn’t include a famine in his story, and there was no such famine in the 20s or 30s AD. There’s no basis for it.

As for what the landowner was offering in pay: It was a denarius, the Roman version of the €10—but in the Roman Empire their €1, the as, was actually a 16th of a denarius. It was a silver coin about the size of an American penny, and back when the KJV was translated, English silver pennies were the same size, so the KJV translates denarius as “penny.” Its value was based on weight not denomination. Some coins weighed nearly the same, and were considered interchangeable: A Roman denarius was the same as a Greek δραχμή/drakhmí, “drachma,” and five of them were equal to a Tyrian שֶׁקֶל/sheqél. At 4½ grams of silver, a denarius would be worth about $3.40 today.

Preachers tend to assume a denarius was a typical day’s wages. It was not. Ancient money’s value fluctuated wildly. At one point in the gospels, Jesus said a quadrans (a Roman €0.25) would get you two sparrows; Mt 10.29 at another point he said it’d get you 2½ sparrows. Lk 12.6 That’s not a discrepancy: That’s the value of a quadrans going up and down, like it did. If a nation has a lot of silver in it, silver’s value drops; 1Ki 10.21, 10.27 if it has very little, silver’s worth a lot more. There were no national banks back then to control the money supply, and stabilize prices. Since money was uncommon, a denarius had a little more spending power than $3.40. Still, it’s a fraction of the $112 you could currently earn at California’s minimum wage. (Or even the $58 minimum in Alabama.)

This is why the ancients had to haggle over everything: Set prices assume money has a fixed value. But when you’re on a gold or silver standard, no it doesn’t. Hence the landowner and his prospective employees had to “agree to a denarius for the day.” Mt 20.2 The landowner couldn’t just say, “I’m paying a denarius per day; take it or leave it.” He had to feel ’em out.

LANDOWNER. “How much do you want?”
WORKER. “A sheqel.” [Or $17 American. Yeah, Israeli shekels are now 31¢. Money, I tell ya.]
LANDOWNER. “I can’t pay a sheqel. How about five ovoli?” [$2.88]
WORKER. “Don’t insult me. Sheqel or nothing.”
LANDOWNER. “Okay, I’ll find someone else.”
WORKER. “Wait… let’s be reasonable. A didrahmon.” [$6.88]

And so on till they finally agreed on that $3.40 denarius.

But don’t get the idea the landowner had everyone at his mercy, where he was the town’s sole source of income. Nor that the “idlers” in the town square were bums. They were only “idle” in that they weren’t working that day. They had free time. And if they wanted to give up their free time to pluck grapes and make a denarius, it was up to them.

The landowner came back to the square several times that day, to hire more people. And I’ve heard preachers claim the people he hired later in the day, are meant to be pagans who hear the gospel, reject it, regret rejecting it—so the second or third time they hear it, accept it. I don’t believe Jesus means for this parable to teach second and third chances, though he certainly gives them. In that culture, the people who were in the town square later in the day, probably were tending their own farms and ranches and businesses in the morning, and now had the afternoon free. Because if Jesus is talking about the gospel, everybody gets a chance to hear it, including latecomers.

Now at the end of the parable, at the end of the workday, the landowner paid his employees. Not because the fields were entirely harvested, but because the LORD commanded his people to pay their employees before sundown. Dt 24.15 Yep, your bosses who issue paychecks every other week, even if they run “Christian businesses,” are totally breaking this command. (Unless they pay you in advance. I’ve heard of bosses who use that loophole: “The paychecks are for next week’s work.” Smart.)

For whatever reason, the landowner wanted the last-hired to be paid first. Christians speculate like crazy about the landowner’s motives; I don’t know that Jesus, as the storyteller, gave him any. He wants us to see that the last-hired got paid the same as the first-hired, so likely that’s the landowner’s motive too: He’s got a point to make about generosity. He’s got stingy neighbors, same as Jesus has stingy followers.

Mammonism stuff.

Thing is, every time Jesus tells a parable involving money, the Mammonists among us Christians get activated, and they gotta skew these parables weird so it can justify their covetousness. Hence this parable has a lot of deviant interpretations, and preachers who tack onto the end of it, “But actually…”

Libertarians love to zoom in on the landowner’s statement, “Or is this not allowed me?—to do as I want with what’s mine?” Mt 20.15 It becomes their defense to do whatever they please with their possessions. To pay employees as much—but more commonly, as little—as they wish. It’s their property. Not God’s.

Yeah, they might acknowledge God owns the universe; that Jesus is king, and that means king over us and everything we own, and we have no business doing as we please with it unless we first submit our lives and plans to him. But that’s all they do: Acknowledge it. Do they live their lives by it? Hardly. Does God’s generous character produce generous fruit in their lives, wherein they take advantage of being able to do as they please with their possessions, and give generously? Nah; “to do what I will with mine own” Mt 20.15 KJV is only their defense for selfishness. Not, like the landowner in Jesus’s story, a defense for selflessness.

Mammonists also like to use Jesus’s story to justify limited generosity. ’Cause you notice the landowner gave a denarius to those who worked half a day, or half an hour… but he gave no more than a denarius to those who worked a full day. He was generous to some, but not to all. He didn’t have to be generous to all. Therefore they don’t have to be generous to all. If they wanna give to their churches, and only their churches, but not one red cent to the food bank or the homeless shelter or the Boys and Girls Club, it’s their money; they don’t have to.

Thing is, this attitude violates Jesus’s other teaching of giving to those who ask of you. Mt 5.42 He never teaches we should only give to our churches. I’ve known too many Christians who honestly think the only kind of giving we’re permitted, is “tithing”: We give 10 percent of our income to our churches and their ministries. And we only give 10 percent; no more. The other 90 percent, after taxes, is to spend on ourselves, and we can spend all of it if we so choose, and needn’t feel guilty refusing people when they beg us for spare change or a dollar: They should get a job. If they don’t work they shouldn’t eat; let ’em starve.

Jesus’s attitude about generosity is expressed in his teaching, “Give, and it’ll be given you,” Lk 6.38 which—contrary to many a Mammonist preacher—is not about God financially rewarding Christians for tithing. It’s about God identifying generous people as those he can trust with more money, ’cause he knows we’re gonna grow his kingdom with it, instead of selfishly hoarding it.

Proverbs 19.17 KJV
He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD; and that which he hath given will he pay him again.

The landowner in the Equal-Pay Vineyard Story is not a demonstration of how we can give to some but not all. Jesus’s parables are always about God’s kingdom. Heaven’s kingdom is like a landowner who gives all his workers equal pay, regardless of when they entered his kingdom, or how much they contributed to it. For heaven’s kingdom does not reward us in karmic points; ignore those myths about how the crown of life Jesus brings us when he returns Rv 2.10 is gonna have more or fewer jewels depending on our good deeds. It’s a leafy crown, the trophy ancient Greeks gave to winners, and just like youth soccer trophies, everybody gets one. Even Christians who suck. Even Mammonists, who are gonna be wildly disappointed it has no jewels… but what good are jewels in a kingdom where money no longer matters, where even the pavement is gold?

But in today’s economy money does matter—particularly to those who have none. If you have extra, be like your generous Father: Give.