Every day at 3:00 a.m., the men who have slept on the floor of the Border Farmworkers Center in El Paso, Texas, rouse themselves from sleep. Soon the buses from the farms growing chilies and peppers in New Mexico will rattle into the parking lot. The overseers will step off the buses and look over the crowd of men hoping to work in the fields. Those who appear young, strong, and able will be summoned to get on the bus, while others will be left behind, hoping that another bus will soon arrive needing laborers. These workers will toil until evening under the hot southwestern sun, usually earning far less than minimum wage. The days are long, but there is no overtime pay, and the work is dangerous, but there is no workers’ compensation or health insurance.
“I’m angry,” said Cesar Chavez, “that I live in a world where a man who picks food for a living can’t afford to feed his family.”
Jesus’s parable in Matthew 20 puts us squarely in that parking lot, indeed into every labor market where men and women desperately needing work press forward, hoping to be chosen. At first, the parable appears completely realistic. A landowner shows up at the local labor pool early in the morning seeking agricultural workers. It is a scene repeated thousands of times every day around the world. But this is a parable, and soon it subverts fixed notions of how the world operates, and all attempts to make it obey the rules of the “real world” fall apart. As Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms once said, “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.”
The first element that gets blown up by the parable is the motive of the landowner. Sometimes preachers, trying to fill in the gaps in the story, will surmise something like, “So the landowner, needing more laborers to work the vineyard, went back to the marketplace,” but this distorts the parable. Nothing at all is said about the need of the landowner. In fact, what is highlighted is the need of the workers. The landowner sees them “standing idle” and that sight prompts him to offer them a job. This gets underscored in the dialog that occurs at day’s end. “Why are you standing here idle all day?” the landowner asks the laborers who are left in the marketplace. When they reply they aren’t working for the simple reason that no one has chosen them, he responds, “You also go into the vineyard.” In the real world, the economy revolves around the need of the bosses, but this story is pulled along by the need of the workers.
The second thing that gets blown up by the parable is the motive of the workers. Those hired first feel that they are in a position to bargain, and so they negotiate with the landowner to make sure they will be fairly paid. They strike a deal for a denarius each, the going rate for a day’s work. But as they day wears on, negotiation disappears. The workers hired in the middle of the day go merely on the landowner’s assurance that he will pay them what is right and just. At the end of the day, the workers simply go to work on the summons of the landowner alone. Perhaps the diminishing bargaining is a sign of mounting desperation as the day grew shorter, but the fact remains that the later waves of workers go into the vineyard not on a contract but simply trusting the character of the landowner. In the real world, of course, trusting the moral character of agricultural overseers is usually confidence misplaced.
The third thing that the parable blows up is the economy of compensation. To enhance the drama of the narrative, the parable portrays the workers being paid in the reverse order of their hiring. The workers hired last, those who worked only an hour, were paid first and received a denarius, a whole day’s pay. The workers who were hired first, observing this, naturally assumed they would get more for putting in a full day’s labor. But when every worker got exactly the same pay, a denarius, the early workers howled, “This is unjust!” The landowner responded in effect, “Don’t you dare accuse me of injustice. You dealt for a denarius and I paid you a denarius. You got just what you bargained for — no harm, no foul. And besides, if you want a world that operates on deals, bargains, and bean-counting rules of fairness, you need to find another parable. In this parable, the whole thing moves according to generosity, and everybody gets enough to live.”
Now this parable is not a blueprint for labor practices or economic systems any more than the parable of the prodigal son is a class on parenting or the great banquet a manual of table etiquette. Any company that paid people who work one hour a day the same as it paid fulltime workers would soon have a hard time finding employees willing to show up at 9. Even so, this parable works on our imaginations in ways that have profound implications for the marketplace and economic justice. It allows us to enter for a moment into an alternate world, one that operates on generosity rather than greed, ambition, and competition. It allows us to experience a world in which those who stand ignored, idle, and discarded by society are nevertheless of great value to God — worthy, regardless of their circumstances, to live with dignity each day. This parable discloses the generosity that flows from the very life of God. After letting our imaginations dwell in the surprising generosity of this parable and of God, we can no longer look at that parking lot filled with farmworkers who are paid unjustly and who are viewed as disposable, and rest easy.