The Workers in the Vineyard is one of Jesus’s longest parables, and probably involves more moral concepts than any other:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matt. 20:1–16).
The abundance of moral concepts in play here—fairness, equality, generosity, (in)gratitude, envy, desert, property rights, and workers’ rights—makes this parable a favorite among moral philosophers. But before I survey what this parable implies about, and adds to, Jesus’s own moral philosophy, it’s important to acknowledge that there are good reasons for holding that its primary message (in the original context) was an eschatological rather than an ethical one. Namely, that Jesus’s closer group of followers who had given away everything would not ultimately, like the first workers, receive a greater reward than those others who had not. This served to remind the audience of the egalitarian, as well as inclusive nature of Jesus’s teaching, and that virtue is to be pursued for its own sake rather than for any external reward.
Nevertheless, the parable’s moral message is more important for us, and its thematic focus on the workers being paid “whatever is right” (v. 4) locates it within “a network of intersignification” with the other social-justice parables we’ve studied (Ricoeur, 242). The condition of the day laborers, moreover, remains relevant to contemporary social justice concerns, with the high proportion of jobs which are insecure or based on “zero-hour contracts” (Hill, 46). Like the workers in this parable, many workers on zero-hour contracts have to get up very early each day and anxiously wait to hear if they have any work. They are often unable to plan their transportation or indeed their lives in a cost-effective way. Hence, like the vineyard workers, an exploitative economic arrangement imperils their ability to provide for their families.
One of the questions we touched on in the previous installment was where Jesus’s political philosophy would fall between social democracy and communism. As noted there, this is not a question that could be answered, but there’s a hint that exists is his approach to equality and fairness. “You have made them equal to us” the first workers grumble (v. 12), which is ironic because the landowner has not actually treated them equally. In a society based on treating everyone strictly equally, workers would be paid an equal wage for their work, and this would only be equal if it was in proportion to how much work they had done. But that isn’t what happens in the parable. Likewise, an ideal of equality would require that the landowner be equally generous to all the workers, paying the first twelve times what he pays the last (assuming they worked for twelve hours). Hence, although there is an egalitarian thread running right through Jesus’s philosophy, it’s clear that with this parable he’s not calling for an economy where people are treated strictly equally.
He is, however, addressing the issue of workers’ rights, a concern close to the hearts of the Hebrew prophets. The story of the patriarch Jacob also includes a classic tale of exploitation and revenge (Gen. 29:15–31:55). Jacob originally agrees with Laban that he’ll work for him for seven years, but Laban tricks him and keeps changing the agreement in his own favor. When Jacob finally flees from Laban’s service he tells him:
These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you for fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father… had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you (Gen. 31:41–2).
Jacob is not the best example of an exploited worker, however, because he still became “exceedingly rich,” owning both “male and female slaves” (30:43). Whereas in Jesus’s parable, it is the workers’ desire to be richer than others, rather than being content with a living wage, that earns them a rebuke. This may be because in so doing they’ve failed to show basic gratitude for the generosity toward their fellow workers shown by the landowner, who has looked past their labor, valuing all of them as persons with individual dignity rather than merely as his workers.
Elsewhere Jesus does address exploitation. As we saw in part 10, the parable of the Ten Pounds (Luke 19:11–27) calls on us to follow the example of the third servant, who courageously stands up to the exploitative regime of a plutocrat. Then later in the same chapter, Jesus himself courageously stands up to the traders and money changers in the temple, who in collaboration with the Empire’s system of taxation, were charging excessive rates to worshipers. Not only was this exploitative, but it excluded the poorest pilgrims from practicing their religion (Hill, 170–1). When Jesus describes the temple as “a den of robbers” (v. 45, recalling Jer. 7:11), however, it is not to accuse the vendors of robbing (since a den is where thieves hide their loot, not whence they steal it), but to call out the religious officials for storing the fruits of their corruption there (Levine, 152; Hill, 170).
In contrast to these illustrations of exploitation, it appears that with the Vineyard Workers parable Jesus is holding up an image of a righteous rich man, who uses his wealth in the service of the poor (Hill, 49). For such social justice readings of the parable, it’s crucial to recognize that it isn’t the latecomers’ fault they were hired later, because they were trying to find work all day but weren’t able to. When those hired first moan that it is they who have “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (v. 12), they are failing to understand that “in their own way the men hired at five o’clock have been bearing [this too] before they surprisingly get a chance of earning something” (O’Collins, 34). In philosophical terms, this is a rejection of the conventional understanding of desert, that people deserve to be paid in terms of what they have actually done, in favor of an approach known as luck egalitarianism.
Luck egalitarianism is an approach to fairness that strives for equality of opportunity (rather than equality of outcome) by equalizing the effects of luck, on the rationale that distinctions of luck are arbitrary, having no moral import (Anderson, 154–5). In the case of the parable, this theory holds it fair that the last workers are paid the same as the first, because they were all trying to work for the day, it is just that the first were lucky enough to be hired earlier. This focus on intention also makes this message coherent with the “inward turn” of Jesus’s ethics (see part 5).
On a political level, this approach supports a system of conditional welfare for the unemployed, receipt of which depends on the candidate demonstrating their efforts to find work. By comparison, a Rawlsian approach to fairness is often thought to underpin unconditional unemployment benefits, which have become less popular in recent decades, concurrent with the development of luck egalitarianism in academia. An alternative political corollary of the latter theory is basic income, which is usually conceived of as a universal benefit, paid to everyone. A luck egalitarian justification for such a program is that by guaranteeing everyone a genuine living wage, the negative effects of luck in the employment market are effectively neutralized. If due to luck, one suffers a financial misfortune such as missing out on a better paid job, or on having a job at all, then one’s subsistence-level needs will still be met. (Cf. PEL’s episode on New Work.)
Unsurprisingly, Jesus’s ethic of economic fairness also includes canceling debts. Levine, with her knowledge of New Testament cultures, says that line from the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses” was originally “most likely ‘Forgive us our debts’ (as the Sermon on the Mount puts it in Matt. 6:12).” She continues:
It says ‘Don’t hold a debt. If someone needs, you give.’ The call is for economic justice. Yet ‘trespasses’ or ‘sins’ may well have been part of the prayer as well. I had been convinced that the version reading ‘debts’ was the original, given Jesus’s frequent excoriations of the rich and his comparable solace for the poor. … [But] nothing prevents the conclusion that Jesus offered two versions of the prayer (i.e., with both meanings) (Levine, 49-50).
This message of generosity towards debtors is strengthened by two parables: the Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:21–35) and the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1–13). Both of these stories reinforce the same point from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). The unforgiving debtor fails to do this: he begs his own debts forgiven but refuses to cancel others’ debts to him. The dishonest manager, by contrast, succeeds because he cancels the debts of others. The philosopher Keith Ward thinks that the comment after this story—“make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9)—says that by forgiving the debts of others on earth our debts shall be forgiven in heaven. He calls this—rather grandly—Jesus’s “law of spiritual retribution,” pointing to its presence in other statements like “judge not lest you be judged” (Matt. 7:1) (Ward, 124).
This “law” is also applied to social justice in an apocalyptic vision Jesus has in Matt. 25:
[The King] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ … Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’ (v. 41 & 44–5).
The meaning of these words seems to be that if we fail to be actively generous and caring toward those in need, as the rich man so failed Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), God will cease to be active in his care for us also. To dwell a little longer in this more supernatural register, all of Jesus’s social justice teaching is gravely underscored by this warning, and is brought into sharper focus in an act of sharing of his own.
The feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9:12–17) is a sign of care for the hungry on a hyperbolic scale, adding his own example of generosity to those in his parables of the Vineyard Workers (Matt. 20:1–16) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Regardless of whether or not anything miraculous took place, the spiritual meaning of the miracle hinges on what can be achieved by sharing. As articulated by Daniel MacAvoy, if we take a materialistic perspective on goods, we will only see what we as individuals do not have. Only perceiving what we lack, we may grumble like the first workers at the good fortune of others. A spiritual perspective, by contrast (see the end of part 6), recognizes that together we have everything. Thus, when we share in the spirit of love, we defy the logic of the world so that the division of goods becomes instead a multiplication.
With the next installment we will move on from distributive justice to inclusion, beginning with a look at the role of envy, and at alternative interpretations of the Vineyard Workers.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Anderson, Elizabeth, , “Against Luck Egalitarianism: What Is the Point of Equality?,” from: Social Justice (Blackwell Readings In Philosophy), Clayton, Matthew & Williams, Andrew (eds.), (2004), Blackwell, Oxford
Hill, Symon, (2015), The Upside Down Bible: What Jesus Really Said About Money, Sex, and Violence, Darton, Longman & Todd, London
Levine, Amy-Jill, (2006), The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, HarperOne, New York
O’Collins, Gerald, (1999), Following the Way: Jesus Our Spiritual Director, Harper Collins, London
Ricoeur, Paul, , “Listening To the Parables of Jesus,” from: Regan, Charles E. & Stewart, David (eds.), (1997), The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, Beacon Press