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This Week's Commentary
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 21, 2014Exodus 16.2-15 | Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1.21-30 | Matthew 20.1-16
Unless otherwise noted, the biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
Exodus 16.2-15 (and Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45)
See Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), vol. 1:812-16.
I offer two different approaches to these readings. The first focuses on the contrast between ancient Israelites and the modern state of Israel. The others propose recasting the segments of this Exodus as stories “about us” instead of Israel.
1. For Israel’s Hebrew ancestors, the “wilderness” is uninhabited land and, therefore, full of danger. It is also “nowhere”—neither the familiar place of the past nor the unfamiliar, promised place of the future. It is an in-between place during an in-between time. It occasions nostalgic yearning for their familiar past in Egypt, swept clean of its drudgery, oppression, and death. It is a place seemingly devoid of God—and yet, in this “no place,” unfit for human habitation, God heard their complaining, and they saw God’s “glory,” and received meat and bread produced by God’s creative and creating speech.
On the one hand, this story is about ancient Israelites, whom God led out of Egypt. This wilderness is ancient Israel’s wilderness. It is a story about the fragility of their journey from loosely knit nomadic tribes to a unified people occupying “the promised land.” It is their story of their experience of God’s providential care in trying circumstances. As such, it is a testimony to ancient Israel’s belief that God was their God and they were God’s people. We can give thanks to God for that, for the Messiah came from Israel “according to the flesh” (Rom 9.5).
Whether the modern state of Israel enjoys God’s special providential care is an entirely different matter. It is a far cry from the ancient wandering tribes without land and food! If the Exodus narrative is about God’s preferential option for the poor and powerless nomadic tribes, oppressed by world powers, we might say that it offers hope to the world’s powerless, like the Palestinians, who otherwise might feel like God had abandoned them. To them, this story promises that God is with them in their struggle toward an indefinite, uncertain future.
2. To the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, the benefits they experienced as slaves in Egypt outweighed their past suffering, which they willfully forgot. All they wanted to remember were the pots of meat (“fleshpots” NRSV) and bread in Egypt. Life in slavery seemed preferable to the hardships of wandering in the wilderness with nothing more than God’s promise of a better life in a land God had not yet shown them. So they complained—not to God, but to God’s servants, Moses and Aaron.
Again, this is ancient Israel’s story. This nostalgic memory is peculiar to these ancient people. Their complaints to their leaders, Moses and Aaron, are peculiar to them and their specific circumstances.
On the other hand, we might universalize their nostalgia for “the good old days.” Even though we know the “old days” were never that “good,” sometimes we might think we would prefer them to the present. This time of complaining can symbolize any time we feel God has abandoned us. This story promises that God has not abandoned us, even when we cannot see or hear God’s presence, and that God will listen to our complaint and do something about it, even though we cannot imagine how.
3. Just as God’s actions in Egypt were supposed to bring the Pharaoh to faith in the Hebrews’ God (Exod 14.19-31, last Sunday’s reading), so also God’s provision of food in the wilderness was a “test” (16.4) that was supposed to bring the wandering Hebrews to faith in their ancestral God. Again, this is ancient Israel’s story. Let God challenge Israel’s faith and obedience!
On the other hand, we might think about how we might recast this story as a story about us. For example, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, what are we doing when we ask God to give “us,” who are well-fed, “our” bread for the day? Is our prayer an act of faith, trusting that God will provide daily bread, not just for us but especially for those who are starving to death? Every day that we have enough bread for the day is a “test,” to see if we will be grateful to God and if we will be the hands that God uses to bring daily bread to the hungry.
4. When the Israelites saw the “fine flaky substance” left behind when the dew lifted, they asked what it was, or they said “it is manna,” “because they did not know what it was,” or that “it was manna” (16.14-15). The Hebrew word for “what” is man. So, the ancient Israelites called this “bread from heaven” manna. This manna came from heaven through God’s creative and creating speech.
Again, this story is about ancient Israelites on their pilgrimage from slavery in Egypt to “the promised land.” As with the other parts of this narrative, we might recast this episode so that it is about us. For example, something unfamiliar, strange, or even weird might be the very thing that saves us and gives us life in our “wilderness experience.” Let’s be open to receive “manna from heaven” in whatever form it comes to us. It just might be “out of the box”! You too might ask, “What was that?” You too might come to call it “manna from heaven.”
This passage is tough sledding! I hope you find my “unpacking” helpful, even if it brings back memories of slogging through New Testament Greek! I have tried to make the ending worth the price of bearing with my close reading.
We need to set aside the suggestion that, in vv. 21-26, Paul was expressing thoughts of suicide. He was in prison (1.12-14), facing an uncertain future. Imperial guards would decide if he lived or died. Paul had no control over that. What he could control was how he would face the uncertainty of his future. On the one hand, he was confident that, if he died, he would “be with Christ,” which would be “far better.” On the other hand, if he lived, he could continue to help the Philippians grow in faith, which is “more necessary” for them.
Paul saw value and benefits in both living and dying. He admitted that he did not know which he preferred, and was “hard pressed between the two.” Nevertheless, he considered dying “far better.” That, however, did not break the tie! To “depart and be with Christ” would be “far better” for him alone—but it would not benefit anyone else. To “remain in the flesh” (to continue in this life, in contrast to being “with Christ” in the next life after death), however, was necessary for the sake of others. Paul was not willing to prefer his personal, individual life with Christ after death to benefiting others in this life. By considering only these two possibilities, Paul rejected a third possibility: to save his own life by denouncing the gospel of Christ and his allegiance to Christ as his “slave” (1.1).
The Philippians were “having the same struggle” that Paul was having—namely, trouble with imperial authorities. Paul did not describe the nature of this trouble. However, we can infer from vv. 27-29 that it had to do with opposition to their living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This becomes clearer if we translate v. 27 “Only, conduct your life as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Their allegiance to Christ Jesus as their Lord (see 2.5-11, which is next Sunday’s Epistle reading) meant that they could not participate in civic events honoring the Roman emperor, if that would mean honoring him “as a god,” or even if it would mean honoring him as someone greater than their Lord Jesus Christ. Refusing to honor the emperor would have created social unrest, in no small part because it could mean the loss of favors for Philippi from the emperor, at best, if not military and economic retaliation against Philippi. As a result, they might be shunned, publicly humiliated, stripped of their social status, and denied participation in trade guilds and commerce in general. They might even be put in prison or house arrest, to keep them from spreading social unrest. These are ways they might “suffer” for Christ.
Paul summed up how the Philippians were to conduct themselves “as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” with a simple instruction: “Stand firm in [with or as] one spirit.” He then explained what that meant in two participle clauses. First, Paul emphasized the need for solidarity around a common cause: namely, “striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” The Greek verb plays on the image of a team of athletes in a contest with their opponents or of an army in combat with their enemy.
However, instead of focusing right away on the Philippians’ opponents (see v. 28a), Paul first keeps their eye on what was at stake in this “contest”: namely, “the faith of the gospel.” This peculiar phrase is ambiguous, because the phrase “of the gospel” (rendering a Greek genitive case) could have many meanings. For example, it could mean “the faith in the gospel,” in the sense of Rom 10.9: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Elsewhere, Paul never makes “the gospel” the object of “faith.” Besides, the Greek case for the object of “faith” is the dative (or a prepositional phrase, as in Phil 1.29), not the genitive. Other meanings are better. For example, sometimes Paul uses “the faith” to refer to “the gospel,” so that “the faith of the gospel” could mean “the faith, which is the gospel” (see Rom 10.8, “the word of faith that we proclaim”). Another possibility is that it means “the faith that comes from [hearing the proclamation of] the gospel” (see Rom 10.17). Perhaps it is best to leave the phrase ambiguous and allow it to encompass all possible meanings. In any case, Paul assumes that the Philippians would have no trouble understanding it.
Besides, what is important is that they stand their ground in this contest over “faith” and “gospel.” The Roman Empire had its “gospel”: namely, that the gods had given the Romans victory over their neighbors and enemies through the superior “virtues” of their culture and military and economic power. This imperial “gospel” was the source of true “faith,” and it called for patriotic “fidelity.” The gods would continue to bring peace, security, and prosperity to the Roman colonies as long as the people remained “faithful” to this “gospel” and its “Lord,” the emperor. The Philippians were engaged, like Paul, in a contest with “the faith of the gospel of the Roman Empire.” At stake was “the faith of the gospel of Christ.”
The first participle clause was positive; the second is negative and is the flipside of the first. They were to stand firm in solidarity, on the one hand, by striving together “for the faith of the gospel” and, on the other hand, by being “in no way intimidated” by their “opponents.” Solidarity behind a single mission would give them courage for the contest with their opponents.
The NRSV translation of v. 28b is technically possible, but probably not the best.
The Greek text begins with the relative pronoun ἥτις (“which,” as in the KJV and ASV, or sometimes “this”), continuing the previous clause. Instead, for easier reading in English, the NRSV and all main translations begin a new sentence. “This” most likely refers to the Philippians’ solidarity and refusal to be intimidated.
Instead of “evidence” (NRSV) or “proof” (NAB), better translations of the Greek word ἔνδειξις are “omen” (RSV) or “sign” (NIV and NET). The traditional interpretation of the rest of this verse is that Paul was claiming that the Philippians’ opponents would see in the Philippians’ steadfast faith an omen or sign that God had destined them (the opponents) for “eternal destruction.” If that interpretation were to be correct, it would mean that the opponents would come to realize the error of their opposition to “the faith of the gospel.” This interpretation, however, never explains why the opponents would do that, or how Paul could know that the opponents would think and do that in response to the Philippians’ solidarity and faithfulness to “the gospel of Christ.”
The traditional interpretation assumes that the omen or sign is about the opponents’ “destruction.” The NRSV adds the pronoun “their” to clarify that the “destruction” is that of the opponents, not that of the Philippians. The Greek says, “this is to them an omen or sign of destruction.” The simplest interpretation of the phrase “to them” (a dative case in Greek) is that it is the indirect object: “it is an omen or sign to them.” Paul could have used this dative instead of a genitive for the possessive “their destruction,” or he could have used it in the sense of “this is an omen or sign of destruction against them (a “dative of disadvantage”), but these are unnecessary complications, when a simple genitive (parallel to “your salvation”) would have sufficed.
A more natural interpretation of the Greek dative as the indirect object is at the same time the one that is easier to understand. Paul was making an obvious statement of fact. The Philippians’ opponents could not have understood the Philippians’ solidarity and steadfastness as a sign of their faithfulness to the one true God, who would destroy patriotic Romans faithful to their ancestral gods! Especially since the Philippians’ faithfulness was to the gospel about Jesus, the one whom the Roman authorities in Judean crucified, whom Paul nevertheless proclaimed was the Messiah, not just of all Israelites, but of the whole world, presently under Roman rule! The Philippians’ opponents would have seen the Philippians’ solidarity and steadfastness as a sign of their stubborn infidelity to the emperor and their ancestral gods, who would punish them, like they punished Jesus. The Philippians’ stubbornness would be an omen and sign to the opponents of the Philippians “destruction”! To them, that would have been as plain as day. On the other hand, how could the Philippians’ opponents ever have seen it as an omen or sign that, in the end, the God whom the Romans had dealt a crushing defeat on the cross of a would-be rival to the emperor would destroy them? The opponents did not share the narrative of the “Christ-hymn” (Phil 2.6-11)!
The next clause (“but of your salvation”) cannot be the second part of the Philippians’ opponents’ evaluation of the Philippians’ solidarity and faithfulness to the faith of the gospel of Christ. Rather, it must be an elliptical statement of the Philippians’ own evaluation, in contrast to that of their opponents. The opponents could only see the Philippians’ “conduct as citizens” in conformity with “the gospel of Christ” as a path to “destruction.” The Philippians, however, would have shared Paul’s confidence that the very same conduct would lead to their “salvation.” Paul had already offered his own testimony in 1.12-20. Next, he offered the testimony of “the gospel of Christ” in 2.6-11. Then he returned to his own testimony in chapter 3. Paul triumphantly declared that, in the contest between “the faith of the gospel of Christ” and “the faith of the gospel of the Roman Emperor,” victory belonged to Jesus Christ and those faithful to him and his gospel.
The Greek final clause, “this is from God” (the NRSV has “And this is God’s doing”), could either be a continuation of the preceding or the beginning of v. 29. At issue is whether “this” refers to what precedes or to what follows. If it refers to v. 29, it would explain the passive voice of “to you has been granted…”: namely, “God has granted to you….” If it refers to v. 28b, it would explain either the source of the omen or sign as “from God,” or the source of the “salvation” as “from God.” I prefer the latter (“salvation is from God”), since, in Paul’s letters the active agent of passive verbs is often obviously God, which would make the phrase “this is from God” redundant. To sum up, a paraphrase v. 28b might go something like this: “For your opponents, your solidarity, faithfulness, and refusal to be intimidated is an omen or sign your destruction, but to you it is an omen or sign of your salvation.” (Compare Stephen E. Fowl, A Commentary on Philippians, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005], 65-69.)
It is difficult to translate v. 29. Here is a wooden English representation of the Greek: “For God has graciously granted you that-which-is-for-the-sake-of-Christ: namely, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.” Structurally, the two infinitive clauses (“not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him”) explain what “that-which-is-for-the-sake-of-Christ” is. “To believe” in Christ and “to suffer” for him are both part of “that-which-is-for-the-sake-of-Christ.” This combination implies that “suffering for Christ” is the result of “believing in him.” Verse 30 confirms this connection. The Philippians were “having the same struggle” that Paul was having because they were putting their faith/trust in Christ and conducting their lives “as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” As citizens of a major Roman colony, known for its loyalty to the Roman Empire, they should have put their faith/trust in the emperor and lived in a manner worthy of the empire’s “proclamation of good news” (“gospel”).
To believe in Christ is not primarily about having intellectual beliefs, although believing beliefs about Christ is involved. Rather, it is primarily about a life-orientation to Christ that grounds and manifests in lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The connection between believing in Christ and suffering for him makes it clear that both are about faithfulness to “the gospel of Christ” or “the faith of the gospel.” I now offer a proposal that I earlier postponed: namely, that “the faith of the gospel” refers to “the faithfulness of Christ that the gospel proclaims.” This proposal connects 1.21-30 and 2.1-11 (and on to 2.12 and the rest of the letter). To believe in Christ is to participate in Christ’s faithfulness, to the point of suffering death, even death on a cross (2.5-11).
In addition, this proposal explains why Paul emphasizes “that-which-is-for-the-sake-of-Christ—not only believing in him but also suffering for him”—precisely as something God has granted to them, as a gracious gift. That becomes clear in chapters 2-3. Paul proclaims in these chapters that, in the contest between “the faithfulness of Christ in the gospel of Christ” and “the faithfulness of the Roman Emperor in the gospel of the Roman Emperor,” victory belonged Jesus Christ and those faithful to him and his gospel! Those who faithfully share in Christ’s faithfulness, even to the point of suffering, are promised “the resurrection from the dead” (3.11), “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3.14), “citizenship in heaven” and the transformation of the body, “conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (3.20-21).
What does all this have to do with us? Of all the possible themes, I want to comment on “God has graciously granted you the privilege…” (v. 29).
The “privilege” God has “graciously granted” is not suffering in general, or just any kind of suffering! The “privilege” is “to suffer for Christ.” More than that, the “privilege” is “to believe in him” and thereby to participate, not just in Christ’s suffering, but, even more importantly, in Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of suffering. In addition, the “privilege” is to participate in the victory God gave to Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of suffering—to participate in Christ’s exaltation and Lordship, Christ’s glorious body.
Few of us in the United States suffer “for Christ.” That does not mean that we should seek out opportunities to “suffer for Christ”! Neither should we retreat when suffering threatens efforts to be faithful to Christ. With confidence in the victory of Christ’s faithfulness even in suffering, let’s be faithful in striving together with a common commitment to “the faithfulness of Christ in the gospel.” Let’s work for peace with justice for everyone, instead of security and prosperity for the few. Let’s work for non-violence in our homes, our schools, our communities, and our nation—not only with our friends, but also with our enemies. Let’s strive, as often as we can, in as many ways as we can, to love those whom God loves, as Christ’s faithfulness, even to the point of suffering, shows us.
See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 524-38.
The conjunction “For” (γάρ) ties this parable to the preceding as an explanation either of the saying in 19.30 (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”) or of the entire discourse about wealth (19.16-30). Right after the parable, Matthew reminds us that Jesus has been teaching his disciples on route to Jerusalem (20.17). After the third prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection (20.17-19), Jesus challenges the disciples’ desire to be “great” by teaching them to be servants and slaves to one another, “just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (20.20-28). It is important not to lose sight of both themes—Jesus’ understanding of wealth and greatness—as we engage the message of today’s Gospel.
A typically Matthean formula marks this story as a parable about “the kingdom of heaven” (also see 13.31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 20.1; 25.1; and compare 13.24; 18.23; 22.2). More about that later.
This story consists of six scenes. The first four scenes, which begin with the verb “he went out” and an indication of the time of day, are more or less plausibly realistic. Their design prepares the audience for the last two scenes, which also are more or less plausibly realistic, even as they toy with the audience’s assumptions and expectations. The story is artfully dramatic!
The vineyard owner, who goes to the marketplace and does the hiring (vv. 1-2), negotiates a wage with the workers. That scenario suggests we are to imagine a vineyard of modest size. A wealthier owner, who would have lived in the city, would have sent a manager to the marketplace. An even wealthier owner would have had a full complement of slaves to farm the vineyard and would not need to hire day laborers. Day laborers were cheaper than slaves. Nevertheless, the vineyard was large enough that the owner could not farm it alone; and it produced enough profits to support a manager. The day laborers, however, existed on subsistence wages. A denarius, the typical daily wage, could buy only 10-12 loaves of flat bread or 12-16 cups of wheat; a lamb cost at least 3 days’ wages and a worker’s garment cost at least 30 days’ wages, so eating meat and new or extra clothes were out of the question for day loborers. Most would only know a life of poverty.
This scene (v. 3-4) and the next (v. 5), which play no role in the crucial scenes 5 and 6, serve only to heighten the drama. There is no negotiation: only the owner’s promise to pay what is “just” or “fair” (the NRSV has “right”). All we know about these “others” is that they were “standing around in the marketplace without work” (NET). That is, they were unemployed. The NRSV and other translations have chosen the unfortunate word “idle,” which might convey a negative judgment about them. We do not know if they “doing nothing” (NIV). We certainly don’t know that they were “lazy” because, on the mere promise of a just and fair wage, they went to work in the vineyard! The Greek word (ἀργός) could mean any of these things. The translators’ choices reveal their political biases!
The next scene (v. 5) is the briefest. It focuses entirely on the owner’s actions and does not even mention “others.” The words “he did the same” imply that the owner made the same vague promise. The only significant elements of scenes 2 and 3 are that the owner hired “others” for less than a full day, and that he promised them a just and fair wage. At this point, the audience might wonder if the owner was an incompetent farmer, who did not know how to calculate how many workers to hire. Interpreters have tried to salvage the realism of this story by speculating about the unexpected size of the crop, efficiency of the workers, sudden signs of a coming storm, etc. All of that is irrelevant! What is relevant is that the audience would be wondering what the just and fair wages would be, given the owner had negotiated a denarius for a full days’ work.
This scene (vv. 6-7) is the most important thus far, because it includes dialog and a hint of “character development.” The owner directly questions these “others.” His question sounds like a challenge, and their reply sounds like a terse retort. The same Greek word in v. 3 now sounds judgmental. “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (NRSV) implies that these “others” were willfully “unemployed.” I’m sorry to be partisan, but the owner’s question sounds like a “Republican” caricature of the unemployed! The obvious does not seem to be obvious to so-called “job creators.” As these “others” retort, “No one has hired us!” Blame, if we must assign blame, lies with those who control capital and thereby control the job market! At the very least, this scene presupposes and implies that the poor, who have no land and no trade skills, are at the mercy of those who own land and have wealth. Although I cannot dismiss the subtle undertone of this challenge and retort, it does not play an explicit role in the all-important last two scenes. In any case, this scene contributes to the drama by heightening the question about what a fair and just wage would be under this circumstance, especially since this scene, unlike all the others, says nothing about a wage.
Payment of workers begins with the last hired (vv. 8-9). The sequence implies no moral judgment about “the last” and “the first.” It is merely for dramatic effect. The narrative has told us how much the owner agreed to pay “the first.” The uncertainty surrounding the anticipated wages of the others had reached a peak with the last hired. The audience might have been curious about the wages for those hired a 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m., but their greater interest would have been in the comparison between the last and first hired. There would have been a mixed reaction to hearing that the owner paid “the last” a denarius, the typical wage for a full day’s work. Some might have praised the owner for his generosity. Others might have laughed at the owner’s incredible lack of sound business sense. Some might have censured him for setting a precedent that could increase the hourly wage twelvefold and/or encourage workers to delay lining up for work until the last hour of the day! Everyone would hold their breath until they heard how much the first hired would receive.
The final scene (vv. 10-15) opens with the normal expectation: The first hired should receive more than the last hired received. The unspoken, implied economic principle here is that compensation for work-for-hire should be based on a merit system. However, four alternative economic principles guide the resolution of the tensions in this story. The first is the one to which the first hired object: “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!” By paying everyone a denarius, “the usual daily wage,” the equality principle is that everyone deserves minimum, subsistence compensation. Some moral philosophers (for example, Cynics) taught that justice is when everyone has enough to survive, no more and no less. If some have more than enough to survive, others will have less than enough, and that would be unjust. The second principle is what we might call “contract law”: “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” The third principle is that the wealthy are free to choose how they dispose of their wealth, because their wealth belongs to them (v. 15a). The fourth and last economic principle is generosity—a form of “goodness” (v. 15b). Its opposite is envy toward the wealthy and malice toward the poor (see Deut 15.9). At first, it might seem that the third and fourth principles are at odds. However, generosity by definition is freely offered. The other half of the third principle—that wealth belongs to the person who possesses it—is at odds with the principle that all we have is from God. As stewards of what God has given to the wealthy—or what privilege and a rigged economic system has given to the wealthy—the wealthy should be as generous to others as God (or the economic system) has been generous to them.
At the end (v. 16), Matthew appends a variation of the saying in 19.30. Whereas the saying in 19.30 comes from Mk 10.31, and appears in a different context in Lk 13.30, Matthew has created the variation of this saying in Mt 20.16, which changes the order from “last/first, first/last” to “first/last, last/first,” as an epilogue to this parable. On the one hand, it is a summary of the order of the payment of wages from the last to the first hired. In addition, it restates the fact that the vineyard owner has made “the last” equal to “the first,” and vice versa (v. 12). It does not support the view that the vineyard owner took back the wages of the first hired (see v. 14), even though it is a staple in the history of interpretation (see below).
Matthew introduces this story about a landowner hiring and paying wages to day laborers working in his vineyard by saying that it is “like the kingdom of heaven.” As such, this story would give us a glimpse of God’s rule in “heaven.” We have all learned that Matthew prefers to refer to God indirectly and, therefore, does not say “kingdom of God.” That’s probably correct: strict Jews, in ancient and modern times, avoid saying “God” directly.
“Heaven” is also the only realm or dominion within which God is really the ruler who has all the power. It is God’s “kingdom” in the sense that God is its the sole ruling power. We might say that God is “omnipotent” in “heaven”!
On earth, on the other hand, God is one power among many powers. Whereas God’s will, aims, and purposes rule absolutely and coercively in “heaven,” on earth, where God’s power has competition, it is relative and persuasive. God’s rule is not complete on earth as it is in heaven; therefore, we pray for the perfection of God’s rule “on earth as in heaven.”
Theological interpretations have dominated the history of the interpretation of this parable (see Luz, Matthew 8-20, Hermeneia, 524-38). In the ancient church, one kind of allegorical interpretations focused on the grand sweep of “salvation history,” with successive eras, beginning with Adam (early morning), then Noah (the third hour/9 a.m.), then Abraham (the sixth hour/noon), then Moses (the ninth hour/3 p.m.), and finally Christ (the eleventh hour/5 p.m.). The Triune God (landowner) grants eternal life (denarius) through Christ (the steward) to all believers (workers in the vineyard = the church), last of all gentiles (the last hired), gathered from the world (marketplace), where they faced temptations (“scorching heat”). Often, these allegorical interpretations were anti-Jewish, ranging from the view that the church and Christianity had superseded Israel and Judaism to the view that God had denied salvation to non-believing Jews. Although we might appreciate this kind of contextualized interpretation for particular circumstances in the ancient church (for example, as a counter response to the “Judaizing” movement within emerging Christianity), nevertheless nothing in the parable supports either version of an anti-Jewish interpretation. All workers receive wages; none have their wages taken away; and the vineyard owner treats everyone as his valued workers.
Other allegorical interpretations focused on passages in the span of individual lives (the day). Some people became Christians through baptism (hiring) at birth (early morning), some in their youth (the third hour), adulthood (the sixth hour), or old age (the ninth hour), and some just before they died (the eleventh hour). This line of interpretation played a more pastoral role within the ancient church. On the one hand, it encouraged all believers to work in and for the church, whether or not they could commit their whole life to it; on the other hand, it offered comfort to those who were not baptized at birth and might even have been baptized on their deathbeds. Very little, if any, in the parable or in Matthew supports this kind of allegorical interpretation. Nevertheless, it represents a possible, pastoral contextualization of the parable for a particular time.
Roman Catholic and Protestant interpretations have focused on the question whether this parable promoted or rejected a theology of “works righteousness.” On the one hand, Catholics found support in the parable for the view that God rewarded work, based on the payment of wages to all who worked, no matter how long or briefly, and on what was common to all workers, namely, that they desired to work in the vineyard and in fact did so, thereby sanctifying work. On the other hand, Protestants found support in the parable for the view that, whereas all workers were rewarded with wages, the reward was equal for all workers, regardless of how much or little they worked. More importantly, the “reward” was based on the vineyard owner’s freedom and generosity; it was not based on the merit of anyone’s work. The latter, originally Protestant, view is now the consensus view among both Catholics and Protestants.
In addition, a growing consensus is that this interpretation is as thoroughly at home in Jewish traditions, as it is thoroughly at home in Christian traditions. Both traditions also support the view that unequal “work” merits unequal “rewards.” But that view is not at the core of either tradition. (The most helpful treatment of this issue is in Luz, Matthew 8-20, Hermeneia, 524-38.)
Alongside these “religious/theological” interpretations, I have proposed a non-religious (or differently religious) economic interpretation, embedded in my analysis of the six scenes of this story.
David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA). An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock), an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.