“This is a summary of the chapter called the The Parable of the Vineyard Labourers in Herzog’s brilliant book “Parables as Subversive Speech” (1). I’ve been looking forward to writing this ever since I promised it in Zingcreed’s 6-monthly review back in November 2014. The Jesus Seminar, upon whom be peace, has authenticated 14 out of the 33 parables recorded in the gospels. They make up 2016 words out of the 5236  authentic words of Jesus; the largest category at 39% of the total. Herzog’s limited selection does not necessarily match that of the J.S., I don’t think they were published when he was writing, but his approach is instructive and I hope to publish summaries of all the parables he tackles. The translation I have chosen is the Scholars’ Version (2), with Herzog’s own translation where indicated. I think this interpretation of a puzzling parable reinforces my view that Jesus should be called ‘Comrade Jesus.’ ”
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

The Parable of the Vineyard Labourers

For Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into his vineyard.
And coming out around 9 a.m. he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.” So they went.
Around noon he  went out again, and at 3 p.m., and repeated the process. About 5 p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?”
They reply, “Because no one hired us.”
He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.”
When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.”
Those hired at 5 p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.”
In response he said to one of them, “Look, pal, did I wrong you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
(Matthew 20:1-15)

The parable deals with the ideologies that are used to both  blame the victim and keep the day labourers separated from each other and paralyzed by self-hate. Jesus’ purpose in telling it was to unmask the world of oppression and to stimulate a discussion among his hearers.

Let us look at the protagonists.

The parable describes the agrarian world of rural Galilee, and its characters belong to identifiable social classes. First the Proprietor. He owns the vineyard, he is a wealthy landowner. Such men often enlarged their estates at the expense of individual free peasants, whose grain- growing fields they took over. The displaced peasants then became members of the class below – that of the expendable day labourers.
Proprietors usually liked to remain invisible: elites avoiding the hostility and burning resentment caused by their exploitative policies, displacing such feelings onto their visible functionaries.
In Matthew’s account of the parable we find the proprietor initiates the hiring scene and the payment scene and has the final word.
It is surprising that he hires the labourers himself, especially as we are told he employs a foreman, who would normally be expected to do jobs like that for him. Having a foreman implies  a landowner with large numbers of full-time servants.
It is also odd that the proprietor went to the agora repeatedly. Possibly his imminent harvest was so great that even he cannot calculate accurately the amount of help needed.
A vineyard represents a major capital investment, as it requires continuous care for 4 years before it produces any grapes. This is a crop that can be converted into a luxury item (wine) and monetized and exported. It yields higher returns than grain.
The proprietor was probably a member of the Roman urban elite, who were buying up estates at this time, i.e. latifundialization was occurring in Galilee.

The fact that the agora was filled with casual hands seeking ‘temp’ work throughout the day shows that unemployment was high. These day labourers have no bargaining power, so they go off to work with no clear agreement on wages, and run the risk of having the vineyard owner pay them less than they hoped for.
They are expendable units of labour making up about 5-10 % of the Galilee population; agricultural work was seasonal e.g. planting and harvesting time on the vineyards, so in between they would look for occasional work in the cities, or beg, or even join gangs of marauding bandits.
Their wage of one silver coin, or denarius, provided a mere subsistence level income which had to cover the days they got no work at all. They could barely maintain themselves, let alone raise a family under those conditions. Their lack of bargaining power meant they starved, became ill and were usually homeless. Even slaves were treated with more care as they represented an investment. Day labourers usually  died of malnutrition, rarely surviving more than 5-7 years after joining that class.
In the words of Thomas Hobbes, for them life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Their class was continually replenished from the 2 classes above them, the artisans class to which Jesus himself probably belonged if he was a tekton (handyman/carpenter) like his father, and the peasantry whose holdings were too small for their children to inherit, there only being enough for the oldest son.

Jesus is narrating a thought-provoking cartoon-like work of fantasy in this parable, for, as we have already seen, the elite and the expendables would never have normally met. By unveiling systems of oppression like this, he is making them visible to those victimized by them, namely his audience. Note that they probably approved of the landowner because they had internalized the oppressors’ world.

Paying the last first: the first-hired would perceive this departure from custom as an affront. They are being shamed by the vineyard owner – it is a deliberate insult. The man values their day-long effort in the scorching sun no more than the brief labour of the 11th hour worker.

We see how proprietors keep the oppressed under control by humiliating and degrading them. As long as the oppressed accept such treatment they feed their own self-hatred. (However even peasants revolt when their subsistence is threatened.) The proprietor shames even their last resource – their animal energy; he threatens their status even as expendables. They must respond, but notice their lack of cohesion: the proprietor picks out their leader and makes an example of him. He is condescending yet feigns courtesy. He alludes to the pretense at bargaining with the first-hired labourers and uses this against them. The labourers’ spokesperson is banned, shunned, blackballed, blacklisted. He will not likely find work in this neighbourhood again.
Payment is a gift from the landowner: this charity robs the labourers of any sense of honour. One wonders how the landowner gained the land that belongs to him. If he had claimed the land from a peasant who is now reduced to day labouring to survive then the land-owner is rubbing salt in the wound.

In the last verse the proprietor blames the victim – the inversion of values needed to mystify oppression is complete. His words, like all victim blaming, are cloaked in apparent courtesy and concern: “My good fellow, I am not defrauding you, didn’t you agree with me for one denarius?” ….as well as condescending charity and honourable humanitarianism: “I choose to give to this last as I give to you!” (Herzog’s translations)

Thus the proprietor gave the impression that the oppressed are helpless before the overwhelming burden of their poverty. He smothers the truth that he is dependent on them.

Their only power lies in their solidarity.


(1) Herzog, William R. “Parables as subversive speech” John Knox Press (1994) (p. 77, ff)
(2) Funk, R.W., Hoover, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar “The five gospels. What did Jesus really say?” Harper (1993)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Parables are subversive
Jesus’s 14 authentic parables
The limitations of Jesus’ social teaching
Jesus’ real political message
Jesus’ 5200 authentic words
Zingcreed’s 6 monthly review
The parable of the wicked tenants


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