What is God like? The answer to this common question always reflects the culture of the questioner or the one who answers the question. Today’s parable reports one of Jesus’ many answers to this question. It should be no surprise that in this parable God behaves in accord with Middle Eastern values.
In general, Americans believe that “there is always more where this came from,” whether it is oil, jobs, money, or whatever. This attitude makes it extremely difficult for Americans to understand concepts such as shortages, extinction, or anything similar.
Our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith believed “there is no more where this came from.” Everything (jobs, wealth, honor, or whatever one could imagine) was limited in quantity and already distributed. The jobs at the vineyard were already filled. How dare any worker think there might be more jobs?
Moreover, to ask for a job is to deprive the employer of something he owns. This is shameful. Instead, workers have to be invited by the owner to work for him. The owner in this parable goes out five times in one day looking for workers to invite, and each time he hires everyone in sight. Such behavior by the owner and the potential workers is very honorable, because it respects the cultural idea that all goods—including jobs—are limited.
In America, workers look for jobs, employers hire the best qualified workers, they agree on a wage and respect a practice called “seniority.” None of this existed in the ancient Mediterranean world and none of these elements can be found in the parable.
Only to the first hired does the owner promise “the usual daily wage.” They agree to accept it. To the second (and presumably all subsequent groups), the owner says: “I will pay you whatever is right?”
At the end of the day, the owner pays the workers beginning with the last hired. This is an important narrative point without which the story would collapse because those hired first would have no reason to hang around if they were paid first. This point also indicated to ancient Mediterranean peoples that the owner wears two hats: he is an employer but can also be a patron.
A patron is a person of means who freely chooses to treat other people (always of lower status) “as if” they were family members. No one can bid for or “earn” such treatment, but everyone in the Mediterranean world of antiquity and the present seeks to have a patron.
The vineyard owner treats the last hired generously and graciously, “as if” they were relatives. They did nothing to “earn” such treatment. The owner gave them “what is right” for relatives. At the same time, the owner treats the first hired in accord with their agreement. If he chose to, the owner could disregard the agreement and treat the first hired generously, “as if” they were relatives. But he doesn’t so choose. To the first hired, the vineyard owner chooses to be employer; to the last hired, the vineyard owner chooses to be a patron.
Jesus’ lesson is not about economics but about God from a Middle Eastern perspective. Insinuated in Jesus’ explanation is that God’s choice for treating people may reflect how people deal with God. Such ideas clash with American economic ideas of equal opportunity, contracts, seniority, and the like. How would God behave from an American perspective?