When we read something, it makes a big difference what we are reading it for. Take, for instance, a historical novel. One might read it for entertainment, and focus on the characterizations and the plot. Another might read it for information about the historical period in which it is set. A third person might be interested in both. And something similar goes for the parables of Jesus. Most often we read them for an encoded moral and spiritual lesson. We take them as metaphors for principles about God and faith, salvation and forgiveness. What we are less likely to do is read these stories for a message about the daily realities of the world we live in.
But Jesus made his parables out of the stuff of daily experience because he wanted his audience to do more than open them, like fortune cookies, for message inside. He wanted people to see themselves in the real-world situations that the parables describe, so that his teaching would alter, not just the way they felt and thought about God, but also the way they saw the world. So he used such homely examples as a farmer sowing seeds and a woman kneading bread and fishermen casting a net, things that everyone would have done, or at least seen, countless times.
Jesus also made parables out of social situations that would have been familiar. And it is interesting how many of them deal with painful situations, touching the raw nerves of social experience, oppression and injustice and powerlessness in the face of them. We might be forgiven for not noticing this about the parables, because the church’s tradition of interpreting them has essentially overlooked it until very recently. But in the last fifty years or so, two things have happened to change this. The first is that poor and oppressed people in African-American and Latin-American and African and Asian communities, and communities of women throughout the world, have found it necessary to put aside the Bible as it has been read and interpreted for them by elites. They have gone back and read it again with fresh eyes, for wisdom that speaks to them about life as they live it.
The second thing that has happened is that a wave of scholars, in universities and seminaries around the world, have also been rereading the Bible, in the light of social science, of cultural anthropology and archeology and political science, to better understand the social forces that were at work in the time of Jesus, and how his teaching and his movement addressed them. And what has emerged from both of these developments is a new reading of the social context of Jesus’ ministry. We understand better now that it was a time of great economic and cultural upheaval, of rising inequality and social and cultural dislocation. Along with this upheaval came increasing, and increasingly violent, social and political conflict.
Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was becoming an industrial operation, mass-producing a salty fish-sauce for an export market. The grandiose building projects of Herod and his sons, especially the massive expansion of the Jerusalem temple, were taxing the traditional village landowners deeper and deeper into debt, while local markets for their produce were being flooded with cheap imported grain. Forced to sell out, the proud, independent farmers of Galilee were reduced to sharecropping, or hiring themselves out as day laborers on sprawling estates made up of land that used to be theirs, or, in the worst case, selling themselves and their children into slavery. Landless men, turned bandit revolutionaries, lurked in the hills, levying their own taxes and carrying out terrorist attacks on government officials and collaborators. This, in turn, provoked ruthless retaliation from the Roman Army that did not discriminate between combatants and civilians.
So when Jesus talks about robbers waylaying a traveler on the Jericho road, or a corrupt estate manager fudging the record of the sharecroppers’ debts, or a rich man who tears down his barns to build bigger ones for hoarding his wealth, he isn’t just coming up with colorful illustrations of religious principles. He’s showing his audience their own lives. And he’s asking them to imagine how God might act in such times. Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard,” and his audience pictures a scene they know well, one that, depending on their social class, might make them feel a twinge of guilt or a swell of shame and anger.
But as the story unfolds they hear that this landowner is like none they’ve ever heard of. What he cares about is that every idle laborer should find work, and that all of them get paid enough to keep going for another day. Maybe it would have reminded them of other stories, like the one about their ancestors’ journey through the desert to freedom and how God fed them on bread from heaven, just enough for everyone, just enough for one day. Maybe they would have noted the contrast with their own experience of landlords, and no doubt there would have been some people who heard a concealed revolutionary critique. But what Jesus is really asking them to do is to examine themselves.
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” says the owner of the vineyard, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” It’s a reminder of who the real owner of the land is, that everything that comes from it is God’s gift, and that it is God’s will that all should have work, and all should be fed. But it’s also a reminder of how social upheaval and economic insecurity pit people against each other, and turn everyone against the least fortunate and most vulnerable, begrudging them even the barest minimum needed to survive. When Jesus closes the parable with one of his favorite aphorisms, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last" he is not so much threatening the rich, or calling for revolution—he is warning us that the kingdom of Heaven is built on the generosity and forgiveness of God, whose sense of justice is not the same as our self-righteous work ethic, and doesn’t take its cues from our cut-throat social pecking-order.
Last night there was a fundraising event over at the Petaluma Sheraton Hotel to kick off a campaign to create a Day Labor Center. Because you don’t have to build a time machine and travel to ancient Palestine to find landless men standing around, waiting for someone to hire them for the day. You can just walk about three blocks northwest of here to the corner of Washington and Howard. So when we read Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard we don’t have to treat it as only a literary metaphor for some theological principles. It shines a light on our own real-world experience and some real people in our town.
Some say it would be wrong to do anything for those men because it wouldn’t be fair to other workers. But immigrant day laborers don’t cost other workers jobs, they create them. They support all kinds of enterprises at the base of the economic pyramid, independent tradespeople like painters, carpenters, and landscapers, and small farmers, manufacturers, and food-processors, that depend on irregular extra labor. I was one of those, when I had my little one-man gardening business in San Francisco from 1997 to 2003. I usually worked on my own, but once in a while I needed another hand to do the bigger jobs where I made the better money. Until the San Francisco Day Labor Center opened, at the north end of the Mission District, this was a matter of pulling over next to six lanes of fast moving traffic on Cesar Chavez Street and hiring whomever jumped into the truck first.
I could go on for a while about the net benefits to the economy of immigrant workers, but if we’re followers of Jesus, the economic questions aren’t the ones that really matter. The important questions for us today are the ones the Bible asks, questions like, “who really owns the land, anyway?” and “Whom did our ancestors depend on when they were migrants?” and “When times get hard, what will save us—beating out our neighbor for a bigger slice of the shrinking pie? Or taking a stand together, on the generosity and the justice of God?”