July 23, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus’ parables: Two parables concerning workers

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Some of Jesus’ parables are difficult to understand. I am thinking specifically of the parables of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 20:1-6), and the dishonest steward in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 16:1-8).

The first parable is about the workers who are hired at various hours to work in the landowner’s vineyard. He tells them that he will pay them the usual daily wage.

At the end of the day, he tells his foreman to pay all the workers the same amount beginning with those who were hired last. When they received the usual wage for a full day’s work, those who were hired first expect to received more since they worked longer. But they also received the usual daily wage.

Naturally, they protest—as I would think any of us would. But the landowner tells them that he isn’t treating them unjustly since they were getting the wage they agreed to. He was just being generous to those hired later, he said, and asked, “Am I not free to do what I wish with my own money?” (Mt 20:15)

In Jesus’ time, it was common for laborers to stand around the marketplace hoping that someone would hire them. There weren’t any labor unions, but it was generally understood what the usual payment was for picking grapes, harvesting olives or other work that a landowner might need to have done.

Our inclination is to feel sorry for those who worked all day but didn’t receive any more pay than those hired at 5 o’clock. But the landowner is surely right that he did them no injustice. Perhaps he was aware that those standing around at 9 o’clock, noon, 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock wouldn’t be able to buy food for their families if they weren’t hired. So he decided to pay them the full daily wage out of his generosity.

The point of the parable is that God is profoundly generous to all who follow him, and he will reward everyone equally with eternal happiness no matter when they turn to him.

The parable of the dishonest steward might be even more troublesome. In this story, a rich man decides to fire his steward because he was squandering the rich man’s money.

Before he is fired, though, the steward calls in a couple of the rich man’s debtors and reduces their promissory notes, from 100 measures of olive oil (about 800 gallons) to 50, and from 100 kors of wheat (about 1,000 bushels) to 80. Then, surprisingly, the master actually commends the dishonest steward because he acted prudently.

This can be understood only by recognizing the Palestinian custom at Jesus’ time of agents taking a commission for themselves when acting on behalf of their masters. The steward was dishonest because he squandered his master’s property. The master commends him for having the debtors write new promissory notes reflecting only the real amount owed to the master, thus foregoing the steward’s profit. This will ingratiate him with the debtors.

The application of this parable is related in Lk 16:8b-13. †

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