The Kings Instructions
This is the second part of a parable and also a continuation of Jesus talking about money following a meeting with a rich young man. I’d like to think that this parable, before it was written in Greek, was a poem of Jesus.
8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?16 So the last will be first, and the first last.Matthew 20:8–16
Jesus the poet
Matthews Gospel is meticulously arranged, the narrative is in six distinct sections with a section of teaching between each, there are even patterns within each section.
The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is interesting in that unlike most of the previous parables it is not in a teaching section, but in the narrative section of Jesus travelling to Jerusalem, taking a long route down the east of the River Jordan rather than the direct route down the west,. Having had a lot of opposition, mostly from the Pharisees, it looks like Jesus is taking the long route in order to avoid conflict. The journey is told in the form of encounters Jesus has with people along the way. As such this teaching belongs as commentary to the encounter with a rich young man who came with questions for Jesus but walked away when challenged about his attitude to money.
Luke ends his version of this story by saying that those who follow Jesus will be compensated, Mark adds that many who are now first will be last and the last first. (Luke 18:29-30, Mark 10:29-31). Matthew takes this phrase by Mark, that many who are now first will be last and the last first, and expands on it into a whole story. Or rather a poem.
The whole of this parable, including the verses that bookend it, has a chiastic form, which is a poetic form found widely in the psalms. A chiasm is a number of statements which are repeated in reverse order, Jesus used them widely in his teaching: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” is an example, the words Sabbath and man are repeated in reverse order. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,”
“But many who are first will be last, and the last first,” is already a chiasm. When it is repeated at the end in reverse order. “So the last will be first, and the first last,” accentuates that. The story between is of a man who hires labourers through the day, paying them in reverse order.
Like most chiastic poems that do not have a middle section the pay off comes at the end. In this case it is the complaint by those who arrived first. “You have made them equal to us.” It was not about the pay, the complaint was about the people. As well as those who had arrived at the town square late, migrant workers can turn up at any time, there would have been the people no-one else wanted, the disabled, old, weak and infirm. The manager gives special care to these people, gives them priority. The beginning of the parable says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house…” We can take the master of the house to be God. God is shown as the one who gives favour to the ones that society casts out.
So who are the outcasts today? The unemployed, the underemployed, rough sleepers? In many churches this will include LGBT+ and trans people, even women, individual Church of England churches are allowed not to accept the ministry of female priests and bishops of their own denomination under the provision of alternate oversight. There is a fine line between caring for those we disagree with and allowing discrimination, I find that alternative oversight is a blunt instrument that allows discrimination, something better is needed.
Jesus is about love. The version of the story of the rich young man in Mark ends with Jesus looking at the man and loving him before telling him that he needs to sell his possessions and follow him. (Mark 10:21) Jesus does not turn anybody away. We need to be more like Jesus.