Monday, 10 December 2012

Contract or Covenant?

[I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s the ninth in a series on Jesus’ parables.]

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard... The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
Matthew 20:1-2, 9-11

A landowner hires five sets of workers at different times of the day. Those recruited at dawn are promised a day’s wage, and those hired subsequently are assured they will be paid ‘whatever is right’; but when settlement time arrives, all receive the same. Small wonder that the action of the landowner has often been likened to God’s goodness in welcoming all, regardless of merit, into the kingdom.

Another reading has gained traction in recent years which argues that parables like this one show how oppression serves the interests of a ruling class. In this case, the parable depicts two extremes of agrarian society: a ruthless landowner and desperate peasants who are in no position to bargain. Far from being generous, the owner exploits an unemployed workforce to meet his harvesting needs.

For sure, the situation and characters reflect the economic realities of Jesus’ day, realities he was not averse to criticising. Here, though, the introduction suggests the landowner represents something of how God rules. And it’s possible to see him positively, not as ruthless, nor even incompetent in calculating how many workers he’d need to recruit, but in being compassionate to those in need of employment. What’s more, the parable begins and ends with a reference to the last being first and the first being last (19:30; 20:16). Who is ‘last’ and ‘first’ is highlighted with the order in which the workers are employed and then paid, the structure of the parable reinforcing the message of reversal in its frame.

Our response to the parable probably has a lot to do with where we see our place in the line – near the front or at the back. That we instinctively sympathise with the aggrieved workers suggests the difficulty of detaching ourselves from the conviction that rewards should match service rendered. Then as now, the parable challenges our sense of entitlement.

It also spotlights the nature of our relationship to the master. Those hired first are given the wages they have earned; what is given to those hired last is based less on their rights than on the owner’s right to be generous – the difference between a contract and a covenant. The parable helps us examine how far our discipleship is governed by contractual obligations rather than covenantal service. In doing so, it reorientates us towards the gracious presence of the kingdom. This is the way God rules.


john lee said...

Superb, thanks.

Antony said...

Thanks, John – much appreciated.