The Parable of the Landowner

The Parable of the Landowner

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

September 26, 2023

The Parable of the Landowner

Homily for Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16


The parable we just heard is scandalous.  In the words of the laborers themselves:  “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.”  The landowner’s pay scheme scandalizes because it goes against all our notions of what is equitable and fair.  My first inclination is to try to make this passage “better” for us, to find an obscure but mitigating detail about, say, first-century payroll practices or about the relationship between landowners and laborers in the ancient near east, that somehow might remove the “sting” from this passage; I want to “make it better”for us.   But about today’s passage I have more questions than I do answers.  


First off, I question that old interpretation that understands the laborers who began early in the morning to be the Jews and those hired at 5 o’clock to be the Christians.  I don’t often use the word “should,” and Ieven less frequently use the word “always.” But….  We always should be suspicious of any scripture interpretation that puts us on top.  And we always should be deeply suspicious of any scripture interpretation that puts Jews on the bottom. As Paul himself asserts in Romans:


They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 9:4-5)


I question that old interpretation that understands the early-morning laborers to be the Jews and the one-hour workers to be the Christians.


Second, I question also the tendency to think of the vineyard owner as God. To be sure, Jesus does say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner…”and perhaps because the landowner is the one with the power in this story, we imagine the landowner to be God.  But I question the assumption that the landowner is God. For example, 1) the God we know  cares for the poor and lifts up the lowly.  If the landowner were God, why then at the end of the day are the laborers no better off than they were the day before, without a job?  2). Further, the God we proclaim is about reconciliation and not division.  If the landowner were God, why then at the end of the day would he stipulate to the manager to “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first”?   Surely the landowner must have known that for the all-day laborers to witness the one-hour laborers receiving the same wage would not only anger but divide them.  3) Lastly,the God we know always treats us with respect. If the landowner were God, why then would he reply to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong”?  There are only two other times in Matthew’s Gospel when one address another as “friend;” they are:   1) the king at the wedding banquet who is about to bind a man hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness:  “Friend,how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (22:12), and 2) Jesus to Judas at the betrayal in the garden:  “Friend, do what you are here to do” (26:50).  In this morning’s parable, the landowner’s “friend”is not his friend.  And the landowner is not God.


Third, about this “landowner…” Mark, Matthew’s predecessor (and from all indications, Matthew’s template), [Mark] only rarely uses the term “landowner;”“landowner,” or “oikodespotē” in the Greek (οἰκοδεσπότῃ),is primarily a Matthean term.  And as we’ve seen from this morning’s parable, “landowners” in Matthew are not honorable or exemplary figures; they are – to borrow from the Greek oikodespotē,literally “house despots” – [Matthew’s landowners are] “despots” who do as they will and whose conduct we today would find abhorrent.  For example, not only do Matthew’s oikodespotēs pay those who had worked one hour the same wage as they paid those who had worked all day, but:  they owned slaves (13:27; 21:34; 24:45); they put wicked tenants “to a miserable death” (21:41); they cut “unfaithful” slaves into pieces (24:51); and they threw “worthless”slaves “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).  “Landowners” in Matthew were despots who did as they wanted.


Given that those who labored all day are not the Jews and those who labored one hour are not the Christians ,given that the “landowner” in this morning’s parable is not God, and given Matthew’s penchant for “house despots,” I wonder what we might make of this morning’s text…


At first glance it might appear that Matthew, whose community of Jewish believers in Christ was being persecuted by Jews who did not believe in Christ, [at first glance it might appear that Matthew] may have been encouraging a kind of fatalism among his community, like:  “Despots abound!  We are being persecuted, and there is nothing we can do except to endure (e.g., 18:7?) and, to the best of our ability, forgive(e.g., 18:21-22).  It may be that Matthew was encouraging kind of fatalism.  But I wonder if, given that Matthew so intentionally roots Jesus’ life in the life of Israel – for example, given how Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ ancestry back not to Adam but to Abraham (1:1-17); given how Matthew’s Jesus, by the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, shares in Israel’s exile in Egypt (2:13-15); and given how Matthew’s Jesus, like Israel, was “tempted in the wilderness” (4:1-11) – [given how Matthew intentionally roots Jesus’ life in the life of Israel, I wonder if] the many despots in Matthew’s text serve to further remind Matthew’s community that, even though they are followers of Jesus, yet they share in the history of, and are still recipients of, God’s promises to Israel.  Israel’s history abounds with despots – the Pharaohs, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, their own kings; the Hebrews knew about despots.  And they knew, too, the history that when they were oppressed, God – like God in Exodus observing the misery of his people enslaved in Egypt (Ex 3:7) – [they knew the history that when they were oppressed, God] sees them, understands their suffering, hears their cry, and in due time will lead God’s people out of oppression and into the rest that is God’s presence (11:28-30).   I wonder…


In this morning’s parable and in his other parables about oikodespotēs, or “house despots,” Matthew names the reality of despots in his congregation’s life, and… he names the reality of despots in our own life.  Matthew does not fix things; he does not seek to “make it better.”  But perhaps by these parables Matthew reminds his congregation – and Matthew reminds us– that despots and oppression have played and continue to play a significant role in the history of God’s people.  And perhaps Matthew suggests that – as God once delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt – so might God in time deliver them, and so might God in time deliver us. For though Matthew’s Jesus may not save us from the reality of despots, Matthew’s Jesus is with us (1:23), and he will – and on this Matthew is clear – [Jesus will] save us from our sins (1:21).  





More Sermons