A Meditation on a Bible Story

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

I have been turning this story over in my head for the past couple days, for no reason better than it decided to come in and make itself at home for a little bit. The story in brief goes: a landowner hires groups of workers at intervals through the day, then pays each of them a full day’s (one denarius) wage for varying hours of work. There are two ideas implicit in the story. One, that it is harvest time and every landowner needs workers to make the harvest; and two, that the social contract says work is hired on a daily basis and cannot be broken down further.

The unanswered question at the end of the parable is, “Is this fair?” The workers say no, while the landowner says yes. How should we decide? What kind of story is this? And what is it doing in the bible, that people bothered to pass it down through two millennia of history?

There is another story, one without this particular landowner. It is harvest time, and many landowners need workers for their harvest. To hire a worker, a landowner must pay him or her a denarius for the day. Most landowners get to the market early, hire the workers they need for the day, and get as much work done as they can for that full denarius. They encourage their hires to sleep and eat at the farm so that they can start early for several days in a row. Most landowners agree that this is a fine way to get the most work for every denarius paid out.

There are some landowners who think they can do better, if they can break the denarius into smaller parts. So they hire their workers late in the morning, and make sure to leave those that look hungry and lean. After several days, one returns to hire those workers suffering from heat and hunger, and brings them to his vineyard late in the day. They work in the fields with the others, and at the end of the day the landowner pays his workers in the order that they were hired. When he comes to the few that were hired late in the day, he turns to the rest and asks “These men have only worked for a quarter of the day! Do they deserve the same wage as you, my friends who have sweated in the fields under the heat of the sun? If they earn a full denarius, does that not devalue your toil?” And the workers cried back that these men should not be paid a full denarius for only a few hours work, and the few hired late were given only a quarter denarii.

The next day, another landowner hires the leftover workers late in the day, and pays them only a quarter denarii for their work, to the acclaim of those working the full day. The day after that, a third landowner comes to the hungry workers in the morning and says “My harvest was poor last year, and this year looks no better. I have little coin to hire workers, but if you come with me I can pay you each a half denarii.” Some of the workers have only earned a half denarii in the last two days, so they go with the landowner, while some go out of charity. Others watch as their fellows sell their day for half a denarii.

The next morning, a big bull of a landowner visits the market and shouts at the assembled workers “The men I hired yesterday laid about all afternoon and claimed it was too hot to work for half of the day! They would not stir themselves when I told them it was time to work, and at the end of the day they had the gall to demand their full denarius! They won’t be coming back to work for me. I will hire you, but you earn a half denarii for the morning’s work and half for the afternoon, got it?” The workers look at each other. The past afternoon had indeed been hot, and many of them had waited out the heat of the day to protect themselves. That’s what you’re supposed to do when it gets hot. Some workers go with the landowner, but any of them that take a break that he calls too long are only paid a half denarii for the day.

The harvest continues, each landowner chipping away at the unity of the denarius and getting a few workers to agree to a little bit less than they were used to. And little bit by little bit, a day’s work is broken into an hour’s work. Little bit by little bit, an hour’s work is broken into a minute’s work.

There are twelve hours in a working day, sixty minutes in an hour, so if you break a denarius up into seven hundred and twenty parts and pay a worker one of those parts for each minute of work, it is mathematically equivalent to paying him or her a denarius for the day. Just, there are minutes when you are working and someone else is resting, so to pay them for that minute would devalue the work you do. So we won’t pay you for the time you rest, either, since that would devalue the work they do.

Is this fair? How should we decide? What kind of story is this? And why is it not in the bible?

In one sense, this story is not in the bible because I just wrote it. In another, it is included as the negative of the original story in the same way that a single strand of DNA contains the information necessary to build the corresponding strand of the double helix, or that a film negative contains a photograph.

What kind of story is this? Here, I think it is an economic parable that helps us examine how we measure worth, work, and the ingredients of a thriving society. It can certainly be other things.

What is fair and how should we decide? In one story, a landowner reinforces the idea that a day was the indivisible unit of work and time, and that dividing it further was a bright line that should not be crossed. Everyone lives well; the workers say “No!” with one voice when offered less; some landowners are not as rich as they would like to be. In another story, that indivisibility is broken down, and down, and down. Many people live desperately; the workers say “yes” one by one when offered anything; the same landowners are still not as rich as they would like to be; now they are surrounded by unhappy, desperate people. Should we ask “What is fair?” or should we ask “Which story would we like to live?” What story are we living?

~Graham Zell

Maddy and Graham Zell