Levine: Parable of landowner and laborers teaches importance of generosity


Amy-Jill Levine gives her final address of Week Eight Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Unions, fair trade, corporate charities and the welfare state might not sound like typical biblical parable fare. But Amy-Jill Levine insisted in her lecture at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy that the afternoon’s parable examined these relevant modern economic aspects.

In “Management and Non-Union Workers,” Levine’s last lecture of Week Eight, she examined the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, found in Matthew 20:1-16. Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

In the parable, a landowner searching for workers for his vineyard continues to hire laborers throughout the day, and in the end, he pays all of the workers “whatever is right,” which results in every employee receiving the same amount.

In the standard reading, this parable is “an image of salvation,” Levine described, where the landowner is God, the workers are Christians and the daily wage is salvation. The workers hired early in the day are lifelong Christians, and the workers hired toward the evening are deathbed converts. Other readings imply that Jews are the workers hired in the morning — the original chosen people — and Gentiles (non-Jews) are the workers hired later.

The problem with this reading, Levine explained, is that equating the study and observance of the Torah with grueling manual labor turns the process into a hindrance, not a joy.

“I understand why this gets preached — it’s easy,” Levine said. “And for quite a number of centuries, the Church defined itself over and against Judaism. … Today, we are at a point where the church does not need to make Judaism look bad in order for itself to look good. If Judaism becomes the negative foil, then the message to the person in the pew is not ‘Be challenged to be better,’ but, ‘Oh, thank God we’re not like those Jews.’”

Rather, the people in the marketplace in the parable are all the same people from the same village, Levine explained.

She next discussed the standard and alternative titles for the parable. It often is called “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” but she suggested “The Parable of the Generous Landowner” or “The Parable of Full Employment Where Everybody Gets a Living Wage.”

Quoting Week Seven lecturer John Dominic Crossan, she said, “Jesus promoted a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power.”

She explained, “What Jesus does is call into question … anything that puts one person above someone else, because his view, which is a very Jewish view, is that everybody is created in the image and likeness of God. We are part of a community, and there should not be hierarchy among us.”

“Gospel economics” tells the reader that the rich struggle to achieve salvation, but Levine emphasized that the New Testament does not call everyone to live a life of poverty.

“For the majority of people who come into Jesus’ purview, the idea was not ‘give up everything’ — it’s ‘turn your focus to people who need what you have to give,’” Levine said, explaining that Jesus’ original followers were neither wealthy nor destitute but people of some means and possessions living in a time of economic security.

“Jesus is interested in appropriate stewardship — if we have more than we need and someone has less, we share; we give,” Levine said.

Levine launched into a study of the parable at hand. She quickly dismissed claims that the workers were disenfranchised and explained that day laborers were not an uncommon sight of the time; Jewish culture highly valued manual labor, and the presence of day laborers does not imply Roman or Temple oppression.

Many of the people in Jesus’ audience would have been day laborers and identified with the people in the story.

Equal wages for workers, no matter what time of day they were hired, was not an unfamiliar aspect to Jewish law.

“The shock of the parable so far is not that everybody was paid equally; it’s how they were paid and the expectation that the first hired would actually receive more,” Levine said.

The landowner could both symbolize God and be a literal landowner, and the use of vineyard imagery modeled Old Testament archetypes of Israel, Levine explained.

The landowner and the day laborer partake in a fair transaction: “Pay whatever is right” coincides with a first-century culture of honor and shame, Levine said.

The day laborers hired later in the day were not late because they were lazy — they could have been there all morning and simply not hired until later, or they may have had other obligations to attend to first, Levine said.

When the workers hired earlier “thought they would receive more,” Levine explained, “thinking” equates to “supposing.” But parables often defy the status quo, she reminded the audience.

“The problem is not about economics; it’s about social relations,” Levine said. “They’re thinking in terms of limited good. … They’re thinking in terms of what they think is fair, but the landowner is thinking in terms of what he thinks is just.”

The workers, who have not been exploited or treated unjustly, begin to “grumble,” and the root of their complaint is the same as that of the Israelites while wandering through the wilderness in Exodus.

“Perhaps the parable shows us a lesson about our own human solidarity — when we get a leg up, are we willing to extend an arm?” Levine said. “Or perhaps the parable helps us redefine our sense of what good life, abundant living, means. We might have thought that the most important thing in life is to be fair, which means to be impartial. But perhaps the more important criterion is to be generous.”

She continued, “Jesus, I don’t think, is either a Marxist or a capitalist. I think he’s both an idealist and he’s a pragmatist. He preaches good news to the poor, yes, but he also knows that the poor will not cease out of the land. That’s part of his Jewish tradition.”

The landowner’s attitude is also part of the Jewish tradition, both the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 30 and in the records of the historian Josephus, a younger contemporary of Jesus.

“We’re never told that the landowner) needed more workers,” Levine said.

Instead, he focuses on the need of the people — to be hired — and less on his own needs.

“The parable tells us in the end that religion and economics work together,” she said. “Salvation in the present is a living wage. If we don’t hear the edginess, the challenge of the parable, then instead of … extraordinary and rich, we are standard and poor.”