We shall continue to explore Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine turns to the topic from Matthew 20 in chapter seven. This story is a puzzle because none of it has anything to do with normal operation of a farm.
Levine in her usual humorous style calls this the parable of the complaining day laborer or the parable of the surprise salaries. She starts by taking apart the anti-Jewish reading that typifies the owner to be God and the early workers to be Jews and later workers to be gentiles. This is one common interpretation based more on ideology than exegesis. Some go further to suggest that the last hired are the rejects like those who were poor and oppressed. Levine also points out that today many see the potential to read this parable as part of the practical social problem of labor. The parable has every potential to denounce unfair labor practice or so thinks the new crop of revisionist readers.
There’s much agreement between Levine and me. One consistent method she uses is a careful reading of symbolism. She claims that not every master can represent God, and I tend to agree. We simply can’t make the unfair master God. It’s already a strange enough story without the master being God. There’re also places where I disagree with Levine. She points out that the workers were at fault for denying the last crop of workers a living wage. The generosity of the owner than became exemplary. Without a doubt, I agree that the owner at least claimed to be generous. In her collection of evidence, Levine shows that impressively such an outcome was entirely possible in Galilean life of Jesus’ day. Now, even if this were typical, I don’t think it was fair which was the point of the complaint by the workers. I also see Levine struggling to not make the owner symbolic of God while trying to say that he’s analogous of God. In this way, the generous owner (analogous of God) was a role model for the rich. His equal treatment for all the workers and his unexpected generosity (or grace) set a standard for other rich people of Jesus’ day. So Levine claims.
Levine’s focus is clearly on the workers and I think she’s right, but is the role modeling for the rich really Jesus’ purpose? I do not think so. Matthew 20.1 starts with “for” which explains what went on before when the explicit audience was Peter and not the elite or the rich. Jesus was explaining to Peter what it meant to follow him and Peter responded by talking about rewards. The parable addresses directly Peter’s concern by asking Peter to identify with those who worked in the vineyard.
To me, interpretations that don’t address Peter’s concern won’t be right. I’ll deal with this in greater details in my Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories book. For those who are interested, they can purchase or borrow the book. I’ve also addressed this in one of my lectures for the Faith in Practice Lectureship in HK Baptist University. The lectures can be purchased through the university chaplain’s office.