Every Last Loser
Jesus's Remix of a Rabbinic Parable
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The lectionary gospel text this Sunday is Jesus’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
But before you turn to Matthew 20:1-16, check out this parable. Jesus would’ve known it. It was taught by the ancient rabbis before getting recorded and canonized in the Jewish Talmud.
A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many laborers, one of whom was especially apt and skillful. What did the king do? He took his laborer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him.
When the laborers came for their wage in the evening, the skillful laborer also appeared among them and received a full day’s wage from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and said, “We have toiled all day long while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full wage even as to us?”
The king said to them: “Why are you angry? Through his skill he has produced more in two hours than all of you have done all the day long.
In the Jewish Talmudic parable, the emphasis falls on the exceptional worker’s economic productivity.
But in Jesus’s remix of the parable, the stress is not on the laborer but on the landowner.
The focus is not on the worker’s activity but the owner’s activity, going out, again and again, seeking and summoning. The focus isn’t on the laborer’s contributions but on the landowner’s character, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Actually, in Matthew’s Greek, the landowner asks the grumbling laborers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Because I am good—that’s the money line; that’s the clue.
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