Matthew 20:1-16 (the Parable of the Prodigal Employer)
Matthew 20:1-16, often called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, is placed at the center of Matthew’s three episodes where Jesus teaches about “the last being first and the first being last.”1 In Matthew 19:13-30, Jesus says, after the rich young man left him since he could not give up his possessions and thus gave up following Jesus, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30 cf. Mark 10:17-31). Immediately following this episode, Matthew 20:1-16, the second episode which is not found in Mark, also concludes with the same point: “the last will be the first, and the first will be the last” (Matthew 20:16). In the third episode, while rejecting the request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee, Jesus reaffirms his teaching. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26 cf. Mark 10:35-45). Afterwards, Jesus, being the ultimate exemplar of these stories, enters Jerusalem where he will be crucified.
But, there emerge two questions. First, why did Matthew insert Matthew 20:1-16 into Mark’s storyline? Daniel J. Harrington, however, points out that “the only point really in common comes with the order of payment in 20:8.”2 Latecomers receive their wage first, while early comers receive their wage last. Then, second, what is the function of the pericope whose main point actually does not fit with its last statement (Matthew 20:16)? Is this a mistake for Matthew to place the present pericope where it is now? To resolve this hermeneutical tension, Mark Allen Powell insists that Matthew 20:1-16 is Jesus’ answer to his disciples who expected to receive more reward, since they abandoned their possessions unlike the rich young man.3 Daniel J. Harrington argues that the parable concerns the last judgment and “defends Jesus’ special concern for the marginalized in Jewish society.”4
While providing valid readings, these commentators miss a crucial factor in understanding this parable, the Roman Empire. They disregard Matthew’s socio-economic concern. Here I present a socio-economic reading of Matthew 20:1-16 and argue that Matthew 20:1-16 presents an alternative labor ethics placing the basic human need over against the logic of exploitation in the Roman imperial setting and reverses even commonly accepted labor ethics.
First, Matthew 20:1-16 presents God as a prodigal employer. The householder (oikodespotes) in verse 1 is God, because it is soon revealed in the Parable of Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) that the Lord (kyrios) of the vineyard in Matthew is the God of Israel who will lose His own son. In this parable, however, God seems to be not just but unfair and even wasteful. The owner gives the same wage, one denarius, to his workers regardless of the length of their labor. He even gives it to those who worked only for an hour. In this sense, as Harrington puts it, this parable can be called “the Parable of the Prodigal Employer,” as Luke 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Father, demonstrates “the generosity of God.”5
Second, the prodigal employer places basic human needs over against the dominant paradigm of exploitation in the Roman Empire. Warren Carter observes that there are two major means for the ruling elites to control locals and maintain their wealth in the Roman Empire: the use of military might and taxation. Those newly migrated “Roman soldiers or local landowners, often using forced or slave labor, enhanced the productivity and profitability of their land.”6 Furthermore, the Romans imposed an enormous amount of tax upon locals. For example, Lenski argues that “up to two-thirds of peasant production was paid in rents, tolls, and taxes,” and Oakman also argues that “half to two-thirds of production was paid in taxes in first-century Palestine.”7 In other words, their labor was often forceful, and the tax was burdensome. Therefore, like “the great majority of peasants who lived in the various agrarian societies of the past” Carter concludes that peasants in the Roman Empire “lived at, or close to, the subsistence level.”8 Nevertheless, they could not resist this oppressive system, because “Rome regarded the failure to pay tax and tribute as rebellion against Rome’s sovereignty,” and revolt was immediately “put down with military force.”9 In other words, the dominant labor ethics at that time was exploitation through taxation and military might. It is this socio-economic context in which Matthew 20:1-16 should be read. The employer, therefore, has to give one denarius to everyone regardless of their working hours, because that was necessary for their living and for their family’s living. He had to be wasteful in order that every bit of his possession may not be wasted.
Third, the prodigal Employer presents an alternative labor ethics by reversing commonly accepted labor ethics. There are three distinct labor ethics in Matthew 20:1-16 that reverse that of the Roman Empire. 1) The Employer is driven by compassion not by economic gain. The employer is the one who seeks. It is not employees who come to workplaces and ask for a job but the Employer who constantly goes out and finds workers. He went out five times – at an early morning hour, the third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, and eleventh hour. He seeks the benefit of workers not of himself. Unlike Roman ruling elites who often used forced labor at cheap cost for their benefit, the employer uses his resources to provide necessities for his employees. It is the desperation and compassion of the Employer not for the lack of the labor force but for the joblessness of those poor peasants that drove him out in the street. 2) The ultimate standard for pay is the human life with dignity. The Employer applies another criterion of equal pay. While looking at latecomers receiving their wage, early comers expected to receive more, because they worked almost ten times more. Their mind was operating on the principle of equal pay. But, the employer reverses their expectation and thus the notion of equal pay. Everybody gets paid equally not for their work, but for their life. They deserve their food. 3) Goodness is redefined. Even though his intention was good, it was impossible to avoid grumbling of early comers. They thought that it was unfair. Rather than dealing with fairness, he describes himself as good (agathos), because goodness is determined not by mathematical calculation but by generosity for those who are weak and marginalized in society. The latecomers were probably those who were physically weak or sick or simply not favorable, which caused them to stay standing in the street rather than being picked in the early morning. The Employer redefines goodness as having compassion for them and gives and shares what he has voluntarily.
Fourth, Matthew 20:1-16 functions as the central piece in a broader narrative, Matthew 19:16-20:28, which criticizes the dominant labor ethics in the Roman Empire. In Matthew 19:16-30, the rich young man is unable to follow Jesus, because he was unable to give. On the contrary, Matthew 20:1-16 presents the prodigal Employer who is willing to give what he possesses. The hidden criticism in the first and second pericope is revealed on the surface in the third pericope, as Jesus says to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Matthew 20:25). Matthew concludes this set of Jesus’ teachings with strong negation, but gives an alternative ethics through the lips of Jesus who exemplifies his teaching in the generous giving of his own life: “It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant . . . just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26, 28).
Ku Kim’s My Hope
This alternative labor ethic is also found in Ku Kim’s My Hope where Kim also opposes exploitation but holds up basic human needs and a utopian vision of giving as an alternative labor ethics under the colonial context.
Ku Kim is a founding father of the Korean Republic. He was also one of the main figures who established the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai in 1919. During Japanese Imperialism in Korea, he participated in the resistance movement against Japan. After the Second World War and the independence of Korea from Japanese colonialism, the United States army and Soviet Union army arrived in Korea as trustees, while dividing the country in half, North and South. He devoted his life to establishing a unified government in the Korean peninsula until he was assassinated in 1948.10 Ku Kim’s My Hope is an appendix to his diary, Baik-Bum-Il-Ji, written in 1947. In this appendix, he describes the nation he dreams of:
I hope that my country becomes the most beautiful country in the world. I do not hope that we become the strongest nation. Because we suffered from the invasion of another nation, I do not want my country to invade another nation. I am content, as long as we are wealthy enough to live with dignity and strong enough to depend the invasion of the other. Only thing I long to have is the cultural power, because the cultural power will make us happy and make others happy.11
There are found four points worth noting. First, colonization, which is an extreme form of migration and exploitation, is the context of his writing. Since he experienced forced labor and taxation under Japanese Imperialism, Kim urges his fellow Koreans not to harm other countries.
The liberation from Imperial power is still a dominant theme, although his work was written in 1947 after the liberation from Japanese colonialism in 1945. U.S. and Soviet Union military power became another Imperial power in the Korean Peninsula. Thus he repeatedly says in the beginning of My Hope, that “My hope is the complete independence of Korean nation.”12 Third, he limits gaining of wealth while securing the basic human life. He does not wish to have much wealth but to make sure that every human being needs necessary supplies for their living. Fourth, he values culture more than economic and military power that mutually work together in an exploitive imperial system. The cultural power that he longs for is not something that dominates others, but something that serves them in the act of giving:
Now, what humankind needs is neither military power nor economic power…the fundamental reason why humankinds are unhappy is because we lack righteousness, mercy, and love…we are not the ones who steals nor takes advantage of others but the ones who take delight in giving to our family, our neighbor, and fellow citizens….Therefore, we are not lazy but diligent. The householder who has beloved wife and children is inevitably diligent in order to give endlessly.13
Ku Kim defines Korean nationality as loving which is expressed in voluntary giving. Koreans are diligent workers, because their aim is to give not only to their own family but also to their neighbor and fellow citizens who are in need. This utopian vision of giving is the ultimate cultural power that he wanted the newly born nation, the Korean Republic, to have.
Dialogue: Toward Alternative Labor Ethics in Asian (American) Immigrant Context
Matthew and Ku Kim, even though they lived under colonial power, present the two common labor ethics: supplying basic human needs and generous giving. Forced labor and unreasonable taxation took place when the Romans migrated to Palestine as a ruling class with military power. It also happened in Korea, when the Japanese invaded Korea and colonized the Korean Peninsula. Similarly, when one migrates to another country for labor either as an employer or employee, exploitation often takes place, as is happening in Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, the United States, and many other countries.14 It is often the distorted view toward other ethnic groups as inferior that justifies employers’ injustice. However, the Parable of the Prodigal Employer and Ku Kim’s My Hope offer an alternative labor ethic that can be applied not only to Korean immigrants in North America and developing countries but also to pan-Asian immigrants who share a colonial history.
The Parable of the Prodigal Employer and Ku Kim’s My Hope are mutually complementary in constructing a new labor ethics. On the one hand, Ku Kim’s My Hope fills up the void of employee ethics that the Parable of the Prodigal Employer misses. Ku Kim encourages all laborers, employees as well as employers, to work diligently. On the other hand, the Parable of the Prodigal Employer supplies the common identity that My Hope, a Korean nationalistic writing, misses. The fundamental impulse that motivates believers to practice new labor ethics is not only love for humanity but also their Christian identity.
In the Asian-immigrant context, those two writings are particularly illuminating in constructing a new labor ethics. They remind us that, 1) there is a danger in the labor market treating other ethnic groups as objects and thus exploiting them like old colonizers. In this new labor ethics, however, 2) employers are driven not simply by economic gain but by compassion for their employees. 3) Employers are aware of the basic needs of their employees. 4) Employers give away what they have to take care of them. 5) Other employees do not grumble, because it seems unfair to them. Rather, 6) they work more diligently for the greater good, giving endlessly.
Where there is migration for labor, there often exploitation occurs. It is primarily driven by materialistic desire, but it is backed up by western modern philosophy that sees other humans and nature as objects of exploitation. On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible depicts YHWH as a compassionate God who delivers aliens and laborers, while judging their ruthless employers. This tradition also continues in Matthew 20:1-16. This somewhat disturbing pericope which describes God as an unfair and wasteful employer can be understood, when it is read in the Roman Imperial context. Matthew is presenting Jesus’ teaching as an alternative labor ethics against exploitation, which was the dominant ethos of his time, through the means of taxation and military power. Through the Parable of the Prodigal Employer, Matthew illustrates that God places basic human needs over material gain and enacts generous giving. Ku Kim also holds up those two values in My Hope in the colonial context, while focusing on love as the motivation for giving. These two writings complement each other and present an alternative labor ethics that is applicable in an Asian immigrant context.
Hyun Ho Park
Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity
Graduate Theological Union (GTU)
- Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 2007), p. 283. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- James L. Mays, Edited, Harper Collins Bible Commentary (Harper One: New York, 1988), p. 892. ↩
- Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina, p. 284. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire Initial Explorations (Trinity Press International: Harrisburg, PA, 2001), p. 14. ↩
- Ibid., 135. ↩
- Ibid., 18. ↩
- Ibid., 15. ↩
- For more detailed information on the life of Ku Kim, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Gu ↩
- http://kimkoo.or.kr/02diary/sub.asp?pagecode=m02s02t04b ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- For Pakistani child labor in stitching Nike soccer ball, see Richard M. Locke, “The Promise and Perils of Globalization: The Case of Nike,” p. 11-13. ↩
Categories: (B) Article