God's Commonwealth: each according to need
No doubt the householder was a wealthy landowner: vineyards don't run at a profit until thy have been tended for many years and so represent a considerable investment for a luxury cash-crop probably for an international market. The presence of a steward – probably one of many – is another clue to the economic status of the householder or more literally “house-despot”.
We tend to assume that powerful figures in parables represent God even if, as in this case, they profit from the poorly-paid, sun-beaten and exploited day-labourers.
So let's throw aside the complicated allegorical readings of the parable, so loved by theologians-past and do two important things that may turn this story from a bit of Christian whimsy into something that actually matters. First let's take it at face value; this is a story about a God's values in relation to land and labour, second let's begin not with the most powerful figure but with the powerless.
The day labourers aren't quite the poorest of the poor but they aren't far off. Perhaps they once owned a little land; handed down from generations, but a few bad harvests and a couple of weddings later and they found themselves in debt and having to sell their livestock, land, and finally even their home to the big farming companies who turned the whole area over to cash crops and started hiring by-the-day.
Such labourers are still around today so it doesn't take too much imagination: we have our eastern European seasonal workers on illegally poor wages in English mega-farms, we have our Chinese cockle-pickers risking their lives in our unforgiving seas, we have our agency workers in warehouse offices able to be dismissed at a moment’s notice. And we have pension funds, supermarkets, the Queen, insurance companies, and the Church of England – owning or buying up greater amounts of land from family farmers and squeezing every penny of profit from the soil to devastating effect on wildlife and on communities.
So let's picture the scene that Jesus paints for us. A group of landless men and women gather at dawn at the town gate. All of them are desperate to work, all of them are a few meals away from starvation. Naturally the youngest and fittest will be chosen first because they will be the best value for money. The least able and the elderly will be left standing through the heat of the day waiting for landowners to get desperate enough to give them work. It's these folk who are at the very bottom of the spiral of poverty: the weaker they get the less they earn, the less they earn the weaker they get. This is a meritocracy: each is given according to his or her ability. It's fair and just in a secular logic: if you work you earn if you don't work you don't earn.
But Jesus' story has a twist in the telling. Because in Jesus' economy things are different: there are no undeserving poor. There are only needs and the loving desire to meet them. It is the rich who are undeserving in Jesus' economy because they take more than they need and merit is no excuse for greed while others starve in the kingdom of God.
What Jesus was suggesting in this parable: that God wants to give us all we need rather than just what we deserve was nothing short of scandalous, even blasphemy. But is it so different today?
There are at least two challenges in this parable. First, the challenge to see needs and meet them regardless of merit or reward. The second, to begin to ask the questions about how these people came to be in such a vulnerable position in the first place and who benefits from keeping working people vulnerable to poverty and exploitation.
The seventeenth century visionary and theologian Gerard Winstanley called the earth a “common treasury” belonging to God and gifted to us all. He recognised the profound link between economy, ecology, and theology. Drawing on that other visionary who described for us in the Old Testament 'the jubilee' he reminds us that we give it all back to God or we imperil first our worth and then our very lives.
The Kingdom of God is like.... What is it like? What sort of world does Jesus describe and how can we proclaim it for our land and our county.