‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
Matthew 20:1-16 Recently, a computer program developer named George Davila Durendal created an artificial intelligence algorithm using the King James Version of the Bible. Dubbed “AI Jesus,” Durendal hoped to develop a program that would speak on contemporary topics using King James English and inspired by the words of our sacred text.
The program digested the King James Version and learned to mimic its style and vocabulary. Then Durendal, sensing the near-apocalyptic nature of the world these days, asked AI Jesus to speak on three different topics: ‘The Plague,’ ‘Caesar,’ and ‘The End of Days.’ Complete nonsense came out:
“The Plague,” says AI Jesus, “shall be the fathers in the world; and the same is my people, that he may be more abundant in the mouth of the LORD of hosts.”
“And the ships,” continues AI Jesus, “that was [sic] before the temple and he said, ‘Thou shall not cause to be cleansed.”
Of course, these sayings and as well as others have a twitter handle, so we get to read these confusing creations, like this one, “Power and godly, and have commanded the children of the world, and will set my face against thee, and thou shalt be called the people.”
I think this is a really interesting and kind of silly project. Preaching and teaching in the Christian tradition is mostly about making the words and actions of Jesus come alive and relevant to our lives today. In some ways, what Durendal is attempting isn’t that much different.
But I also feel a little wrong about this project. The teachings of Jesus found in our scriptures are difficult enough to understand without these nonsensical creations. It makes me wonder if folks will look at AI Jesus as another example of how the lessons of our faith are confusing, silly, or not worth the effort.
Take today’s parable. There’s enough here to be confusing with wealthy landowners, day labors, vineyard work, weird hiring practices, and enigmatic endings. At least we can kind of imagine this one.
It’s harvest time, and the grapes are ready for picking. The landowner, like the wealthy elite in Jesus’ day, owned enough land that day laborers needed to be hired to harvest. So this landowner sends his farm manager, called a “vintner” in this case, to the market to hire folks.
This was a common practice in Jesus’ day. Day laborers, those who do not own land, and are not tired by social contact or servitude to another landowner, met in the market every day to look for work. Wealthy folks that needed extra help would come down to the market and hire people, usually for the going wage, which was one denarius for a day’s work.
Like last week’s gospel reading, understanding the unit of money is essential to the story. The crowd that Jesus told this parable to knew the value of a denarius. A denarius was just about enough money to live on for one day. It was enough to cover food, housing, and incidentals for you and perhaps a small family with nothing left over. The reference in the Lord’s prayer – “Give us today, our daily bread,” is a nod to the many folks that Jesus encounters that live day today.
So, what if you showed up early at the market, looking for work, but no one was hiring that day? You didn’t eat. What if you worked, but were stiffed at the end of the day by the landowner? Your family faced eviction. What if this was a Friday? You didn’t eat for two days because of the Sabbath. The margins for survival for folks that surrounded Jesus were so slim.
So in his story, Jesus talks about how the vintner returns to the market throughout the day bringing workers in, and at the end of the day, everyone gets what they need, enough payment to go on for another day, regardless of the hours worked.
Now, because of the way we are taught to think about issues like work, merit, fairness, and economic systems, we come preloaded with questions for this parable. How is it fair that everyone gets paid the same? How is the employer able to do this? Who are the workers that are still at the market later in the afternoon? Are they lazy or something? Is Jesus condemning a good day’s work?
The parable is silent on much of the details because that’s not the story Jesus wants to tell.
Instead, Jesus acknowledges that people have come to work. Whether they are there bright and early or still there later in the day, their need is the same, survive the day. Provide for your family. Hold onto your dignity. The landowner in Jesus’ parable understands this and allows this human concern to govern his bottom line.
I think Jesus has a much more expansive idea of what the kingdom of heaven, God’s alternative way of ordering life, looks like, and we give him credit for. It isn’t just about personal responsibility, piety, and being a nice person—God’s way of ordering life changes everything. The way we build community, the politics we practice, and the economic systems we adopt are all part of this divine shakeup.
In God’s economy, human dignity and wellbeing are the outcomes. People are more important than profits. The prosperity of talent, planning, hard work, and the land's bounty is seen as gracious gifts of God rather than unconditioned human endeavors. The harvest in our story, then, is not measured in the amount of wine made that year, but in the number of families and individuals in the community that eat, had shelter, and participated in God’s abundance.
Likely this message is as difficult for our modern ears as it was for those workers that labored all day in the hot sun and felt cheated. In this regard, we might hear the complaints of the elder son in the more familiar parable of the prodigal son. How are we, mostly privileged people, who have worked for a lifetime and scraped and saved to look at this story? Maybe we see our ability to work as a gift. Maybe we see our chance to scrap and save as a form of God’s grace. Maybe we think less about comparing our lives to others. Maybe we understand that folks have different talents and varied capabilities. Maybe we realize that we all do well when we all do well.
Today, we might question the morality of our economy when we measure it only by the stock market. Today, we might probe why housing has become unaffordable according to the standard metric in all fifty states. Today we might work to end hunger because it’s totally possible if we wanted to. Today, we might consider the human impact of our choices, from buying local, hiring new folks, and voting in this year’s election.
See, Jesus’s words are confusing enough. And challenging enough. And pretty controversial enough. And also, relevant and timely, and needed.
May we hear this challenging parable of Jesus and not turn away. May the work we do individually and as a faith community be grounded in stories like these. For the sake of the world and all in it. Amen.