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Parables of Hunger: The Landowner

July 30, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, July 30, 2017

 Exodus 16: 2-15         Matthew 20: 1-16

This is our third and final week looking at the Parables of Hunger, a designation I have made up to bring together several parables about food and eating. Most of the people Jesus told his parables to were literally hungry, so it is significant that the parables point not only to getting or receiving the food we need to survive today, but also for tomorrow. Further we noted that when Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to: a merchant, a woman, a rich man or a servant; to leaven, treasure, a business ledger of farmworker wages” it’s not clear whether the comparison is intended to show similarity or difference. It is good for us to remember that the word parable literally means “things thrown together.”

And Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Jesus’ parables are always complex stories that first tickled and then engaged the crowd’s questions, doubts, and hopes. We need only look at one character in the story to see how complex these characters and their actions really are; the landowner.


Image: Tomatoes being harvested in Mexico in 2016. Workers may once
have owned these very field before NAFTA. Some companies, like Wendy’s,
have moved their tomato production to Mexico rather than work to ensure
wages, protections, and a slavery-free supply chain. See

Is the landowner really that good? In Jesus day, the Roman Imperial system impoverished local farmers who were often forced to sell their land to pay their debts. The landowner in our parable would have been part of the (new) rich elite among the overwhelmingly poor. In the hands of these new landowners, fields of grain that had formerly fed the people were often converted into vineyards for the production of wine, a luxury selling for top dollar and often exported. Like my friend’s father who was forced to sell his family farm in Mexico a few years after the passage of NAFTA, many of the day laborers in this parable would have found themselves hired to work land they once owned themselves.

Is the landowner really generous? By paying everyone equally, he has certainly assured that each person seeking work would be able to eat that day. But “the usual daily wage” was by no means generous – it was a subsistence payment. And since employment depended on laborers gathering in marketplace before sunrise each day in hopes of being chosen for work, there is no assurance that they will eat tomorrow.

Further, as Alyce McKenzie points out, the vineyard owner believes that he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him.

This reflects the Roman’s idea of private ownership, contradicting the Torah’s insistence that God is the owner of the land. The Torah’s vision was that one’s blessings were given to one to share with the dispossessed in the community, not as a platform to exploit them.[1]

In fact, the landowners very act of generosity seem calculated to provoke the grumbling of those hired early in the morning against the latecomers, a classic tactic of pitting workers against one another in the age-old practice of divide and conquer.

Is this how God acts toward God’s people? Is this how God provides for us? Is the landowner really the image for God in this parable? If so, to Jesus’ hearers who understood how real landowners operated, that would have been quite a claim.

Now we often use models from human relationships to think about God. The Psalter tells us “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13), and God in Isaiah says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). Yet in this parable we are teased into working out just how God’s justice, generosity and grace are UNLIKE human models we know. “God is nothing like an arbitrary landlord who pays meager wages, participates in keeping the poor divided and disadvantaged, and who distributes grace in ways to provoke resentment.”[2]

But clearly, Matthew intends us to see the landowner in a favorable light. So, let’s try to read the parable with him. God has work for everyone to do, and those of us who have worked faithfully for a long time should not resent the latecomers. Jesus’ parable had a word of challenge and a word of comfort; challenge for those who have been laboring long and hard, assurance and welcome for those newly arrived.

It was probably quite hard for his audience, mostly poor, to imagine a generous landowner. Jesus obviously understood this, too, as a poor man himself. In the previous chapter he had just told them that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Even this generous landowner, so long as he holds the assumptions of private property with which he may do as he pleases, the sufficiency of a day’s wage to meet the needs of hungry people, and an understanding of how his actions can pit the poor against one another in a downward spiral, even this well-intentioned, generous landowner is still far from the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Jesus tells this parable to a crowd of peasants after a rich young man, who Jesus says “is not far from the kingdom,” goes away sad because he cannot give up his possessions and the assumptions that go with them.

So we see that the landowner is both like and unlike God in the parable. And so we might also ask, where else is God in that parable? After all, God need not be contained within one character alone! That’s what makes parables fun, puzzling, and provocative. Parables also invite us to see look for God working in our own world in unexpected ways. Several years ago, I shared a 20th century parable about workers in the vineyard. Some of you may remember it; for others, it will be new. But either way, listen for God’s word to you.

Back in the late 1990s WINK News in southwest Florida decided to do an undercover investigative report on the conditions under which farmworkers then labored, the sub-poverty wages they receive and the workers’ struggle to dialogue with their employers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was not yet an internationally recognized powerhouse that had legally binding agreements with 14 corporations and a Presidential medal winning Fair Food Program establishing and protecting tens of thousands of farmworkers rights in seven states that is now being exported to transform conditions at the base of supply chains in other industries around the world!

No. At that time, it was a community-based worker’s group, which most people had not heard of. But this group of farmworkers who had organized themselves had publicly called for talks between growers and workers to address abuses in the fields and sub poverty wages. The Coalition knew that the farmworkers were earning well below minimum wage–annually somewhere around $7,500. But growers claimed the workers earned $16,000. Enter WINK News. The TV reporters’ plan was to go into the fields, pick tomatoes, look at what average workers harvested and report on their earnings while taping the experience.

So a TV reporter and a producer disguised themselves as workers and joined the crowd of farmworkers waiting to negotiate a day’s labor and be taken in buses to the fields just before dawn. They did just that and their broadcast vindicated the farmworkers’ claims, underscoring the need for growers to negotiate with workers. At the close of the broadcast, the reporters explained there was one more story to tell. As they waited for the buses that morning, two farmworkers approached them. One man quietly asked, “Do you have any money?” Fearing they were panhandling, the newscasters said, “No.” At which point the worker pulled out his wallet that contained only three dollars. “Here,” he said with a brief nod, and handed all three dollars to the newscasters. Then he walked away.

Generosity awakens us to our common humanity in one another. Perhaps this was the point of Jesus parable, to open our eyes to justice and generosity whenever and wherever it occurs – in landowners, in farmworkers. At its base, we are reminded in giving and receiving that all of us are part of God’s family, that all of us our valuable, that we need each other to survive; that God created us for each other. And so, we hear Matthew’s message again: we all have work to do. Thanks be to God. 

Hymn: Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples


[1] Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today. WJK Press, 2007. p. 76.

[2] David Mosser. The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. WJK Press, 2007.

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