January 19, 2009

Irenaeus interpreted Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard as a parable about Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 20:1-16). The first-hour men are Jews, and the eleventh-hour men, who slip into the vineyard at the last minute, are Gentiles converted by the apostles. Over the surly objections of the Jews, the owner gives the same denarius to all.

Let’s assume that this is a valid interpretation. If so, one of the interesting details is that the owner explicitly contracts only with the first men - they agree to a denarius for a day. That sets up the climax of the story, since the owner can appeal to that agreement to prove he is blameless. Yet, it also distinguishes the first-hour men from others, to whom the owner promises only to pay what is “just” ( dikaios ).

Now, if the first-hour men are Jews, and the eleventh-hour men are Gentiles, what do we learn?

There are two ways to take this difference. Perhaps the eleventh-hour men are “entering into” the agreement made between the owner and the first hour men. Hence: Gentiles are brought in under the terms of the original covenant with Abram; Gentiles are grafted into the tree that has been growing long before they knew of it.

That makes sense, but the parable hints that something more radical is taking place. The first-hour men can appeal to an explicit agreement, a spoken if not written “contract” with the owner. So the Jews had a written covenant by which Yahweh bound Himself to fulfill His promises to them. The eleventh-hour men are left dangling (it seems), forced to trust in nothing but the “justice” and “goodness” of the owner. They don’t have any contract, and if the owner decided to pay them 1/12 of a denarius, they could not object. But he doesn’t; their confidence in the owner’s justice and goodness is well-founded, and they receive far more than they deserve. They receive a day’s wage even though they have no contractual leverage and the owner has no contractual obligations.

Is this a way of describing the difference between old and new, Jew and Gentile? Is the covenant made with Israel , that is, Israel alone, while the Gentiles are thrown back to rest in the reliability of the God of Israel? Is this part of the transition from a ministry of death with letters engraven on stone to a ministry of righteousness and life where the letter is written by the Spirit on tablets of human hearts?

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