If anyone thinks that the parables of Jesus are meant to be helpful moral tales, they should ponder the one about the workers in the vineyard. A landowner hires people to work for the day, starting in the morning, at a wage of one denarius. Then he hires others in the early afternoon for the rest of the day, and then still others in the late afternoon. But at the end of the day they all get paid the same amount: one denarius. The ones who worked all day grumble—understandably. The landowner says to them, “I’m not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for one denarius?” We seem to be at the theater of the absurd or a Zen master’s lesson.
Is this a story about unjust wages? Some say that the parable teaches that people need money, any amount, so just give them some. Others hear it as giving you assurance if you’ve come to the Gospel late in life. Your own reading depends on who you think Jesus was and what he was trying to do. I think of him as suggesting an entirely different way of being on this planet, where the crucial difference is that you live by neighborly altruism rather than self-interest. He has some other shocking suggestions, as well, like loving your enemies.
Generally the parables answer the question, What is this kingdom that is drawing near? Some think of it as a future time in history when they’ll finally be rewarded and live the good life. Some think it’s the afterlife, and you have to die before you can enjoy it.
But when I hear the word kingdom, I’m reminded of fairy tales. Many of them, including the famous ones, begin with a king and queen living in their kingdom and about to have a bizarre adventure. It’s like saying, here’s a world where the following weird thing can happen. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not our usual world at all.
In particular, he says that in his kingdom you are not interested in personal wealth, you don’t judge and condemn yourself or others, and you live by the principle of agape—a mixture of love and respect—where the people we consider outcast will be incast, and vice versa. In this kingdom, those who feel they have a right to belong can’t get in. You should go out of your way to show compassion to people who are not in your circle—your nationality, your political persuasion, or your religion. If you’re searching for something to do with your life, be a healer of some sort.
It should be clear that the Jesus kingdom has little in common with the ways of the world as we know it. I like to borrow a term from my namesake Thomas More of England—utopia. It means either no place or a good place—or both. Jesus seems to be recommending a world that is nowhere, certainly in comparison to the tough world we usually live in, and one that is a good place. He wants to show us how to get to this not-yet-existing place and leave behind a world that works by harsh economics and moralistic judgments, where neighbors are everywhere in conflict.
The story of the workers in the vineyard is a way of placing us nowhere, in utopia. Here you don’t follow the logic of the world. You’re a little crazy, naive, ill-adjusted. You don’t try to get even with someone who’s done you wrong. If you do, you’re still here in our troubled world; if not, you’re in utopia.
You don’t measure your life by the size of your paycheck. That’s not the Jesus kingdom. You forgive people when it’s not at all reasonable. When a friend offends you, you keep the friendship alive. You’re not smart in a worldly way, because you live somewhere else, in another world, another kingdom, and you’ve worked hard to get there. Where are you? In utopia, where things look crazy, but they’re sane compared to where everyone else is.
To you, it makes sense by some weird logic that you’ve worked a whole day and get paid the same as someone who has worked only a few hours. It makes sense because you’re not here in this world. You’re somewhere else. And that’s the point of these stories.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.