Monday, September 25, 2017

Wording Authority

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 21:23-32, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel text for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments are welcomed.  

The pericope for this week obviously has two distinct but related parts. There is the interrogation of Jesus regarding his authority in vv.23-27, which Jesus deftly answers by not answering. Then, there is the parable of two children, in vv. 28-30, followed by a question and a conclusion in 31-32. The conclusion in v. 32 circles back to the matter of vv. 23-27.

23 Καὶ ἐλθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσῆλθον αὐτῷ διδάσκοντι οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς 
καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ λέγοντες, Ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιεῖς; καὶ 
τίς σοι ἔδωκεν τὴν ἐξουσίαν ταύτην; 
And he having come into the temple the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him while he is teaching saying, “By what authority do you do these things? And who gave to you this authority?”
ἐλθόντος: AAPart gsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
προσῆλθον: AAI 3p, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 
διδάσκοντι: PAPart dsm, διδάσκω, 1) to teach 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ποιεῖς: PAI 2s, ποιέω, 1) to make  
ἔδωκεν: AAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give 
1. While it is awkward to say, “And he having come into the temple …” but I want to be sure to note that the participle refers to Jesus. Jesus came into the temple; the elders, etc., came to him.
2. I think Gene Smillie says it well: “One of the preliminary tasks of exegeting this passage is to identify the antecedents of "these things" (ταϋτα) mentioned in verse 23.” ("Jesus' Response to the Question of His Authority in Matthew 21," Bibliotheca Sacra, 2005.) One could stay within the 21st chapter of Matthew and find reasons aplenty for this challenging question: The entry into Jerusalem, with all of the accompanying claims of royalty (1-11), Jesus turning over tables and driving out buyers and sellers in the temple (12-17), and Jesus cursing a fig tree that promptly withers (18-22).
3. This challenge is found in Mark and Luke, as well as Matthew. In Mark, Jesus is just “walking around” when he is challenged. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is teaching. Smillie argues that because Matthew uses the dative case in the participle διδάσκοντι (‘while he is teaching,’ or ‘in his teaching’) that it is his teaching itself that is the matter of “these things.”

24 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐρωτήσω ὑμᾶς κἀγὼ λόγον ἕνα, ὃν 
ἐὰν εἴπητέ μοι κἀγὼ ὑμῖν ἐρῶ ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ
Yet having answered Jesus said to them, “I also will ask you also one word which if you should tell me I will also tell you in whose authority I do these things.
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
Ἐρωτήσω: FAI 1s, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question 2) to ask 
εἴπητέ: AASubj 2p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ἐρῶ: FAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ποιῶ: PAI 1s, ποιέω, 1) to make  
1. In this rough translation I am mostly leaving the word λέγω as either ‘say’ or ‘tell,’ with appropriate attention to tense. In a smoother translation, to ‘say’ in response to a question would be ‘answer’ or ‘respond.’
2. I love the versatility of the word “word” (λόγον).  In this case, to ask one ‘word’ can turn λόγον into “ask you one question.”
3. Speaking of λόγον, the noun λόγος (“word”) and the verb λέγω (“to say, speak”) are very common in the NT, but this pericope strikes me as having a very high concentration of those related terms. Sometimes the aorist or future tenses of λέγω look quite different from the root, so I’ve highlighted them just to show how often they appear. 

25 τὸ βάπτισμα τὸ Ἰωάννου πόθεν ἦν; ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἢ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων; οἱ δὲ διελογίζοντο ἐν ἑαυτοῖς λέγοντες, Ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ ἡμῖν, Διὰ τί 
οὖν οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ; 
The baptism of John was from where? Out of heaven or out of humans?” Yet they dialogued among themselves saying, “If we say, ‘Out of heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
διελογίζοντο: IMI 3p, διαλογίζομαι, 1) to bring together different reasons, to reckon up the  reasons, to reason, revolve in one's mind, deliberate 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
εἴπωμεν: AASubj 1p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ἐρεῖ: FAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ἐπιστεύσατε: AAI 2p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of,
1. A refined translation would make διαλογίζομαι into ‘reasoned’ or ‘discussed.’ I am using the transliteration ‘dialogued.’ The root of δια\λογ\ίζομαι makes it one of the “word” words. They were ‘wording among themselves.’
2.

26 ἐὰν δὲ εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, φοβούμεθα τὸν ὄχλον, πάντες γὰρ ὡς 
προφήτην ἔχουσιν τὸν Ἰωάννην. 
Yet if we say, ‘Out of humans,’ we fear the crowd, for all hold John as a prophet.”
εἴπωμεν: AASubj 1p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
φοβούμεθα: PMI 1p, φοβέω, 1) to strike with fear, scare, frighten
ἔχουσιν: PAI 3p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
1. I cannot tell if the elitism (“we know the masses are asses”) or the cowardice (“but we can’t say it aloud”) is more maddening in this rationalization.

27 καὶ ἀποκριθέντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἶπαν, Οὐκ οἴδαμενἔφη αὐτοῖς καὶ αὐτός, 
Οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λέγω ὑμῖν ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ
And having answered Jesus they said, “We have not known.” He also was saying to them, “Nor do I say to you in what authority I do these things.
ἀποκριθέντες: APPart npm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
οἴδαμεν: PerfAI 1p, εἴδω, 1) to know.
ἔφη: IAI 3s, φημί, 1) to make known one's thoughts, to declare 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ποιῶ: PAI 1s, ποιέω, 1) to make  
1. This must be one of the greatest smackdowns in the history of dialog. The chief priests and elders are trapped by their own entrapment.
2. I know that the phrase “We have not known” seems to ruin the punch line, but in this rough translation I wanted to show that it is in the perfect tense. Most translations, thank goodness, refine it into “We do not know.” Of course, this phrase is a lie. They did not discuss among themselves their genuine answer to the question, but only the costs and benefits of either answer – neither of which they are willing to face.

28 Τί δὲ ὑμῖν δοκεῖ; ἄνθρωπος εἶχεν τέκνα δύο. καὶ προσελθὼν τῷ πρώτῳ εἶπεν, Τέκνον, ὕπαγε σήμερον ἐργάζου ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι. 
“Yet what does it seem to you: A man had two children. And having come to the first he said, ‘Child, go work in the vineyard today.’
δοκεῖ: PAI 3s, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
προσελθὼν: AAPart nsm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ὕπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under 
ἐργάζου: PMImpv 2s, ἐργάζομαι, 1) to work, labour, do work
1. The verb δοκέω, per the definitions above, seems to go to the matter of opinion or appearance more than indicative fact. I wonder if this verb choice is a response to the chief priests’ and elders’ reticence to answer the previous question, claiming “we have not known.”

29 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐ θέλω, ὕστερον δὲ μεταμεληθεὶς ἀπῆλθεν
But having answered he said, ‘I will not,’ yet later he changed his mind and went.
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
θέλω:  PAI 1s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
μεταμεληθεὶς: AAPart nsm, μεταμέλομαι 1) repent to rue, regret; 2) to have dissatisfaction with one's self for what one has done, to change or alter one's purpose, (see v.32  and extended definition below)
ἀπῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
1. I’m a little hesitant to translate Οὐ θέλω as “I will not.” It is a fine translation, but the implication might seem to be that it is shorthand for “I will not [work],” making the word “will” simply the future tense of “work.” In fact, θέλω is the verb here, pointing to intention, as in “to will,” not the future tense. That is important, given that this son’s intention changes.
2. There are two terms in the NT that can be translated “change one’s mind” or even something stronger, like “repent”: μεταμέλομαι (here and in v.32; also in Mt.27:3 regarding Judas’ regret for betraying Jesus) and the much more popularly used μετανοέω (customarily translated as ‘repent’). Some lexicons argue that the difference between the two verbs is significant; some argue that it is insignificant. As someone reliant on lexicons and not a lexicographer myself, I can offer no opinion. Nor does it seem terribly important for this pericope. What is important is the fact that the first son has a change of mind here, but that the chief priests and elders do not in v.32.
3. One reason not to translate μεταμέλομαι as “repent” here is because we customarily believe that to repent is to go to someone (a person or God) and to confess a change of heart. That assumption may be unwarranted, and particularly this son’s change of heart/mind seems strictly internal, and not a matter that he brings to his father.

30 προσελθὼν δὲ τῷ ἑτέρῳ εἶπεν ὡσαύτως. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἐγώ, κύριε: καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν
Yet having come to the other he said likewise. Yet having answered he said, I, Lord.’ And he did not go.
προσελθὼν: AAPart nsm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀπῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
1. I’m afraid it is true that this second son said, “I, Lord.” It reminds me of how Moses, when called out of the fiery bush answered, “Behold I.” The implication, of course, is that this is an affirmative response to the command to go work.

31 τίς ἐκ τῶν δύο ἐποίησεν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός; λέγουσιν, Ὁ πρῶτος. λέγει 
αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οἱ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι προάγουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.
“Which out of the two did the will of the father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus says to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes go before you into the reign of God.
ἐποίησεν: AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
προάγουσιν: PAI 3p, προάγω, 1) to lead forward, lead forth 
1. The word for the “will” (θέλημα) of the father is the nominal form of the first son’s response “I will [not]” (θέλω).
2. I think there is some intended tension between the “truly I say” (Ἀμὴν λέγω) here and “I do not say” (Οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λέγω) in v. 27.
3. I like how προάγω can be translated ‘to lead,’ so that the tax collectors and prostitutes lead the chief priests and elders into the reign of God. It seems connected to how the infants and nursing babies show the chief priests and scribes how to offer praise (21:14-16).

32 ἦλθεν γὰρ Ἰωάννης πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, καὶ οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ: οἱ δὲ τελῶναι καὶ αἱπόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ: ὑμεῖς δὲ ἰδόντες οὐδὲ 
μετεμελήθητε ὕστερον τοῦ πιστεῦσαι αὐτῷ.
For John came to you in a way of righteousness, and you did not believe in him; Yet the tax collectors and prostitutes believed in him; Yet you having seen, did not later change your mind to believe in him.  
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
ἐπιστεύσατε: AAI 2p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of,
ἐπίστευσαν: AAI 3p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of,
ἰδόντες: AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
μετεμελήθητε: API 2p, μεταμέλομαι 1) repent to rue, regret; 2) to have dissatisfaction with one's self for what one has done, to change or alter one's purpose, (see v.29 and extended definition below)
πιστεῦσαι: AAInf, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of
1. “John came to you in the way of righteousness.” What a beautiful affirmation of John’s preaching. The gospels offer a glimpse of how John’s ministry was perceived by the early church, usually offering great praise tempered with John’s subordination to Jesus. This is one of the few times when John’s ministry is simply affirmed without that secondary subordination. Perhaps one could argue that the subordination of John’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry is presumed given the opening question of this pericope. I see it more as indicative of the strong relationship between John’s and Jesus’ ministry when Jesus relates the question of his authority to a question and parable about John’s authority.  
2. I’m noticing that most translations are gliding over the dative case of “believe in him” and are making “him” a direct object of “believe” as if it were in the accusative case – i.e. “believe him.” I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything, but it is curious. Since the “in” would only be implied by the use of the dative case, maybe translations are keeping “believe in” for those times when a preposition is actually given, such as the well-know John 3:16, “whoever believes in him” (ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν ). I suspect it also simply feels more appropriate to reserve “believe in him” for Jesus and to use “believe him” for John, taking the emphasis away from John’s person to this message.  
3. It’s an interpretive question of what the object is for “having seen.” Does it means “having seen John” or “having seen tax collectors and prostitutes believing in John”? One or the other should have led the chief priests and elders to change their minds, in the same way that the first son of the parable changed his mind.

RUMINATION
The parable of the two sons is very handy as a moral tale. I will confess to having used it with my two oldest sons when one of them was quick to say ‘yes’ but slow to follow through and the other would often answer reluctantly but his conscience would get the best of him and he would do what I asked. There is both something cautionary and something hopeful about a person’s initial reaction not necessarily being their final answer. I suspect that, once upon a time, this is the form in which this parable existed and was interpreted.

However, as it is given, Matthew’s Jesus is not just using the parable as a nice moral tale that parents can employ one day to make their kids feel guilty for not taking out the trash. Within the context, the parable is about John’s authority and how one ultimately responds to it, in response to a question about Jesus’ authority. Even if the chief priests and elders might have have been skeptical of John at first, their continued rejection of John’s authority was their downfall. In that sense, the tax collectors and harlots lead them into the reign of God.

As I will indicate in v. 24, n. 3 above, I am struck with how often the nominal or verbal form of λόγος (“word”) and the λέγω (“to say, speak”) appear, not only in vv.23-27, but also in the ‘saying v. doing’ tension of the parable. I cannot quite agree with those who feel that the parable and the conclusion that relates the parable to the question of authority seem unrelated (or who feel that the relationship is strained to say the least.) I do find it quite plausible that the parable itself might have existed independently before being employed by Jesus in this particular way. But, if we see look at the emphasis on λόγος and λέγω in the conversation between Jesus and the chief priests and elders, then a parable about the tension between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ seems very appropriate. To me, one of the interpretive challenges this week is to keep these two halves together.


I also feel that I should say more about the phrase “tax collectors and prostitutes,” but I am running out of steam at the moment. Your comments on this phrase would be welcomed.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Fairness v. Justice

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Matthew 20:1-16, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments, and especially your corrections, are always welcomed.

For an article I published on this text, entitled “The Politics of Just Wages,” please feel free to visit http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-just-wages-matthew-201-16/

The pericope begins a new chapter and launches directly into a parable. When it comes to interpreting the parable with regard to its literary context, the story that precedes this parable would be important. Since this parable begins a new chapter in Matthew, it is important for the interpreter/preacher to make that connection. Too often the chapter/verse divisions in the Scriptures impose a separation that the text itself does not warrant. I will address this question, as well as a “situation-in-life” question about this text below, after the exegesis.

1 Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐξῆλθεν ἅμα πρωῒ μισθώσασθαι ἐργάτας εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ:
For the reign of the heavens is like a human homeowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐξῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
μισθώσασθαι: AMInf, to let out for hire, farm out. In Middle, as here, to have let to one, to hire, to engage the services of any one, contract.
1. Unlike last week’s pericope (Mt. 18:21-35), the opening here has an active indicative verb, “is” with the word “like” as an adjective predicate for that verb, Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ. Last week we saw the phrase, ὡμοιώθη βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, which comes out more like ‘the reign of the heavens is likened to ...’ 
2. Like the pericope from last week, Matthew begins the parable with a 2-subject phrase that does not translated smoothly into English. Last week it was ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, “a man a king” and this week ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ, “a man a homeowner.” I’m trying out the phrase this week of “a human homeowner,” to see if the construction is an adjectival phrase meant to use ‘heaven/human’ to compare what we see in this person to what is in ‘the reign of the heavens.’
3. The word οἰκοδεσπότῃ, for which “homeowner” seems fine enough as a translation, is actually a combination of οἰκο, which means “house,” and δεσπότῃ, which transliterates as “despot.” While “despot” has tyrannical overtones in English, I’m not seeing the same in the lexicons for δεσπότῃ. You have no idea how badly I want to go with the option, “Paterfamilias.”

2 συμφωνήσας δὲ μετὰ τῶν ἐργατῶν ἐκ δηναρίου τὴν ἡμέραν ἀπέστειλεν 
αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ. 
Yet having bargained with the workers for a denarius per day, he sent them into his vineyard.
συμφωνήσας: AAPart nsm, συμφωνέω, 1) to agree together 2) to agree with one in making a bargain, to make an agreement, to bargain
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  
1. While it is easy to gloss over the participle, “having bargained” here as just part of the set up for the real drama of the story, it comes back later as being the grounds on which the homeowner defends his actions. They talked it through – one might imagine a bit of back-and-forth bartering – and they agreed on this price.

3καὶ ἐξελθὼν περὶ τρίτην ὥραν εἶδεν ἄλλους ἑστῶτας ἐν τῇ ἀγορᾷ ἀργούς: 
And having gone out around the third hour, he saw other unemployed workers standing in the marketplace.
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
εἶδεν: AAI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know
ἑστῶτας: PerfAPart apm, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 
1. The adjectives ἄλλους (other) and ἀργούς (unemployed) are the same case (accusative), number (plural), and gender (masculine). Although they are separated from one another in the word sequence, I am combining them to be “other unemployed workers.” Other translations use ἀργούς to modify the manner of their “standing in the market” as “idle,” since the participle ἑστῶταςἐν (standing) is also accusative, plural, and masculine. While “idle” could be read non-judgmentally, it is often read quite judgmentally, particularly when it comes to employment. My translation would suggest that while they are not employed the disposition of their “standing in the marketplace” is that they are looking for employment.

4καὶ ἐκείνοις εἶπεν, Ὑπάγετε καὶ ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα,καὶ  ἐὰν  δίκαιον δώσω ὑμῖν. 
And he said to these, “You also go into the vineyard, and if so I will give to you that which is just.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ὑπάγετε: PAImpv 2p, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
δώσω : FAI 1s, δίδωμι, 1) to give
1. The word δίκαιον (just, or “right” in many translations) will re-appear in its opposite form in v.13 below.
2. Unlike the negotiation of the first employees, the homeowner and the workers have a vague understanding in the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours.

5οἱ δὲ ἀπῆλθον. πάλιν [δὲ] ἐξελθὼν περὶ ἕκτηνκαὶ ἐνάτην ὥραν ἐποίησεν ὡσ αύτως. 
Then they went. [Then] again having gone out around the sixth and ninth hour he did in like manner.
ἀπῆλθον: AAI 3p, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
ἐποίησεν: AAI3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc

6περὶ δὲ τὴν ἑνδεκάτην ἐξελθὼν εὗρεν ἄλλους ἑστῶτας, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί 
ὧδε ἑστήκατε ὅλην τὴν ἡμέραν ἀργοί;
Then around the eleventh hour having gone he discovered others standing, and says to them, “Why have you been standing here all the day unemployed?”
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
εὗρεν: AAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
ἑστῶτας: PerfAPart apm, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἑστήκατε: PerfAI 2p, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 1a) to bid to stand by, [set up]  
1. Verse 6 is where the story is a bit vague and the interpreter has some decisions to make. The homeowner has been to the market several times and only now discovers the workers. The assumption of his question is that they have been there all along. That is a genuine tension within the straightforward reading of the story itself.
Pablo Jiménez (see below) is right to point out the assumptions that this tension brings out of many commentators, displaying their prejudice against workers. To wit:
“Joachim Jeremías's remarks border on the offensive: ‘Even if, in the case of the last laborers to be hired, it is their own fault that, in a time when the vineyard needs workers, they sit about in the marketplace gossiping till late afternoon; even if their excuse that no one has hired them (v. 7) is an idle evasion (like that of the servant in Matt. 25.24), a cover for their typical oriental indifference, yet they touch the owner's heart.’”
(ME:) GEEZ LOUISE! THIS IS WHY I AM USING THE TERM “UNEMPLOYED” RATHER THAN “IDLE.”
Jiménez continues:
“These commentators ignore that seasonal workers usually have to attend several "work calls" during the day. They go from job site to job site until they are hired. They may even go to a new job site after completing an assignment. In short, these sad remarks advance one of the main tenets of the ideology of the powerful: the idea that the poor are lazy.”
2. I do have to say that Jiménez’ reference to going from job site to job site, or having finished a partial day job and looking for more, do not fit the text entirely. My approach would be to take the text at face value – The text does not necessarily depict the workers as “idle” if that means lazy or non-industrious. The text does not offer reasons why the workers were not seen by the homeowner in his first few rounds of going to the marketplace. The text presents the unemployed workers’ excuse without judgment. And the text assumes a familiarity with how first-century day-labor marketplaces work – which seems not to be a safe assumption for 21st century readers.
3. To me, the determination of some interpreters and commentators to depict the eleventh hour workers as idlers is the same kind of meritocratic criticism of the homeowner’s disposition toward them that the first set of workers make. 

7λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Οτι οὐδεὶς ἡμᾶς ἐμισθώσατο. λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑπάγετε καὶ 
ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα. 
They say to him, “Because no one hired us. He says to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐμισθώσατο: AMI 3s, μισθόω hire, to let out for hire, farm out. In Middle, as here, to have let to one, to hire, to engage the services of any one, contract.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ὑπάγετε: PAImpv 2p, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
1. I recently attended a conference on homelessness where the opening speaker said, “Do you know the #1 reason why people are homeless in Orange County? It’s because they don’t have a home.” The speaker’s point was to begin by taking the situation at face value, rather than to jump to conclusions regarding motive, responsibility, etc. That same kind of reasoning seems to be  at work here when the question, “Why aren’t you employed?” is answered with “Because nobody has employed us.” And the answer is not challenged by the homeowner or the narrator. It only seems to be challenged by commentators.

8 ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης λέγει  κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος τῷ ἐπιτρόπῳ αὐτοῦ, 
Κάλεσον τοὺς ἐργάτας καὶ ἀπόδος αὐτοῖς τὸν μισθὸν ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῶν 
ἐσχάτων ἕως τῶν πρώτων. 
Yet evening having come, the lord of the vineyard says to his foreman, “Call the workers and give to them the wages starting from the last to the first.”
γενομένης: AMPart gsf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Κάλεσον: AAImpv 2s, καλέω, 1) to call 
ἀπόδος: AAImpv 2s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due
ἀρξάμενος: AMPart nsm, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
1. “Starting from the last to the first” seems to be the detail that connects this parable to the previous text in Matthew 19.

9καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ περὶ τὴν ἑνδεκάτην ὥραν ἔλαβον ἀνὰ δηνάριον. 
And those having come around the eleventh hour received one denarius.
ἐλθόντες: AAPart npm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 
1. These workers had not been promised anything, per v.7, although some early manuscripts have the homeowner offering them what is just, as in v.4.

10καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ πρῶτοι ἐνόμισαν ὅτι πλεῖον λήμψονται: καὶ ἔλαβον [τὸ] 
ἀνὰ δηνάριον καὶ αὐτοί. 
And those having come first supposed that they would receive more; and they received one denarius also.
ἐλθόντες: AAPart npm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἐνόμισαν: AAI 3p, νομίζω, 1) to hold by custom or usage, own as a custom or usage, to follow a custom or usage  1a) it is the custom, it is the received usage  2) to deem, think, suppose
λήμψονται: FMI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 

11λαβόντες δὲ ἐγόγγυζον κατὰ τοῦ οἰκοδεσπότου
Yet having received they were muttering against the homeowner.
λαβόντες: AAPart npm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 
ἐγόγγυζον: IAI 3p, γογγύζω, 1) to murmur, mutter, grumble, say anything against in a low tone  1a) of the cooing of doves  1b) of those who confer secretly together  1c) of those who discontentedly complain
1. I love the way γογγύζω is defined as murmuring or “the cooing of doves.”

12λέγοντες, Οὗτοι οἱ ἔσχατοι μίαν ὥραν ἐποίησαν, καὶ ἴσους ἡμῖν αὐτοὺς 
ἐποίησας τοῖς βαστάσασι τὸ βάρος τῆς ἡμέρας καὶ τὸν καύσωνα. 
saying, “These the last worked one hour, and you made them equal to us the ones having born the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
λέγοντες: PAPart npm λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐποίησαν: AAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make
ἐποίησας: AAI 2s, ποιέω, 1) to make
βαστάσασι: APPart apm, βαστάζω, 1) to take up with the hands  2) to take up in order to carry or bear, to put upon one's self  (something) to be carried
1. The word ποιέω is a rather flexible term, referring in this story to the homeowner “doing” the same by going to the marketplace in the sixth and ninth hour to find workers. Here, it refers to the eleventh hour hires who “work” one hour. A very interesting connection, however, is in Matthew 19:16, when the rich young man asks Jesus, τί ἀγαθὸν ποιήσω ἵνα σχῶ ζωὴν αἰώνιον; What good shall I do in order to have eternal live? The meritocratic mentality that challenges both the early workers and the commentators of this text is introduced as early as the rich young man’s question.

13 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς ἑνὶ αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Ἑταῖρε, οὐκ ἀδικῶ σε: οὐχὶ δηναρίου 
συνεφώνησάς μοι; 
Yet having answered he said to one of them, “Friend, I did you no injustice; did you not settle on a denarius with me?
ἀποκριθεὶς: AAPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἀδικῶ: PAI 1s, ἀδικέω, 1) absolutely  1a) to act unjustly or wickedly, to sin, 
συνεφώνησάς: AAI 2s, συμφωνέω, 1) to agree together  2) to agree with one in making a bargain, to make an agreement, to bargain
1. It is a little curious – and I confess I’ve never noticed it before now – that the homeowner answers “one of them.”
2. The homeowner’s response picks up on the bargaining of v.2 as well as the intention of giving “just” wages in v.4.

14 ἆρον τὸ σὸν καὶ ὕπαγε: θέλω δὲ τούτῳ τῷ ἐσχάτῳ δοῦναι ὡς καὶ σοί. 
Take what is yours and go; but I wish this to give to the last as also to you.
ἆρον: AAImpv 2s, αἴρω, 1) to raise up, elevate, lift up 
ὕπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω
θέλω: PAI 1s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
δοῦναι: AAN, δίδωμι, 1) to give

15 [ἢ] οὐκ ἔξεστίν μοι  θέλω ποιῆσαι ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς;   ὀφθαλμός σου 
πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι; 
Is it not lawful for me to wish to do in this to them? Or, is your eye evil because I am good?”
ἔξεστίν: PAI 3s, ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful
θέλω: PAI 1s,  θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
ποιῆσαι: AAN, ποιέω, 1) to make
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The phrase “is it lawful?” is an echo of 19:3 when some Pharisees came and asked Jesus if it were lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The answer there was that some laws of Moses were concessions to human weakness, not reflective of God’s design.
2. The reference to the eye being “evil” is an echo of Mt. 6:22-23, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

16Οὕτως ἔσονται οἱ ἔσχατοι πρῶτοι καὶ οἱ πρῶτοι ἔσχατοι.
So the last shall be first and the first last.
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Again, the paradoxical formulation that invites the interpreter to remember how this parable is connected to c.19.
2. The voice changes back to Jesus, as the narrator and now the commentator on the parable.


LITERARY CONTEXT
So, what is the story that immediately precedes this parable, and how might that story shape the way we interpret it?
Matthew 19:16-30 is a very familiar story of a rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After preliminary answers, Jesus instructs him to go, sell as that he has, give it to the poor, and to follow him. The young man went away grieving because he had many possessions. The disciples follow with a comment that they have given up everything. Jesus’ reply to them ends with the paradox of discipleship – many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.
Per my note in v.12, I believe the way the rich young man posed his question – in terms of “what good must I do to inherit eternal life?” – shapes the doing-centered work of the laborers. It does not, however, shape the grace-centered allocation of the homeowner.
It strikes me that the paradoxical statement at the end of Matthew 19 connects that story directly with the parable that follows. The one-hour workers are the last to be hired, the first to be paid. The all-day workers are the first to be hired, the last to be paid. And, in terms of value rather than timing, the all-day workers are resentful that being the first hired did not result in being the most enriched. It strikes me that everything about this parable takes a slightly different shape when we see it in relation to the story of the rich young man and the disciples.

SITUATION IN LIFE
I think it is important to recognize that this scene of workers, gathering at a place in search of day-labor hire, is part of the economic difference between NT parables and many of the OT stories. Where in the OT there are often Fiefdom or Serfdom scenarios (some of which persists in stories like last week’s parable of the servants of the king), the combination of losing family lands and subsequent growth of cities full of landless people in search of hire is a NT phenomenon, at least partly if not chiefly due to the economic structure of the Roman Empire. I cannot recommend highly enough an article by Pablo Jiménez, “The Laborers of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16): A Hispanic Homiletical Reading,” in Journal for Preachers, January 7, 1997. (https://drpablojimeneznetwork.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/jimenez_laborers.pdf)
By being sensitive to the dynamics of day-laborers and their quest for employment, Jiménez detects quite a bit of privileged bias in many commentators’ approach to this text (long before “privilege” became the popular word to describe this bias.) Even if one does not end up agreeing with all of his interpretive points, the article as a whole might prevent a host of misbegotten sermons on Sunday.

The scenario of many landless persons looking for hire is contrary to the Sabbath Economics of the Hebrew Bible. It is a result of debts not being forgiven every seven years or forfeited family lands not being returned every fifty years or the prohibition of “joining land to land” not being observed, and so on. (See Ched Myers for an explanation of the term “Sabbath Economics” at www.chedmyers.org/catalog/sabbath-economics). The mere presence of a place where the landless gather in search of day labor is itself a testimony that the imperial economic structure is contrary to the Sabbath Economics of the OT. So, one question facing the interpreter of this text from the get-go is, “How are we to encounter a parable that is built on a structurally unjust scenario?”
FINAL THOUGHT
The challenge of this parable – to 21st century interpreters and hearers just as it was to the early hired workers in the story – is over our sense of fairness, particularly as we tend to define “fair” in terms of merit. We simply cannot imagine labor economy or justice apart from basing reward on work. The alternative vision here is that the homeowner is basing the pay on something other than what is earned by the work. Perhaps he is simply paying each according to what they need, regardless of how much they have actually worked for it.
In some people’s eyes, that would make the homeowner unjust. (Is that what the “evil eye” is all about?) A 21st century version of the early workers’ complaint might include the words “socialist” or “undeserving v. deserving poor” in their argument.

In Jesus’ eyes, the homeowner is both just and well within his lawful right to be gracious.

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