06 August 2014

Matthew's Parable of the Workers, then and now

One of the more interesting parables in the Gospel of Matthew is the Parable of the Workers, found in the first half of Chapter 20.  Usually interpreted by evangelicals to mean that all Christians stand on equal ground regardless of when they are “saved and born again”, this ignores the undeniable fact that in the early first century CE, when Yeshu bar Yosef is supposed to have told this parable, there were no Christians at all.  The writer places the story in the context of the final journey to Jerusalem from Galilee.

Once again, KJV chosen because it is free from copyright, not out of preference.

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.

Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.

And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?  They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.

So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.  And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a denarius.

But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a denarius.  And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 

So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

Christians, and most Jews reading the passage too, miss the social, political, and religious message contained therein because of a total ignorance of actual first century political and social realities in Roman Palestine.  To Hebraic-descended Palestinians of the time, the message would have been glaringly clear.  It wasn’t that new converts to Christianity are equal in right to older Christians but that converts to Judaism and descendants of converts to Judaism, New Coke so to speak, are every bit as much Coca-Cola as Classic Coke (descendants of the original Jews-by-birth).

In the last century and a half, the Hasmoneans, the former royal-priestly dynasty ruling all of Palestine after conquering the surrounding territories of Idumea, Nabatea (Perea), and Galilee from their base in Yehud, or Judea, had forcibly converted all their subject peoples.  The Idumeans and some of those in Nabatean lands were closely related Canaanite-descended peoples like the Jews and the Samaritans.  The Nabateans of Perea and vicinity were Arabs with an Aramean elite, while those in Galilee were Iturean Arabs.  In the latter case, their population was supplemented by politically and socially undesirables internally exiled to the Galil ha-Goyim, or District of the Gentiles.

In the first century Palestine, the word “Jew” carried meaning more ethno-geographic than religious, partly because of the wide diversity among the adherents of the religion centered in Jerusalem (Beth Hillel Pharisee, Beth Shammai Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, Hellenist, etc.).  Since the Hasmoneans had annexed their lands to the core territory of Judea, the Nabateans and the Idumeans were held to be technically Jews, but relegated to second-class status. Most Jews of the time held Galileans such as Jesus and his followers below that, barely kosher.

To draw a modern parallel, the Ashkenazim in the State of Israel are the first century Jews of Judea, the Sephardim, Temanim, Mizrahim, and Maghrebim are the Idumeans and Nabateans, while the less accepted groups such as the Karaim and the Falashim are the Galileans.  As for the Palestinians, they correspond to the Samaritans.

In the context in which it is presented, the true meaning of the Parable of the Workers is that Galileans are every bit as much heirs of Israel, or Jacob, as the Jews of Judea.

Too bad the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was not as free from bigotry toward the Samaritans as were the composers of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Luke.  His only reference to them is to compare them to dogs.  And that, my friends, is the status to which the overwhelming majority of modern Israelis assigns to Palestinians. Ironically, most of the Palestinians in the West Bank are descended from the original Samaritan inhabitants.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, I see that the domestic partnership ordinance lost in the public vote. Chattanooga could and should do better than that. At least, the mayor is not a teabagger.

It happens that I have a gay son. I am glad that he lives in Maryland and not in Tennessee.

Here in Georgia, we have the same corruption: all statewide elected offices and the legislature controlled by right-wingers.

Chuck Hamilton said...

Tiocfaidh ar la, my friend. Our day will come.