Sunday, September 17, 2017

Matthew 20.1-16: Vineyard Work

Is it propaganda? Absolutely. Which doesn't make it a necessarily wrong interpretation. Just an advantageous one. The gospel reading for Proper 20(25)A/Pentecost 16A is Matthew 20:1-16. In that text Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who pays wages by the person rather than by the hour.

In the parable, four different groups of workers are hired, and the group hired last - just before quitting time - is paid the same wages as the group that started work at sunup. Is that fair? No, according to the early bird workers.

The early workers, the older brother from the prodigal son story...probably most of us can understand how it feels to have given everything you had, done everything you thought was right only to find yourself on what you perceive as the unfair end of the deal. However, most of us have also probably been the recipient of some grace along the way.

That's what Lucas Cranach the Younger was painting in his work "The Vineyard of the Lord": grace. Or folks who had received some of it anyway. The parable is transported to 16th-century Germany in this interpretation of the story. The vineyard is planted on a hill; the workers are industrious. But the workers on the left, Roman Catholic clergy and religious, are exhausting the ground and proving to be poor caretakers of the vineyard. At the conclusion of their day, they march out of the vineyard, following the Pope. In contrast, on the right, leaders of the Protestant Reformation - including Martin Luther - provide loving care for the vineyard. Below them, at bottom right, is Paul Eber and his family (including thirteen children, those who died as infants are dressed in white). Eber was a theology professor, hymn writer, and Bible translator. At his death in 1569, his children commissioned the painting as a memorial. The artist chose the theme.

At the left lower corner, the Lord of the vineyard comes to pay the wages to the workers. First paid are the Pope and his workers. The Pope holds a coin in his hand and appears to be asking for more. The Lord of the vineyard holds up his hand, rejecting the demand for additional wages.

The painting is propaganda. Martin Luther clears the ground with a rake in the center of the composition. Other Reformers (all identifiable) work beside him. They are the ones who came late to work but were given the same pay as those who worked a full day. They are portrayed as humble, continuing to work rather than demanding their pay from the Lord.

What the painting may fail to show, though, is that all the workers were unworthy of their Lord's generosity. Those who came late in the day were unworthy because they really didn't earn their pay. Those who worked all day are unworthy because they were dissatisfied with what God gave them. At the heart of the story is the truth that both sets of workers are dependent on the goodness and generosity of the Lord.

And so are we.

Lucas Cranach the Younger. Epitaph for Paul Eber: The Vineyard of the Lord. 1569. St. Mary's Church, Wittenberg. For St. Mary's see:
For a contemporary take on manna and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For a note on the background of Cranach's painting, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a pore probable explanation: In the foreground a procession of clerics, lead by the pope, has stepped beyond the fenced area to meet with Christ and the apostles. The Pope seems to be offering Jesus money to gain admission to heaven, and Jesus is refusing it. Perhaps it is an allusion to Tetzel's (alleged ) couplet "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs" (Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt, die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt), which he is supposed to have used to preach the sale of indulgences which would release souls from Purgatory.

    Jesus, like the owner of the Vineyard, is carrying a bag with money with which he will pay the true workers in the vineyard, i. e., the Reformers.