The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, 1637, Oil on panel, 31 x 42 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, GE-757, akg-images / Album / Prisma

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Just Wages

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Near the end of his song, the author of Isaiah 5 interprets with exquisite clarity the meaning behind his allegory of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
  is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
  are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
  but behold, bloodshed;

Jesus will later draw on Isaiah’s imagery. In his parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus has the landowner insist, ‘I am doing you no wrong’ (Matthew 20:13), dismissing the ones who protest about his decision to pay all his workers the same wage—even those who had come late to his vineyard and who delivered only a bucket or two of grapes.

In Rembrandt van Rijn’s depiction of the story, those who surround the landowner grumble about fairness, but the owner points out the obvious. The workers had agreed to work for the wage they had received. They, however, were not having it. Unlike the others who had received the same wage for working fewer hours, they had laboured in the vineyard from dawn.

Trusting that their boss was not so obtuse as to be unaware of how they had contorted and twisted their bodies to release each stubborn grape from its vine, remaining all the while cautious not to seep the fruit’s precious nectar, they pleaded with him to be reasonable. Now, out of the heat from the scorching sun, these labourers barter still with the landowner, who is seated at his desk. Catching the long rays of the setting sun, the landowner’s wife consults their ledger, even as dark shadows, created by Rembrandt’s signature chiaroscuro, give contour to the room. The room sends a chill, as the dampness held by their dirty clothes from the sweat that had trickled down their backs throughout the day turns cold, only to confirm their misery. Behind them, another group of workers and spouses talk excitedly amongst themselves as they count their money. What wonderful fortune! What amazing luck! A day’s wage for an hour’s work? How extravagant! How generous! How kind!

In these strokes, Rembrandt depicts Jesus’s radical vision of the Kingdom of God. The Lord of Hosts ‘look[s] for justice’ (Isaiah 5:7), but this justice may be something very different from what we expect.

 

References

Horsley, Richard A. 2002. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

Schottroff, Luise. 2006. The Parables of Jesus, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)


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