Matthew 20:1-16 Kingdom Economics 101: Profit
Throughout the Roman Empire it began, as it had by now for centuries, at sunrise, with the sounding of a bell. Every city, and many villages had such a bell. Ships at sea also used the bell as a way of marking out their day. It was regular. It was disciplined. It was modern. In Rome, it was even considered stylish to observe the bells.
By the time of what we now call the First Century AD, Roman citizens of a certain social strata had begun to use the bell to demonstrate their power and influence. These businessmen got up early, to be sure. But they weren’t really working at much of anything.
The poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, who lived in Rome at the time gives a somewhat cynical assessment of the schedule for a typical Roman workday:
The first and second hours cause those involved in the salutatio to rub shoulders,
The third sees lawyers active,
Rome extends its labors into the fifth hour,
The sixth will be a respite for the weary, the seventh, the end of labor.
The eighth and part of the ninth hour is sufficient for the sleek exercise rooms,
The ninth commands people to wear out couches piled up with pillows...
What he’s talking about is this. The first bell rang at 6 in the morning, and was called Prime, meaning “the first hour”. At that time men of influence and those who ran businesses were up and about doing one of two things.
The first activity brought upper and lower classes together and was a greeting ritual called the salutatio. This ritual was the outward sign of the close bond that worked for the benefit of both the lower class client and his upper class patron.
Take note that the word patron is derived from pater, "father". When a client went to visit his patron at his house early every morning, he was acknowledging his dependency on the patron and in turn received a basket of food called a sportula or in its place. a small payment of money. An invitation to dinner was another typical gift. For many poor unemployed Romans, this was their only income. The father gave his people their daily bread.
The other activity these upper class patrons might engage in was to go to the public square or send their foremen on their behalf, and hire day laborers, promising them either food or a coin with which they might buy food at the end of the day.
So the first bell, prime, did not signal work so much as it signaled organization.
The next bell, called Terce, because it signaled the third hour of the day, rang roughly at 9 am. The actual times were relative and were based on the circuit of the sun. The time between the beginning and end of the day was longer in the summer and shorter in the winter, and the bells were calculated to fit into the time between sun-up and sun-down. The 9 am bell in Rome and other large cities was the time for convening the courts and doing public business. The time between the Salutatio at Prime and the opening of the court at Terce didn’t leave those of the upper class much time to do actual business, and so the upper class had become divided into two: those who worked in politics and the law and those who were strictly businessmen. While the businessmen weren’t held in quite the same regard as the men of the Roman Senate, it was they, and not the Senators who were making most of the money in the empire, and so they were very important to the system.
After the three hours of either business or court work, the bell rang again. This was called Sext, and it told everyone the lunch break had finally arrived. But this wasn’t like our lunch hour today, though if you’ve ever travelled in European countries, vestiges of the tradition are still alive. The Spanish speaking countries call it Siesta. It begins with a meal, usually the large meal of the day, and because it is the heat of the day and not a great time for work, especially in Southern Europe, everyone goes home and takes a two to three hour nap.
None and Vespers
None, the ninth hour bell rings around 3 pm, calling everyone back to the most productive and uninterrupted part of the day, and finally the Vespers bell rings at 6 pm signaling that evening has arrived.
Prime… Terce… Sext… None… Vespers.
There. That’s the typical Roman workday.
The Jews and the Roman Workday
Because Israel and Judea were now part of the Roman Empire, they too had adopted, or been forced to adopt, the same schedule. This discipline of the work day was very important to the ordering of Roman society, and all of the provinces that belonged to the Empire would follow the same schedule.
Prime… Terce… Sext… None… Vespers.
The Jews had cleverly figured out how to make the pattern work for them. Their day began at sundown, not at sunrise. So Vespers was the signal for the call to evening prayers, a meal, and then sleep. Prime was a call to work, and certainly no Jew had the time or inclination to be saluting any patron. Besides, for the Jews the only proper salute was to God. But Jesus had called God by a new name. Father. Pater in latin. He was to be our patron from whom we received our daily bread.
So when Jesus taught the disciples The Lord’s Prayer, he was really turning Roman society, Roman discipline, and Roman secularism upside down. When you pray, Jesus said, pray like this: “Pater noster…” “Our Father…” At six in the morning when you’re waiting in the public square in the half light of early dawn to see if anyone will hire you for the day, you have a choice. You can salute every patron who comes by with the offer of a meal and a coin or you can trust God. The bell rings. The sun rises. The workday begins. Our Patron, in heaven. You are set apart. Let your kingdom come here, in this square, in the half light. Let your will be done as I trust you for a job and food to feed my family.
The bell rang. The people gathered in the square hoping for work. 6 am. Prime.
The Jews also had a regular time of prayer and sacrifice at mid-morning. In Jerusalem all work stopped and those near enough to the temple climbed to the top of Zion and prayed. It interrupted the work day, but the prayer at Terce was very important to keeping their faith in order. In places where the people couldn’t get to the Temple, and certainly at times when the Temple had fallen into disrepair, the synagogue system had begun to take over. This time was now used for what was being called a “sacrifice of praise,” instead of a sacrifice of animals.
Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD!
(Psalm 150 ESV)
The bell rang. Work stopped. The people gathered. The people prayed. Terce.
By the time the sun was high over head, especially in summer, workers had been hard at labor for about five hours if you include the organizing time before they started and the mid-morning prayer break – we in the modern world use the time to worship coffee or cigarettes instead of the Lord. But by noon everyone was ready for some real down time. In the Jewish world as well as the Roman, when the None bell rang, all work ceased. Those who could, went home. Others had lunch brought to them. Still others simply sat down where they were and rested. It was understood though, that from the Senators in Rome to the simplest slave in the field, all work was to be suspended until the next bell.
The bell rang. Work stopped. The people rested. Sext.
Sometime around 3 pm, depending on the season, everyone picked up where they had left off.
The bell rang. Work resumed. None. The ninth hour. Jesus was crucified along with the third hour bell. He hung on the cross beginning at Terce and spoke most of the seven last words between then and Sext. Scripture records that the sun was darkened in a great eclipse from Sext to None, the period of time when no work was to be done. Even as he died, Jesus observed the pattern of the day. And with the None bell, at 3 pm, he died.
The way the Roman day was balanced, the shorter afternoon working period could easily be the most productive three hours. Workers were well rested, they were able to get a fresh start on their projects, and there were few distractions. Those at home would now turn their attention to producing an evening meal and preparing for evening prayer. But the worker in the field had the challenge of finishing one set of tasks and then making sure he had everything where it needed to be by the end of the day. The bells were inflexible, and especially so for a Jew, because on Shabbat in particular, all work needed to be finished by sundown. And so the pattern of the bells was helpful and each day became as all the others; a great push to make sure you got all your work done by the end of the day.
The bell rang. Work stopped. The people gathered in their homes. The people prayed and ate together and gave thanks for God’s provision for the day that had just begun. Remember, in a Jewish home, the old day had ended at sundown. They were not looking back and giving thanks for what God HAD done. They were looking ahead and giving thanks for provision they knew would come. Sometimes they sang folk songs and psalms. Vespers.
Prime… Terce… Sext… None… Vespers.
The Parable of the Vineyard Owner
Now turn in your Bible to Matthew, chapter 20, beginning at verse 1.
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
The Landowner was observing the ritual of salutatio at Prime. It was six in the morning.
2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
As part of salutatio, the landowner rightly offered each worker he hired a denarius – a coin equal in value to the accepted rate for a day laborer throughout the empire for one day of work.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
It was 9 in the morning. If we accept that the people Jesus is talking about in this story are all Jews, the question we ought to be asking is, “Why were these people standing about in the town square doing nothing when those who cared at all would have been in the Synagogue at prayer?” Still, there they were. The landowner makes no comment about their absence from worship – he is absent too.
4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
5 So they went.
Notice the landowner never says how much he will pay these workers. He simply says he’ll make it right at the end of the day.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.
Interestingly, in Jesus’ story, the Landowner finds workers out in the square hoping for jobs at the beginning of Siesta. These must have been desperate men to continue to stand there searching for work at the time when every job of any sort would have shut down for three hours. The ones he hired at three were probably such poor workers that no one had picked them up and they had stood there all day,
6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
It is only the workers the Landowner hires at 5 pm that he asks any question of. He says what they all know is true. These are completely shiftless men who really didn’t care to work. He says, “Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing? But instead of judging them for their indolence, the Landowner accepts their lame excuse, takes pity on them, shows compassion, and hires them. He is gracious to the end, whether they deserve it or not. Once again, he never indicates how much he will pay them. He doesn’t even promise to pay them fairly. He simply gives them something to do for an hour.
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.
Imagine their surprise. These shiftless workers had just won the lottery. Even if we accept a more gracious reading of the story and suggest that these were able-bodied workers who really wanted to work and there simply wasn’t enough work for them, which seems unlikely in the context of Jesus’ teaching, this was still a windfall by any measure.
10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?
14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.
Now imagine the surprise of the faithful. Here they had put in a days work and received the promised pay. In the Jewish world thanksgiving was for future provision, not for past compensation. They are not thrilled that God has supplied all that they need for tomorrow. They are grumbling because they feel cheated by today.
15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Here then is the question. If my purpose is to profit from my workers, why would I give them all the same pay? The answer is that, for the Landowner in the story and for the God we serve, profit is not marked in dollars and cents. Kingdom Economics 101: The God we serve marks profit in souls, not in cents. And he will gather the hard working, he will gather the irreligious, he will gather those at rest, he will gather the idle and the indolent. The God who is Pater Noster, God our Father will have us, as C.S. Lewis says,
“God is not proud...He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him.”
The bells ring. God is faithful. Come to Jesus at six. Come to him at nine. Come to him at three. Come to him at five. He will have you, because God counts profit in souls.