The Red Vineyard / Red Vineyard at Arles (Montmajour),
Painted by Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890),
Painted in Arles on 4 November 1888,
Oil on canvas
© Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
The landowner chose to pay the last comer as much
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’
Reflection on the painting
Our painting is the only painting we know of that Van Gogh sold in his lifetime!
But first our parable. The parable Jesus shares with us today does not make a great deal of sense by the standards of today’s labour market. It so much at odds with today’s way of thinking: they more you work, the more you should earn. If you work 12 hours a day, or only one hour a day, surely the pay can’t be the same! We consider the employer in our parable to have acted very unfairly in giving the same wage to the men who worked just for the last hour as to those who began work in the early morning and worked all day. I think most of us have a somewhat similar reaction to the parable of the prodigal son. The elder son who had worked away faithfully on his father’s estate complains of being treated less favourably than the rebel who headed off and wasted his resources. We tend to side with the elder son. So what is Jesus trying to tell us?
Jesus is portraying this image of God, the landowner in our story, as simply being extremely generous. His ways are not our ways. His generosity goes far beyond our sense of generosity and justice. If God’s ways seem disconcerting or even unfair to us at first, they are ultimately very reassuring. The parable suggests that God does not relate to us according to strict justice, but that for each of us the thrill of divine generosity is available through boundless grace. And that is maybe also what today’s reading is about, for us to allow something of God’s ways to shape our ways, so that we too may relate to others not on the basis of strict justice but out of the generosity of our heart.
As I mentioned, our painting is the only painting we know of that Van Gogh sold in his lifetime. Painted two years before he died, it shows a mature Van Gogh at work, depicting workers in a vineyard. Titled The Red Vineyard, it was exhibited at the annual exhibition of Les XX, 1890, in Brussels, and sold for 400 francs (equal to about $2,000 today) to Belgian painter and collector Anna Boch, a member of Les XX. In a later letter to his brother Theo discussing the sale, Vincent admitted with some embarrassment that the Bochs paid the Les XX 1890 Exhibition sticker price, when in fact they probably should have gotten a ‘friend's price’.
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