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Money, Money, Money

Multiple Roman silver coins showing different Roman emperors

Sunday 24 September
Year A: 16th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 20)
Liturgical Colour: Green


  • Exodus 16: 2-15
  • Psalm 105: 1-6,37-45
  • Philippians 1:21-30
  • Matthew 20:1-16


Have you ever noticed how many different types of money are mentioned in the gospels? Coinage is thought to have begun to replace barter around the 7th century BC. Originally, coins were simply a certain weight of gold, silver or copper impressed with a seal. At the time of Jesus there were at least three different sources of money circulating: the provincial money (Greek standard) including drachmas and talents; local Jewish money including leptons and shekels; and the official imperial Roman currency including quadrans and denarii. No wonder the money changers did good business! Not all were so fortunate though.

The coins varied greatly in value and by the time of the parable, while a talent was worth a small fortune, a denarius was meagre pay for a whole day’s work. It was a kind of barely minimum wage; just about enough to feed a peasant labourer and their family for a day, but since they were not even on zero hours contracts, only if they were able to find work.

The parable, which only appears in Matthew, comes directly after a verse that reads, ‘But many who are first will be last and the last will be first’ (Matt 19.20) and has almost always been interpreted in the same way.

The vineyard is a well-established metaphor for Israel in the bible (Is. 5.1-7, Jer. 12.10) and it developed into being a symbol of the church. The Lord of the vineyard is seen as a God figure and as such always acts out of justice and love. Therefore, the upside-down nature of the parable, where the same amount of reward is paid to everyone regardless of the amount of work they had done, is interpreted as God’s grace, which is given regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

Others, like William Herzog, have interpreted this and similar passages differently. They have questioned whether the landowner should be identified with God at all. If this is not the case, then the passage becomes a sharp critique of the inequalities suffered under an extremely unjust system of land grabbing and oppression.


‘Money makes the world go around’, or so the song from the musical Cabaret claims. Abba sing, ‘It’s a rich man’s world’. The lyrics of both might also make good alternative commentaries on the gospel reading today if their political incorrectness didn’t date them!

In many ways the usual interpretation of the parable can certainly serve as a good correction to our sometimes perhaps entitled way of thinking about what we deserve. We expect to be rewarded in line with our efforts, but God’s love doesn’t work that way. And thank goodness for that! However, it could also be used to explain away systems of exploitation and oppression, or worse still, promote them.

This is in direct opposition to the repeated imperative of Jesus in his teaching about the poor. The fact that poverty may make it easier to understand the Good News, does not mean that suffering is legitimate or a good thing. His ministry among the poor and marginalised (economically and socially) was not about legitimizing their conditions, but judgement on the rulers who enforced and benefited from them.

So what?

The final verse of the passage mirrors the one that proceeds it; ‘So the last shall be first and the first last’ (Matt 20.16). It reminds me how easy it is to misinterpret the words of Jesus in ways that seem the opposite of what he appears to be saying.

I have been blessed to have had a quite a diverse ministry and this has included a fair number of highly official cathedral processions with strict protocols. The tradition, probably based on this saying, is that the more senior a person is, the further to the back they are in the procession. It is quite funny to watch people vie for superiority by subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) stepping back to be closest to end! Let’s aim a little higher and try to be first in the queue when it comes to noticing the needs of our least privileged parishioners, responding to them in practical ways AND interpreting them prophetically to try and change the problem at source.