Tobit 4:14 and Matthew 20.1-16 – Get Paid for Working for God

If we take Bauckham’s position that Tobit is a parable to the Northern Tribes in exile, then we can understand the use of parabolic language which also finds its way into the New Testament thought-world. As I wrote previously, I find that there is a slight connection between the author of Tobit and his parables and the parables of Christ in the Gospels. This is another example of that thread of connection.

This is not to say that Tobit is any more inspired than the next novella but it does provide insight into the religious and social expectations of the Northern Tribes as they find themselves faced with exclusion of the Jerusalem Temple, in poverty, and contemplating extinction as a people. (Note that Tobit was blind, poor, and that Sarah was about to leave her bloodline without an heir).  I was recently asked if I accepted or believed this book, which is a bit of a loaded question. I accept that people do believe this book and I do hold some value for this book, as I believe that some of the thoughts, the traces of inspiration if you will, made it into the New Testament. (More on that later)

In the first recension of the Greek text, a majority of Tobit’s speech to his son is missing (verses 7-18), but in the second recension, we find what amounts to an apocryphal set of beatitudes, which is set in a scene between a father who is sending his only son into the world to redeem a special and chosen bride. Tobit is a story of redemption, first of Tobit and then of Sarah, ending with an eschatological, but temporal, hope in a rebuilt (a new?) Jerusalem. (Sound familiar?)

In this portion of Tobit’s speech to his son Tobias, there is a string which weaves itself into the word of Christ in Matthew 20.1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard:

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard.

At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. ”

At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’ “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.

When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.” (Mat 20:1-16 NLT)

In my previous career as a community organizer, I worked with a nuclear physicist who decided to trade in his comfortable life to fight for the rights of workers. I admired him for that and worked him well, until he stepped into my territory and tried to interpret this passage with the Owner of the Vineyard as an evil taskmaster. My summer interns, a Methodist and a Catholic, destroyed his interpretation and I helped to prod them along, of course.

Compare the thought in Matthew to the words of Tobit:

“Do not keep over until the next day the wages of those who work for you, but pay them at once. If you serve God you will receive payment. (Tob 4:14 NRSV)

Pay your workers each day and don’t make them wait until the next day to receive their wages. If you serve God you will be rewarded.  (Tobit 4:14 NLT-CRE)

Granted, it is only a thread, but I think that we can find something in the parables of Christ which connects them not just to the tribes which weren’t exiled, but also the hopes and aspirations of the ‘Lost’ Northern Tribes (Is anything Lost to God?). Both stress justice, Tobit is temporal, Christ is eternal, but both use the workers and wages as a symbol of God’s reward to the faithful.

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