Societal Economics and the Kingdom of God: A Consideration of Two Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 18.21-35 and 20.1-16)

Daniel W. Hardy
University of Cambridge

For Scriptural Reasoning at the AAR

Preparing to Read the Texts

Economic practices are intimately interwoven with social ones, and both with natural, moral and religious preconditions for the world. Because these practices are so often dealt with in mono-disciplinary fashion, their complex interconnections are easily overlooked, not only in general but also as they are found in scriptural texts. In the texts which will concern us here, all these appear with still another dimension embedded in them, a dynamic relation between socio-economic practices in the world—in which natural, moral and religious preconditions are embedded—and the coming kingdom of God. All these dimensions need to be considered together if we are to understand the full implications of these texts, not only in their own terms but also for the combination of theology, socio-politics and economics in today’s world. It helps to remind ourselves how there are such interwovennesses lest we miss them in the texts, while also realizing that they happen in ways that are particular to situations, as the two different parables we will consider below show.

First of all, we need to be aware of what are the dynamics of sociality, and how they are mediated in economic practices. By ‘the dynamics of sociality’ I mean the combination of two things:

Two foundations there are which bear up public societies, the one, a natural inclination, whereby all men desire sociable life and fellowship , the other an order expressly or secretly agreed upon, touching the manner of their union in living together . The latter is that which we call the law of a commonweal, the very soul of a body politic, the parts whereof are by law animated, held together, and set on work in such actions as the common good requireth . [1]

So we might say that sociality is always generated and continued by its operations, in which ‘life and fellowship’ and ‘the manner of union in living together’—the first generating the second, and the second ordering and directing the first—are combined in forward movement. Building on Schopenhauer and Durkheim [2] we can see (1) that what we have called ‘sociable life and fellowship’ enacts a moral and religious ‘field’ of responsibility or obligation, without which it would not occur, (2) that it is in various configurations of this field — ‘meaning created collectively’ or ‘rules of conduct that have received sanction’ [3] — that they tacitly agree the ‘manner of their union in living together,’ and (3) that moving interactively within these configurations not only extends their ‘sociable life and fellowship’ but also redevelops the configurations, begetting new life and collective meaning.Very simply put, this is:

(1) ‘sociable life’ ? (2) configurations ? (3) extended/developed sociable life and configuration ? further extended/developed sociable life and configuration, etc., etc.

At each step, the prior sociable life and configuration is ‘universal’ for those who live within it, and is particularized by them in its extension and development, a particularization which becomes a ‘precedent’ or ‘universal’ which then undergoes further particularization, etc., etc. But it may also undergo an adaptation in the process, which may appear to conflict with the ‘precedent’ yet may also serve as a universal norm of another kind.

As forms of social life become more and more complex, ‘sociable life and fellowship’ and the forms of ‘union in living together’ vary from the most preliminary (or proto-social) through developing coordination to the most corporate and managed. [4] This deserves careful investigation, but we cannot pursue that here. It will lead us, however, to ask of the texts:

  • what sort of ‘sociableness’ or ‘field of responsibility’ is present here?
  • what sort of ‘manner of union in living together’ is being enacted?
  • to what do the actions lead?

Like it or not, the field of responsibility is always embodied, and ‘sociableness’ always occurs as embodied movement toward (or away from) each other, either as this person moving toward that, or under some circumstances transferring something or someone to or from another situation or person as an expression of what is to be the accepted ‘manner of union in living together’. One form of sociableness is the agreement to work for someone on the condition that he/she pays for it, which is not only an exchange of labor for pay, but also agreeing to uphold the agreement.Each ‘contract’ therefore presumes a pre-contractual mutual trust or solidarity, without which the parties cannot function unchecked; this is based on belonging to a community with others, itself—so Durkheim claims—the product of ritual social interaction through which members have come to feel that they are in the presence of a force greater than any of them individually, which provides moral norms through adherence to which employer and employee trust each other sufficiently to engage in an exchange.

(1) labor for pay ? (2) pre-contractual trust ? (3) community ? (4) moral norms ? (5) greater order/energy ? (6) ritual social interaction

Transferences—such as occur in the exchange of labor for pay—are not generalized but particularized , and they produce differentiated change. Hence, any transference will bring qualitative changes both in ‘sociable life and fellowship,’ its ‘manner of union’ and in their higher basis, diminishing them or reinforcing them.For example, just as a diminishment in (3-6 above) will have a negative impact on (1-2), so a change in (1) will imply a change in (2-6) respectively. This is how, at the most basic level, economics works, and it is deeply social in character.

Finally, in this preparation for reading the texts, we need to recognize that gifts — transferences that exceed what can be expected in the exchange of pay for labor — bring special questions. Like the exchange of pay for labor, however, giving, receiving and reciprocating gifts are expressions of social responsibility. On the one hand, (1) they appear also to differ: giving gifts is free and voluntary, not a repayment/exchange for previous ‘goods’; one can voluntarily give gifts, not as repayment, while denying that there is any obligation involved; the giving may be taken to spring from direct adherence to some ‘higher’ norm and to exemplify the ‘greater order/energy’ which—at least for Durkheim—is found through ritual social interaction. (2) They may also reflect the donor’s intent to exceed what recipients can possibly give—worth here being seen asymmetrically—and ‘the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient’; if so, they break the cycling gift system which is society, and do not enhance social solidarity. [5] In this case, they enact a reciprocity between human beings—or between them and God—that is always asymmetrical.

On the other hand, they may be seen as following the logic of exchange, where a society is constituted through the obligatory giving of gifts and repayment by return gifts. In this case, following Marcel Mauss’s account, we acknowledge that sociality is built by organized sharing through which ‘things’ are transferred to others in a reciprocity of gifts. Here there is a symmetry of expectations—’you give’ and ‘I shall give something of equal value’ with the expectation that others will do the same—and society continues to be reconstituted by the giving of gifts: worth is the equality of the value of these.

All the issues we have just traversed can be seen in the reading of the two texts we will now consider, but must be allowed to emerge through the reading of them, and not to predetermine them. There is one particular reason for this: the content of the texts is primary and determinative for their meaning, while our discussions so far have been formal and—insofar as this is possible for formal considerations—content-blind.

Reading the Texts

The texts are amongst those called the ‘parables of the kingdom,’ and convey what they have to say in socio-economic terms.They address certain issues in the dynamics of sociality, how—and how long—we are to recover the ordered dynamics in which sociality consists in the face of disorder and reversal, and in what the order will eventually consist. But these are not presented as ‘abstract’ issues: they are worked out through their embodiments in economic negotiations. In each case, a leader—a king or land-owner—is central, someone who negotiates with others, and acts as final arbiter.

I. Matthew 18:21-35

Here Peter goes toward Jesus, a basic activity of sociableness, already presuming — in asking him a question—what is their ‘manner of union in living together’: making use of a fundamental pairing of character and constituency , Jesus is presumed as the one in whose character there is the intensity to enable him to lead others in a fuller form of sociality.

The issue presented to Jesus is a hypothetical one, an instance of social disorder which disrupts the relatedness of two members of the church (the church is the context here). ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? The questioner’s concern is quantitative: how many times? And the answer he provides is quantitative, matching sins with forgiveness, but only a limited number of times, ‘as many as seven times?’ But Jesus corrects him, first acknowledging the commitment the man is prepared to make (‘seven times’), and then correcting it, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ Where the man had quantified the forgiveness he was prepared to give in finite terms, Jesus responds by multiplying the quantification. As if to acknowledge that this is unintelligible in the socio-economic frame of reference the man is using, Jesus uses a parable, recontextualizing the issue in another socio-economic frame of reference, in order to show what this ‘multiplied quantification’ might mean.

In the parable which Jesus tells, the king is the determinant; his character evident in his actions, constitutes the kingdom. There is a direct correlation of character, actions and constituency , in which the three are fully matched, this ‘sociality’ (the kingdom) fully—and reliably—identified by the characteristic actions of its leader. That is important in our age, when the three are normally disengaged from each other, and where the leader is reduced to what is attractive to would-be voters. Here, the monarch by his actions constitutes the community, and is the normative force—the organizing dynamic (see above) of the community. The situation is comparable to the creator constituting the original and continuing social community, as in the Book of Genesis or John Chapter 1.

The episode told by Jesus translates these things in very specific socio-economic terms (‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared…’). If the king is the organizing dynamic of the community, his character—his integrity—is enacted by putting his economic relations in order; insofar as they are not in order, this will undermine his kingship. His economic relations are, of course, transactional, and putting them in order will involve him in transactions with those who owe him. (The fact that they owe him only shows that his identity is dispersed in the form of economic relationships.) Here, then, is a complex sociality whose organizing dynamic is the king in his transactional relations with others.

The key case in this reordering is a man whose debt is completely beyond his ability to pay: a man owing him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and could not pay. Here is a man who, while deeply dependent (both contractually and in terms of the pre-contractual trust upon which a contract depends) upon the king, is completely incapable of fulfilling his contract. It seems that the pre-contractual trust between them meant that the capacity of the man to fulfill his contract had not previously been checked.

This is not a matter of owing the king interest; he is simply unable to repay.And this throws both pre-contractual trust and contract into doubt. In effect, his inability to pay undoes both the sociableness of king and their ‘manner of their union in living together.’ They are divided by his incapacity to fulfill the economic contract between them. As if to confirm this, the king makes him an object in exchange, taking him in place of his liability , ordering that he—and all that comprised his ‘value,’ including his generativity and all that he had previously generated, his wife and children and possessions — become an ‘object’ for sale. Would such a ‘yard sale’ have sufficed for ‘payment to be made,’ or only covered part of a bad debt? That is not the point: the sale would at least restore the orderliness of the king’s (and therefore the community’s) economic relations. Although it would neither restore pre-contractual trust nor fulfill the contract between king and slave, it would restore economic order of a sort. It would restore the economic equilibrium, but not bring greater energy into the economic situation.In the terms we introduced at the outset, it reinforces order, but does not enhance the organizing dynamics by which a society moves forward.

The situation changes entirely when ‘the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”‘ In effect, the slave appeals not for more time, but for the de-quantifying of the temporality of his pre-contractual trust with the king, as if to say ‘our mutual trust should have no temporal limits.’ He also appeals for another kind of contract by which to express their relationship: ‘with this trust I will pay you everything.’ These moves are not simply slipperiness on his part; they seem to be evidence of his preparedness for a new kind of economic relationship, one which will develop and expand their sociableness and ‘manner of union in living together,’ thereby enlarging the basis of the society itself.And the king responds to the possibility of a fuller organizing dynamic for his society, and expresses this in economic terms; he releases both person and debt: ‘out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.’ The effect is a development of ‘character’ on both sides, and a corresponding renewal of society.

The shock, however, comes when it becomes clear that this new ‘character’ is not fully embedded in the slave, and his economic actions follow the prior norms. In his transaction with the king, the slave is himself forgiven (‘re-charactered’) in being given freedom from debt. If we follow the economic norms of the king’s earlier behavior, forgiveness of debt is not necessary, but introduces another dimension: it is a ‘gift’ or grace on the part of the king, and shows his own movement beyond previous economic norms. As a new ‘space’ for the life of the slave was opened by that, we would expect that the slave, now ‘re-charactered,’ would give to others a like ‘space’ for life.But the reverse happens: the slave acts according to economic norms of the king’s earlier behavior, bringing his own economic affairs into the order governed by those norms. So he ends both the pre-contractual trust and the contract for a fellow-slave—abrogating their social solidarity—and, for a debt no more than a fraction of his own to the king. He quantifies the debt, and makes the debtor an object in exchange, taking him in place of his liability (seizing him by the throat) and—despite his pleas—throws him into prison until he pays. The man’s pleas are much the same as were his own to the king: ‘have patience with me and I will pay you.’ But whatever new character the wicked slave had been accorded by the king, he will not enact it: he will give no new basis of trust, no new contract, and instead he insists that ‘the time is up,’ closing for his fellow-slave the space for life he had himself been given. The effect is to reduce the organizing dynamic of their relationship to a lesser form, confinement in the norms employed in the king’s behavior at first. The consequence is a reduction in social vitality.

Does this happen where it is invisible to the king? Having restored pre-contractual trust with the first slave, the king wouldn’t think it necessary to check on his behavior. So it needed to be reported by other slaves. Could they have been aware of the inconsistency of the first slave’s behavior with that of the king, or that he was violating a perceptively new socio-economic order based in the king? Was it a vicious streak in his character at odds with the grace of the king, or was it the destruction of the solidarity of slaves that motivated them? Whichever it was, recognizing the centrality of the character of the king to the coherence—whether social or economic—of the organizing dynamic of social life, they spoke up. Perhaps the best explanation is that they were instinctively aware that the slave’s behavior would drag the organizing dynamic of society backward into an anti-dynamic mode in which each person had a right to reclaim from others regardless of the consequences for them.

‘Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.” ‘The slave is reminded how forgiveness had come to him, because he had appealed and the gift of a pre-contractual trust and contract had been the result. While forgiveness had come in a tangible form, it was to be embedded in him as a change of character. And a change of character should be acted upon in the formation of other relationships: a change of character should lead to changed sociableness and a changed manner of union in living together, transforming solidarity into something higher, living by mercy. It is these expectations that lead to the strong words of the king:’ Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ The normative organizing dynamic the king had established in his relationship with the servant is one of mercy; and this is now the basis of society. Failing that, relationships revert to the prior norm: fulfill the contract or expect anger or punishment for defaulting. Correspondingly, in anger his lord hands him over for torture , to a place he which he can only be destroyed and never pay his debt.

The passage is highly important. It shows how, centered on its determinant, the king, sociableness is configured in a particularized way which forms a basis for action, how this is a precedent until transformed and—in its transformation—embedded in those concerned, to become the basis for their action. In this case, economic behavior is the medium for the occurrence and configuration of sociableness. The particular form which this takes here is not ‘labor for pay,’ where the leverage for undertaking labor is the prospect of reward (pay), but ‘obligation for debt-relief,’ where the leverage for undertaking the obligation to repay is the prospect of relief from debt. We see in the parable an extreme case, where the obligation to repay cannot be fulfilled, and there are two possible outcomes: a ‘default’ option where failure to repay leads not to relief but to punishment, and a ‘higher’ option where failure to repay is met with mercy. Ironically, it is the second which is seen to be more conducive to the organizing dynamic of society, its forward movement: it moves upward through the more profound engagement of those who determine it (here the king) with all others. But the default option remains the alternative for those—whether individuals or societies—which do not follow the ‘higher’ option. ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ Mercy exemplified in the forgiveness of debts, firmly planted within the integrity of each person and society, is the basis for the future.

II. Matthew 20:1-16

In this second ‘parable of the kingdom,’ the key person is the landowner; here too, his character and actions are the determinative for what happens. And here too, ‘normal’ economic arrangements give way to others, not without resistance from those involved. While there is still ‘labor in exchange for pay,’ it is not supposed—at any rate, not by the landowner—that there should be a parity in ‘labor for pay’ for all those hired. A standard contractual socio-economic order based on equality is included in and yet exceeded by one based on gift. In that, we see how ordinary contractual arrangements may be leveraged into those more fitting to the kingdom of heaven.

The action takes place in two places: first, outside the vineyard/kingdom itself, from which people need to be drawn to it, and second, in a market where there are laborers for hire, to which the landowner goes first early in the morning, then at 9, 12, 3 and 5, five times in sequence. In all cases, he makes a verbal contract to hire them for the appropriate pay. Through a pre-contractual trust with the landowner which is carried forward into verbal contracts, they go from a market-based sociality to a work-based one, from a negotiable labor-for-pay one to an agrarian-productive one. Two kinds of socio-economic order are in play, the one contracting for the other. The verbal contracts vary: in the case of the first set of laborers, he agrees to pay ‘the usual daily wage’; this is the norm for such work, established by precedent, and it remains the reference-point for the others, but with the others he agrees to ‘pay them whatever is right’; they are included in contractual arrangements based on a more fluid standard of labor-for-pay. There is something else: in the market-place, the landowner draws from those who are idle , that is unable to participate in that form of socio-economic exchange, those who are marginal and vulnerable ‘because no one has hired us.’ At the invitation of the landowner, they go from that marginality to inclusion in the economy of the vineyard.

A determinative moment is reached at evening, when labor for the day is done, and pay is due, when the contract is complete. While the vineyard-owner had gone into the market-place to find and contract laborers, now he discharges his obligations to them through his manager, a mediator between contract-maker and the fulfillment of contractual obligations. At the instruction of the vineyard-owner, he calls the laborers in reverse order of hiring to give them their pay. Here is where the surprise comes. Of course, there is no ‘free lunch’: all have worked, some longer than others. Instead of differential contracts, this much pay for labor this long, it turns out that all—whether hired early in the morning, or at 9, 12, 3 or 5—are on the same contract and are paid ‘the usual daily wage’. Those who are hired later are given pay in excess of what would be normal for the length of their work; this is what turns out to be the ‘right pay’ promised them. What kind of an arrangement is this? It suggests that, where they were marginal to the market-place socio-economic structure, they are now fully within the socio-economic dynamics of the vineyard to which all are to contribute equally.

Compare them [the marginal, part-day workers integrated into the vineyard] with those ‘who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,’ who now also receive the ‘usual daily wage’.While they now receive the pay for which they had contracted their labor, they think that the new ‘right pay’—that which the vineyard-owner gives in excess of what would be normal—should set a new standard superseding the old, a new norm supplanting the old , which would be the reference-point for differentiated pay by which they ‘thought they would receive more’. In effect, they were bidding for the system of the market outside to be brought within the vineyard, whereby the position of people would be negotiated and differentials of labor-for-pay would be kept, even if they left some people marginalized and vulnerable.

But they grumble against the landowner nonetheless: hasn’t he violated the pre-contractual trust uniting them, and also the contract between them? ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.’ The issue is not trivial; it amounts to a division within the socio-economic order of the vineyard, brought about—ironically—not by equal pay, but by the expectation of differentiated pay.

This evokes a complex and much-debated issue of market economics.Can a free market produce outcomes that are just? By one argument, according to the principle of distributive justice, outcomes are important and one’s productive contribution to a given outcome deserves reward: the market is just when this occurs. By the other argument, market outcomes are just when there is an exchange of resources and certain constraints on just appropriation and transfer are observed. [6] In the former case, outcomes and distributions of burdens and benefits are primary in justice, while in the latter, individual acts are primary.If this differentiation is well-founded, those who go earliest into the vineyards are utilizing the first kind of argument, and claiming an injustice because they have not received the higher reward due for their longer work. But the vineyard-owner replies appropriately, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” ‘This implies a stronger message: live in the freedom which results from being paid according to the original agreement—’take what belongs to you and go.”‘

The response of the vineyard-owner utilizes the second form of argument.Here is a situation in which the owner exchanges pay for their labor, and observes suitable constraints on appropriation and transfer. By way of appropriation, he takes account of the marginalized situation of those hired late, and—as transfer—pays them in such a way as to incorporate them fully in the situation into which they come when they are hired. So his statement, which appears to justify his actions to both by reference to his character (‘I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.’), making them equal in socio-economic terms, is also more: it is a claim to act justly toward all. The resources are his—’ am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?—and this makes it legitimate for him to dispose of them so long as abides by suitable constraints on appropriation and transfer. If his action is just, how can they be envious because he is generous?

Another way of seeing this is to recall Mauss’s argument that societies—at least those amongst the Inuit and the Melanesians—are socio-economic systems of totalized competitive giving incorporating all things and services and persons.If so, however, the vineyard-owner in this case seems to stand within the system as its most intense determinant , who makes the norms for giving, not as one member of the system amongst others.

If these observations are correct, the concluding statement—’So the last will be first, and the first will be last’—becomes more clear. The last are not simply the ‘last in,’ nor are the first the ‘first in,’ nor is this an arbitrary reversal of standing. What is established by the parable is a comparison between two forms of socio-economic situation, one marginalizing some and the other including all, and between two forms of justice, one operating by a notion of just desert for productivity and the other by agency within constraints. If so, the parable clearly exemplifies the priority of inclusion over marginalizing, and the priority of the ‘intense determinant’ who—by giving — establishes a just socio-economic order.

In Conclusion

What have we learned from this combination of preparatory reasoning and text-reading? The preparation showed something of the dynamics of sociality, in which sociable life and the ‘manner of union in living together’ are combined in forward movement, how their ‘organized dynamic’ varies in social form, and how these occur though particular economic behavior, whether contractual or gift-exchange. Altogether, these give some assistance in reading two chosen texts more deeply to find the intersection of social and economic issues in them. The specific content of Christian views is found in the texts per se , however, not in general principles to which they give rise.

In both of the texts chosen for closer study, the character of the central figure—king or landowner, presumably of the kingdom of heaven — is overarchingly important: it is the norm or determinant—whether by direct action or gift—of the specific economic actions considered legitimate, and the socio-economic order constituted by them. Those who fail to embed these norms in their ‘heart’ also fail to provide ‘space’ for others to live fully, and typically revert to a lower set of norms which ‘guarantee’ their position. How in specific terms this happens is told differently in the two parables. Both, however, show how ordinary socio-economic norms, practices and social configurations are also ‘leveraged’ into those appropriate to the kingdom of heaven. That is highly significant for the intersection of theology, sociality and economics. It also shows that the primary issue for these texts, whether seen through their central character or in his actions or in the resultant socio-economic order, is the kind of dynamic sociality through which the economic affairs of this world can be transformed into those suitable to the kingdom of heaven.


[1] Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), ed. A.S.McGrade, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 87. Italics added.

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality (1839), Cambridge: Hackett, 1995; Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), New York: Free Press, 1995.

[3] Emile Durkheim, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (unpublished lectures), London: Routledge, 1957, p.1.

[4] See Richard Newbold Adams, Energy and Structure: A Theory of Social Power , Austin: University of Texas, 1975, Ch. 4.

[5] Mary Douglas, ‘Foreword: No Free Gifts’ in Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls, London: Routledge, 1990, p. vii.

[6] See Serena Olsaretti, Liberty , Desert and the Market, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.