For our Honors Seminar class with Dr. Gowler, I chose to discuss the different receptions of the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Taking three different trajectories, I first looked at a Muslim reception from the background of Rabbinic parables and early Christian scholars. Second, I studied artistic receptions of Workers in the Vineyard from Austria, the Netherlands, and the United States. Finally, my members and I looked at a liberal arts reception from students and faculty of Oxford College of Emory in the form of video interviews. Below is a compilation of my thoughts and reflections of my work throughout the course of the semester. This has truly been one of the best experiences of my undergraduate career.
Trajectory: Artistic Receptions of the Parable
In this trajectory, I studied three works of art from different time periods and parts of the world to see how the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard was received. While this trajectory was the shortest of my three works, it was the most challenging for me. The challenge for me was consolidating my thoughts on all the paintings because there were many paintings that I had speculation after speculation about its hidden meaning regarding the parable. Sometimes, I had to sit back and ask myself whether or not what I was concluding was actually supported by facts. For this reason, I had to exclude many of the preliminary thoughts I had about some of the works from the trajectory.
The first piece of art I looked at was Dutch titled ‘Laborers in the Vineyard’ by Jacob Willemsz de Wet. In this piece, I talked a about the focal points of the art, what or who each character could represent, and a little bit about the significance of the inanimate objects. The second piece I looked at was ‘Workers in the Vineyard’ by Johann Bland from Austria. For this piece, I focused a lot on how the background affected the ambience of the painting. Finally, I looked at a modern artist named J Kirk Richards from the US. I talked about how his painting of the parable emphasized the injustice in society with regards to the female working class. For pieces like Brand’s, I wanted to include the influence of Austria’s civil tension in his reception of the parable. It is possible that the vineyard represented Austria, and the work that is done on the vineyard represents the work that was done to restore the country after years of war. It is also just as likely that the artist was told to paint this particular parable, and he uses the vineyard as a means to expand on his landscape art. With artwork, it is always a challenge to figure out exactly what the artists were thinking as they were creating.
I chose to create a prezi for this trajectory because I felt like it would be a good means of portraying the different artworks, mainly because it provided a way to include the painting right next to the text about the artist. This made it easier for readers to compare the paintings to one another as well. In conclusion, I believe this was a great way to integrate religion and artwork.
Trajectory: What is Oxford saying about the Parable- Workers in the Vineyard?
This was the most fun and interactive of all the trajectories we did throughout the semester. Here, we created a video of the students and faculty of Oxford College of Emory to record their thoughts and reactions upon reading our four parables of the Rich Fool, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Talents, and the Workers in the Vineyard. My peers and I went to the library of our college, and we randomly chose students to participate in our video. First, we gave them one parable to read- we made sure not to read it for them because we did not want to influence their perception of the parable by accidently emphasizing certain aspects with the tone of our voice. After they finished reading it, we asked them three questions:
- What did you think the message of the parable was?
- Did something shock you or surprise you about it?
- Can you relate this parable to something you have read or seen in popular culture, or to an occurrence in your own life?
From here, we received many interesting responses. In response to the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, one interviewee said that she thought the message of the parable was that life was unfair and unjust. She identified as atheist, and she believed that people should get paid based on merit, not based on how generous the owner was feeling. It is possible that she did make the connection between God and the landowner because she was atheist, and she thought that the parable, instead of representing equality or generosity like many believe it to mean, represents injustice.
Another student said he thought the landowner represented God, and the workers at different times of the day represented people of different social classes. Off camera I asked him why he thought the landowner represented God, and he replied with the fact that the first sentence stated that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hired workers for the vineyard. Heaven is analogous to the vineyard, and the owner is analogous to God. Continuing, he emphasized that the earliest workers were the most privileged. It is possible that he thought the earliest workers were lucky in that they received the task of working for God earlier than any other group. This interviewee thought the earliest group ‘lives a very privileged life’; could it be that, to him, this group represented the wealthy in society, or those born into Christianity? He then said he thought the last group were the ‘rejects’ of society that no one cares for. However, God (or the landowner) is generous to everyone so he pays all the workers, or the people of society, the same payment.
One interviewee believed the parable highlighted the ungratefulness of the workers; she thought that earlier workers were wrong to complain about their payment. She did not verbally connect the landowner to God, but she did not think the landowner was wrong in anyway. She did, however, connect this back to a ‘hyper fixation’ on heaven in society. To relate this to the workers from the parable, it is possible that she thought that people are unhappy even when they obtain the blessing of God or the chance to heaven, much like the workers were unhappy even when they were paid for their work. She thought this was the hyper fixation on heaven- being so caught up with the outcome that people don’t focus on the work that was done.
The final interviewee believed the whole parable revolved around the idea of ‘cautious optimism’. He thought that the earliest workers should have exercised caution before quickly accepting the job from the landowner. This student thought the workers should have waited before accepting the task; had they waited, they would have done less work but received the same payment. It is possible that this interviewee too the parable as a sign not to jump too quickly into anything, or make decisions before fully understanding the consequences.
This particular trajectory made me wonder what my first impression of the parable was; I have now been so influenced by different receptions that I forgot my own reception of Workers in the Vineyard. However, it was interesting to see how a liberal arts education affected the answers in our video. We did not receive a lot of the typical answers associated with this parable, and many students related this parable to larger problems and concepts in society. Furthermore, through this, we were able to see how each parable is open to interpretation based on the life of the reader. The students managed to relate the parables to ideas in popular culture and events they have experienced in their lives. One student even related Workers in the Vineyard to the fact that she was legally blind until she was 12. She was extremely thankful to have regained her vision, even though it wasn’t perfect. There were others with her that were still ungrateful because they wanted full eyesight- they represented the ungrateful workers in her opinion. Because of this, working on this video trajectory was very insightful, and it was interesting to see how the parable was received by the diverse students of Oxford College.
Trajectory: On the Hadiths
In this trajectory, I analyzed five versions of the hadith of the Laborers from Sahih Al Bukhari, and I looked at them as a reception of the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. For me, this trajectory was the most interesting, yet the most intensive. First, I looked at each version of the hadith, and I pinpointed areas in which each was similar and different from the next one. This helped me figure out what each hadith meant to emphasize about the story of the laborers. For example, there were some versions of the hadith that explicitly stated the ‘moral’ at the end- like in version 471 where readers are told that the hadith was an example of the Muslims “and the example of the light (guidance) which they have accepted willingly”. However, in other versions, it was not even stated who each of the three working groups represented, but I deduced that they were the Jews, Christians, and Muslims from my knowledge of the other versions. This leads me to one problem that I faced: my own biased opinions about the hadiths based both on my religious background and on the information that I acquired from reading each hadith. I couldn’t help but feel that I was ‘preaching’ the religion at times in my paper, but I tried to be as objective as possible. At the same time, I wanted to include my own personal voice in the trajectory. I think I accomplished a fair balance between the two in my final products.
After this, I compared a short Jewish perspective from Rabbinic parable and a Christian perspective from various early scholars. This part was actually the most challenging for me because I didn’t know how much in depth I should’ve gone when talking about these two topics. Continuing on, as I was looking at the different versions of the hadith, I analyzed the meaning of different phrase choices between them. In most of them, there was a lot of changing between verb tenses to emphasize who is currently working or who worked in the past. This change allowed me to see that the Islamic reception of the parable believes the Jews were the first group of workers, the Christians second, and Muslims were the latest workers who are still fulfilling the task in the present tense.
I want to talk a little bit about what working on this trajectory has done for me. Working on this first trajectory opened my eyes to the similarities between all three Abrahamic religions. Regardless of the troubled world we live in today, this type of project epitomized the reason why I chose to come to Oxford- just a few decades ago, a project comparing parables and hadiths (or Christianity and Islam in a sense) would have been unheard of. Although it may not be at the level of scholars our professor Dr. Gowler, but I feel like this could be the beginning of a whole new field of study and work because this provides concrete evidence of similarity in history. Who knows, maybe I will continue and expand on this first trajectory? Maybe someone else will continue this work? I am happy to think that I provided a solid foundation upon which more study like this can be conducted in the future.