What, in a word or two, is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard about?
Before reading any further in this commentary take a moment to re-read Matthew 20:1-16 and think about this question. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about ____________________.
If you are anything like me you could re-read this parable a couple of times come up with a slightly different angle on it, depending on the word or phrase you use to summarize the story. This does not mean, of course, that the parable can mean anything, but that there is some complexity to the way the biblical text (and perhaps parables in particular) will strike us. Two things in particular jumped out at me as I read and re-read this parable. So, to answer my own question:
First, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about the 9th (and 10th) commandment. In a very real sense this parable is about coveting. While "covet" may not seem the most obvious word to describe what is going on here, it does fit both the emphasis of Jesus' teaching and the overarching emphasis in Matthew on the Law and Jesus' representation of it in a way that transforms our thinking and doing. Coveting lies at the heart of this parable in a couple of ways.
We covet what God chooses to give to others. A parable is essentially an elaborate allegory. We are invited to see ourselves in the story, and then apply it to ourselves. The wages at stake (even at the moment of Jesus' first telling of the parable) are not actual daily wages for vineyard-laborers, but forgiveness, life, and salvation for believers. We need not literally be laborers in a vineyard, as we are all of us co-workers in the kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:9).
And in relationship, one believer to another, covetousness is a problem. The point here isn't necessarily that other folks receive blessings from God that we don't -- that they get more or better or lovelier gifts from God. The problem is that they get the same as us; and they don't deserve it, do they? They are less worthy, or later arrivals, or just plain worse sinners. They don't deserve the same as we get, do they? Not nothing maybe, but certainly not the same. The parable's day laborers parallel perfectly with today's forgiven-sinners in both our pews and pulpits.
We have a tendency, as the parable aptly illustrates, to covet and to be resentful of what others receive from God. The owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (presumably) hardest for him, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" The point is that God's grace, mercy, and forgiveness are God's to give away as God sees fit.
As a direct result of this, we covet God's power to forgive and God's control over who is forgiven and how. This parable is perfectly matched in the lectionary to the parable of Jonah, who has run away to avoid delivering the message of forgiveness that God has sent him to proclaim. Jonah complains (complains!), "for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing," and surely this cannot be for them? It is ironic that Jonah, who had earlier declared that "deliverance belongs to the Lord" (2:9, a deliverance he himself has experienced), has rejected the good news of who God is for others.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about coveting, about our frustration with the grace of God as it applies not to us, but to others.
Second, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about the first and the last. The parable itself displays a reversal of expectations -- "the last will be first and the first will be last"; this is not only the summary of the parable (20:16), but a critical aspect of New Testament theology.
Notice the flow of the narrative as the workers are compensated for their labors:
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first. When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. When the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'"
The last are literally first in that they are paid first. And the first, who have labored longest, must also wait the longest to get theirs. But notice as well that the first who are now last do not receive nothing or less, they receive the same, as the laborers themselves say, "you have made them equal to us...." So perhaps it should be said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be the same.
This element of the parable is taken up in the other Gospels and in Revelation; this scandalous reversal of expectation, of our sense of justice, and even of our hopes, is a central piece of the New Testament. Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all (Mark 9:35); so much for human ideas of greatness. Who is worthy to climb the holy hill, and enter the gate of God's kingdom? Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last (Luke 13:30). And it is Jesus, who is first and last (Revelation 1:17), who tells us that we need not fear; for in the one who is both first and last, the first and the last are brought together when we are called to lay down the burdens of our days and find our home with God.
The scandal of this parable is that we are all equal recipients of God's gifts. The scandal of our faith is that we are often covetous and jealous when God's gifts of forgiveness and life are given to other in equal measure. And the scandal of our preaching, if based on this parable, ought to encompass both.