Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus often spoke in parables to express something about God and God’s ways in the world.
And these parables — these stories drawn from mundane and ordinary realities — frequently ended with a twist. Jesus would start a storyline to lull his hearers into thinking they knew where the story was going and how it would end.
Then the story would take a surprising turn intended to awaken the hearer to a different reality — a different way of seeing the world and living in it. A Samaritan who proves to be the ideal neighbor (Luke 10), and a king who surprises his followers by being identified with “least of these” (Matthew 25). And in our text, a landowner who virtually gives away a full day’s wage to harvesters who’ve only worked a single hour.
The story begins with a landowner needing workers to harvest in his vineyard. He hires workers in the first hour of the workday (about six am). In quick succession, he hires those who have been waiting for work at 9am, noon, and 3pm. Finally, he hires some workers at 5pm who haven’t been able to find work — these workers will only work one hour before the end of the day arrives and payment is made.
All of these hires are simply plot prelude to the key scene of the parable, in which the landowner pays each group of workers. Jesus tells the story so that the “last hour” workers are paid first and the “first hour” workers are paid last. This narrative device prepares for the story’s conflict — the people who labored for twelve hours are privy to the landowner’s generosity in giving a full day’s wage to those who have worked only one hour. Even though this is the same wage they have been promised (Matthew 20:2), they expect to be paid more given this generosity shown to the last hour workers. The long-standing workers are surprised and disappointed, and they grumble (20:11).
It is here that we, the readers, likely experience the discomfort of the plot twist. Doesn’t it seem supremely unfair to pay the same wage for the work of twelve hours as for one hour? If an employer did this today, they might be reported to the U.S. Department of Labor. If we have been identifying at all with those first-hour workers, we might very well exclaim with them, “‘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” (Matthew 20:12).
Recall that the parable began with, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner …” (Matthew 20:1). So, it is fair to ask the question, Are God’s ways really like this? Is this kind of maddening equality, regardless of what one has contributed to God’s kingdom, really a part of the new reality God is inaugurating in Jesus? For Matthew’s Jesus, the answer is ‘yes.’ God’s generosity is an affront to those who think about God’s benevolent rule in categories of status, privilege, and what one has earned.
This framework of generosity for understanding God and God’s ways is what is emphasized at the conclusion of the parable. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong …” (Matthew 20:13). The specific language rendered here as “wrong” is adiko and can be translated “unjust.” The landowner disavows any injustice on his part. Then he claims that it is his right to use his own resources in whatever way he wishes, providing the parting shot: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15).
The affront of the parable “centers on God’s generosity and grace that is given to all equally.”1 Matthew might just add, If this is unjust in comparison with how justice is usually understood, so be it. God’s generosity sit at the center of a kingdom reorientation of values. Grace reigns. Or as James writes, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). “God’s deep generosity toward others can actually trip us up if we think of the kingdom in terms of limited amounts of grace being distributed based on ‘deservedness’.”2
Jesus’ conclusion to the parable mirrors the formula introduced at Matthew 19:30, which leads into the parable: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (20:16; see also 19:30). The point of this closing aphorism is not to suggest that God’s ways are simply or only about an inversion of the status quo. The line from the parable is telling: “you have made them equal to us” (20:12). This surprising equality marks the reality of God’s work and God’s desire for the people of God.
In spite of our Western democratic ideals, we live in systems that are characterized by status differences and privilege that result in valuing some people more than others. But God’s ways are much more generous than ours. Just as Matthew highlights that God’s kingdom will not result in a stratified system of haves and have nots, so we should live in the church in a way that makes clear the surprising equality among the people of God based on God’s amazing generosity.
- Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts, The Gospel of Matthew (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) 185.
- Jeannine K. Brown, Matthew (Teach the Text New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015) 230.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Generous God, you have promised to open your kingdom to all people, despite their circumstances. Bring us close to you, and help us to proclaim the goodness of your generosity. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
All earth is hopeful ELW 266
O master, let me walk with you ELW 818
Beautiful Savior ELW 838
Na vinha do Senhor, J. Ashley Hall and Bradley Pace