Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
This parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard” might be one of the more well-known parables of Jesus, or at least a familiar one to those who have regularly attended worship or church camp. However, this familiarity might be to our detriment. By knowing the plot, we immediately want to side with the landowner, equating the landowner with God or the “hero” of the parable. Even more, by assuming we know how the story ends, we may miss some of the unusual details that make this parable remarkable, unsettling, and—perhaps—preachable.
The story begins in a largely predictable way, with three primary characters: a landowner, a steward/manager, and people needing work. The first surprise comes when the landowner, not the manager, goes out to the marketplace to hire laborers. In spite of a rare appearance by the wealthy landowner, the initial arrangement is typical and in line with Jewish custom and Torah regulation—workers are hired at the start of the day to be paid a normal daily wage at the end.1 But, before those contracted workers have a chance to get much done, the landowner unexpectedly goes to the marketplace again to hire workers and repeats this practice all the way until the 5 o’clock hour when there is little daylight (or work?) remaining. Those hired at nine, noon, and three are not offered a full contract (like those hired at sunup) but are willing to trust the landowner to pay them “whatever is right.” The five o’clock hires aren’t promised anything but the opportunity to work.
The number of trips to the marketplace to hire additional people throughout the day is odd enough. However, there is more that is unusual. As a responsible proprietor and wealthy businessman, shouldn’t the landowner have figured out in advance how many workers he would need? Yet, there is nothing in the parable that indicates he miscalculated the workers to work ratio. He hires workers not because there is too much work, but because there are workers standing idle in need of something to do. The landowner’s focus is not on the harvest or the crop or even his own profit; instead, his concern is for the laborers and their need for work.
The last unusual feature of the story arrives with the third scene when the workers are lined up by the manager, in the order of when they were hired, to be paid. This is, perhaps, the biggest twist of all. The landowner begins with the 5 o’clock hires and pays them a full day’s wage—one denarius. If we were to take a photo at this moment, I imagine down at one end of the line, the workers’ faces would be marked by disbelief, gratitude, and even shock as they looked down at what they had just been paid. And at the other end, you might catch smirks and side-eyes, faces marked by eager anticipation as it dawns on them that there was probably more coming to them then they had even bargained for first thing in the morning. At this point in the story, both ends of the line view the landowner as wildly generous. But when the landowner gets down to those who had been hired first thing in the morning and worked all day, he hands them exactly what they had contracted for—a denarius.
All of a sudden, their view of the landowner changes: no longer is he an odd yet generous character, but instead someone who clearly lacked common sense, business acumen, or any appreciation for what was just. Yet, when these all-day workers “grumble against” the landowner, the landowner asserts that it is his money to do what he wants and that he paid them fairly, per their agreement. The landowner then asks the cutting question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” or perhaps better translated, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” This question is a challenging one. After all, those who worked all day are not mad because the landowner was generous, but because he was not equally generous to everyone. Their sense of justice is violated, and the landowner seems to be living in a different world and playing by different rules than the rest of them.
While unsettling, it is these odd and unexpected features that cut to the heart of this parable. As Thomas Long suggests, “Th[is] parable is not a lesson in corporate economics or an example of how employers, even Christian ones, are to treat their employees … the purpose of this parable is not to provide a practical guide for the management of a vineyard, a factory, or a classroom.”2 Unlike last week’s text with practical communal guidelines around sin and restoration, this story isn’t meant to be taken literally or applied to the everyday life of the community. Instead, these odd and unusual details are an invitation to recognize the vast difference between our present reality and the Kingdom of God. This parable insists that God does not work around our customs, beliefs, or sense of justice. These peculiar plot twists and the bizarre actions of the landowner serve to break our expectations and rupture our sense of what is appropriate or practical.
In these pandemic-scarred days, when illness, natural disasters, mass violence, and oppression seem to bombard us daily, it is sometimes hard to have any kind imagination for something beyond our present circumstances. When we are just trying to get through the day or make ends meet, we may struggle to envision any reality beyond the current one in which we find ourselves. In fact, we may fall prey to believing that God’s future is just our present, but a little better. We may believe that God’s eschatological hope, already coming towards us, just means that we will finally get equal pay for equal work or that those things that are broken here will finally be fixed.
However, this parable invites us towards renewed and reinvigorated holy imagination. The preacher, by noting the odd moments of this text, is not asked to create some new economic logic or justify why the landowner (often viewed as a symbol for God) did what he did. Instead, the preacher may name the unusual and even incomprehensible nature of the parable and the actions of the landowner as representing the incomprehensible nature of God’s grace, love, and power. So often, preachers feel compelled to offer a message with a practical lesson or to-do list at the end. However, this parable resists such prescriptive preaching. Instead, it invites preachers to push the bounds of our communal imagination and dream about God’s abundance beyond our expectations and predictions. This parable offers assurance that God is not bound by our limited insight or capacities. God doesn’t work with a slightly better version of our logic. Instead, God’s Kingdom is marked by grace beyond our imagining and generosity beyond our deserving.
- Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 393.
- Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 224.
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