Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard — or is it the gracious landowner, or maybe the union-busting landowner? — has most often been read as an allegory in which the landowner stands for God.
In this reading, God is the gracious master who rewards all the workers equally (= salvation), thereby upsetting the workers who toiled all day (the Jews) by giving the latecomers (Gentiles) the same rewards.
We should always be deeply suspicious of allegorical readings that turn out to favor Christians at the expense of Israel. Jesus’ parables are meant to get us to think critically about the world we have constructed, free us from our cultural shackles and self-deceptions, and enable us to discern more clearly how God works in the world. Instead of allegory, we should read the story on its own terms, as a straightforward account of the interactions between a landowner and the day laborers who work for him.
We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. We should remember, however, that at the end of the day the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity. The injustices are intensified, not overturned. Day-laborers constituted a limitless and disposable fuel — bodies to be burned up — that made the ancient economy run. Our world is again full of such bodies, who make our clothes, produce our food, and assemble our electronic gizmos, yet never gain enough traction to be able to join the world of consumers. The parable thus pulls back the curtain on the ways our own world works, as it would have for Jesus’ audience.
It is true that, at one level, the landowner treats the workers with equality. He goes hunting for workers throughout the day, and they keep showing up until the very end. It is a landowner’s dream market. He pays everyone what they had agreed to be paid and, in the case of those hired at the end, even more than they might have expected.
All this apparent justice is, however, cast into question by the landowner’s actions and words from the point the payments begin to be made. He stipulates that those hired last will be paid first (Matthew 20:8). Why? This arrangement serves no evident purpose but to make his gesture of “equality” evident to those who worked all day. If the goal is really to create equality among the workers, the landowner could do so without making a public display. Apparently he intends to provoke a reaction. He uses his interaction with first-hired, last-paid workers to declare his own justness and goodness. After all, he is paying those who worked all day just what they had agreed to be paid (20:13). He is also only doing what is his right “with what belongs to me” (20:14). The implicit message in these words is that it all belongs to him, including the workers, with whom he can do what he pleases. He addresses one of them as “friend,” which sounds nice, but we should hear it pronounced with a sneer. In Matthew “friend” is consistently employed ironically: in Matthew 22:12 a king uses it to address a man he is about to have bound hand and foot and booted into outer darkness, because he had come improperly dressed to the wedding feast. Jesus himself calls Judas “friend” as he comes to betray Jesus in Gethsemane (26:50). The landowner’s apparent graciousness and justice are, in fact, viciousness in disguise — a pretty package with a bomb in it. He has been “generous,” but only with some and in a way that means to incite “envy” (20:15). We should hope that this is not the way God acts.
Why have so many readers in the history of the church wanted to make this landowner into a God-figure? Why do we so often think that the power figures — whether kings, landowners, or fathers — represent divine authority? Is God really like these? Or are they merely god-like in our mind’s eye? Why do so many of us still want to believe what the powerful people say, even when it flies in the face of reality? The parable teaches us to read our world critically.
We should also question a corresponding vilification of the workers. They might indeed have accepted their pay and gone home happy that everyone got what they needed to make it another day. But few of us would be happy in a system of this kind of so-called justice. We shape our identities and our sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. We want fairness and equality, when it serves our interest, but not if it means that we all get the same prize in the end. Where is the reward in that? Regardless of what they were paid, all the workers went home seeing more clearly the vast gulf that exists between the landowner and themselves. They have gotten paid, but the landowner has now taken their dignity and whatever vestiges of power they might once have possessed. They will be back in marketplace again tomorrow. Nothing has changed but the self-respect they have had wrenched away.
The parable in fact depicts a limited, and thus false, form of justice. We can tell it is false justice because it produces envy and division, rather than wholeness and healed relationships. Jesus’ disciples have and will soon again demonstrate their interest in securing places of status and prestige in the kingdom (Matthew 18:1, 19:27-30, 20:20-23). They, too, like the workers in the vineyard, will splinter and become alienated. The parable is meant for them. It is a harsh reminder that there is no justice, no kingdom of heaven, when we end up alone in the world.