Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
One traditional interpretation of the parable has been to focus on 20:16 (“the last will be first,” etc.) and to insist on understanding the parable as a statement about the gift of eternal life, as the ultimate equalizer, that will be granted to all “laborers in the vineyard.”
But Jesus’ parable seems to be more mundane than that and may require an alternative subtitle.
From our contemporary context, this parable brings to mind issues of immigration and daily laborers. What is “fair” for those who work among us as migrant workers or labor in the various service industries supporting Western financial institutions, the highly educated professional class and our technologically-driven economic complex? And, what is to us if the minimum wage rises to assist those workers on the lowest end of our economic system?
The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew. The stories that surround this parable — the rich young man/Peter’s claim to have “left everything” and Jesus’ third prediction of his death/James & John’s request — were consecutive stories in Mark. Matthew’s inclusion of this parable interrupts that narrative flow. In Matthew’s narrative context, Jesus’ parable seems to be a story directly (connected) to discipleship issues, possessions, and authority.
Matthew’s placement was significant. In the larger narrative sequence, this “parable” was exemplified. For example, in the preceding story (cf. 19:23-29), Peter claimed, “we have left everything and followed you” (19:27). This kind of dedicated service to Jesus will reap a reward (cf. 19:28), but these rewards are not just for the immediate disciples but for all who have followed, since “many who are first will be last” (19:30). In like manner, in this week’s story, special privileges were downplayed.
The parable also played out in the story that followed the parable (21:17-28): Jesus predicted his death to the disciples for the third and final time (cf. Matthew 16:21; 17:12; 17:22-23). Right after this prediction, the mother of James and John requested special privilege for her sons (rather than a direct request from James and John themselves, as in Mark 10:35-45). They, too, “have borne the burden of the day” since they’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his mission.
In this following story, we hear the concern — and, perhaps some of that “envious” spirit — from the other disciples. But, Jesus warned them as well: greatness comes through service (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). God’s generosity will not succumb to human jealousy. As Matthew’s Jesus preached earlier, God provides rain for the just and unjust alike (cf. Matthew 5:45).
Matthew 20:1-16 is a true-to-life parable. “Day laborers” would be readily available in the market place. But it would be unusual for a wealthy “landowner” to locate his own workers. Usually, the manager would have hired the laborers, just as he would have been responsible to pay wages (cf. 20:8). More than likely, the manager would not have returned to the market place to hire additional workers at the end of the day and offered the same wage. He would be fearful of his landowner’s reaction to such an unwise investment in labor.
The first-century workers union complaint (cf. 20:11-12) seems reasonable, even if misguided. Why wouldn’t those who have labored less receive less? But the landowner had a different conception of fairness. In the first-century economy, the master could choose to do what he pleased with his resources.
The landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15), is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets the eye. As Jesus taught earlier, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (ophthalmos poneros; so, if you have the “evil eye”), your whole body will be full of darkness” (cf. 6:22-23). In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.).
And, the “landowner” (or, preferably, “household master” from oikodespotes) is a common analogy for God in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel of Mark never uses the analogy. So, it may reveal something about Matthew’s ancient setting. To the contemporary reader, the analogy may cause concern, since many of these masters owned slaves in Jesus’ parables (e.g., 10:25; 13:27; 21:34; 24:45). For this short discussion, why was God’s reign often compared to landowning activities? Was it simply Jesus’ theological belief that God “owned” all the land (cf. Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 24:1; Job 41:11)?
Within Jesus’ parables, household masters generally made wise decisions (e.g., 13:27-30), even if misunderstood (20:11-15). The possible exception to this pattern occurred in 21:33-41; here, the landowner’s patience cost him his son’s life because of evil (grumbling?) tenants who worked the land (cf. 21:33-41).
Perhaps, Jesus stressed the landowner’s active patience as a positive sign of God’s forbearance. To many interpreters, however, the inability to recognize the dangers from his servants’ experiences suggests a naiveté on the landowner’s part.
In our passage under discussion, the landowner was to be emulated (even if most of Jesus’ audience members would have been more culturally attuned to the experiences of the laborers). The so-called “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” should more aptly be called the “parable of the Landowner’s generosity.” As Jesus taught earlier, in Matthew’s parable chapter: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household (oikodespotes) who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13:52). So, “scribes…trained for the kingdom” (i.e., Jesus’ disciples) are expected to be like the “landowners” (i.e., God), who generously provide for all of their “laborers.”
So, the parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard.” In fact, this is not even a story about the growth of the vineyard. Nor was there any significant attention on the activities of the workers. We hear the complaints of those who have toiled all day long, but the story was really not about them either.
Rather, Jesus’ parable highlights the generosity of God. As the ultimate “landowner,” God will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes. In Jesus earlier words: God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust (cf. 5:48). The landowner’s question in the parable is Jesus’ punchline for the story: “Are you envious because I am generous?”