Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
A crowd gathered early in the morning seeking to be hired for the day, hoping to make enough money to buy food for the family: it is a regular sight in the city where I live. It is also the scene Jesus pictures in this parable about vineyard workers. As with so many of the parables in Matthew, this one shows readers something about the character of God’s reign.
But what is that something? The parable has been interpreted in very different ways. Does the parable highlight the generosity of the householder (landowner), who pays one-hour workers a full day’s wage? Or is it about the exploitation of vulnerable workers by a “union-busting” vineyard owner, who deliberately sets laborers against one another when he frustrates all-day workers’ expectation for a generous pay hike comparable to the generous wage they have witnessed one-hour workers receive? Or does this parable about economic relations emphasize the obligation of the well-resourced to provide opportunities for work and access to the resources needed for survival?¹ Or is it a defense of Jesus’ acceptance of religious outsiders who have responded to his mission and message? Or is it (at least in Matthew’s context, as distinct from that of Jesus within the narrative) about the full inclusion of gentiles, though they arrive late to Israel’s salvation stage? The parable has been read in such different ways, in part, because the diverse contexts of readers and reading communities matter. Where is God, and where is the reign of God, in this story?
In what follows, I won’t presume to offer a right or best interpretation, but offer what I hope are suggestive pointers. It is important, though, not to lose sight of the original setting of the story, which features the vulnerability and precarity of day laborers in an economic system that concentrated land and therefore wealth in a few hands. If we read the parable as an affirmation of the full inclusion of those (for example, gentiles) who come late to the party (to the faith community), we may risk missing the connection to the economic vulnerability of so many people today.
How does the preceding narrative prepare readers for the parable? Matthew 19:13-30 highlights the inversion of status in God’s domain. Jesus declares that (low-status) children are the ones to whom heaven’s reign belongs (19:13-15). Then a wealthy—though morally earnest—man stumbles when Jesus charges him to renounce his wealth to benefit the impoverished (19:16-26). If Peter and the rest of the twelve disciples will share power in Israel, nevertheless the positions of first and last will be reversed in God’s realm (19:27-30). Power, wealth, and advantage don’t measure in God’s domain as they do in our world—even for the leading disciples! Indeed, as the parable proceeds in chapter 20, social and economic relations defy convention. The reversal of first and last figures within the parable when the workers are paid in inverse order (20:8) and is repeated again at the close of the passage (20:16). The world claimed by God’s rule turns things upside down; it may confront our expectations with surprise.
The pattern of the story reveals both repetition and meaningful variation. In part one (verses 1-7), a vineyard owner (the word for “vineyard” appears five times in the parable!) ventures to the marketplace five times throughout the day to hire workers. The first workers hired, at daybreak (verse 2), agree to the wage of a denarius for the day—sufficient to feed a family for perhaps three or four days. The nine o’clock hires are assured that they will be paid a fair—though unspecified—wage (verses 3-4), and the scenario repeats at noon and three o’clock (verse 5). Finally, just before closing time, the owner hires additional workers, and there is no mention of payment (verses 6-7). These details create suspense: hearers wonder how well, and equitably, the various groups of workers will be paid.
As the day progresses, later-hired workers are described in the New Revised Standard Version as standing “idle” (verses 3, 6), but the Greek phrase would be better—non-pejoratively—rendered “standing in the marketplace without work” (agora argous). The parable highlights the need for employment and the vineyard owner’s commitment to provide work, not the moral lack of the day laborers.
Part two turns from recruitment of laborers to their payment at day’s end (verses 8-15). Deliberately and provocatively, the owner instructs his manager to pay the one-hour workers first (verse 8). Everyone is surprised when each worker receives a full day’s wage (verse 9): this is a generous vineyard owner! Yet when the all-day workers step forward, they are paid the contracted wage, the same amount as the short-day laborers (verse 10): equal pay for unequal work! Understandably, they feel cheated and register their complaint (verses 11-12). In response, the vineyard owner reminds them that he has paid the agreed wage, explains that he has chosen to be generous to the short-day workers (literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good [or kind]?”), and dismisses the envious—and no doubt weary—workers (verses 13-15).
Weak hint of divine grace?
The parable presents a strange mix: contractual obligations for some, unexpected generosity for others. The owner’s treatment of the hired workers is such that everyone gets the opportunity to work, everyone receives enough to live—regardless of the quantity or quality of their work.² He is generous, to be sure, yet as Luise Schottroff comments, “The generosity of this landowner offers only a weak hint at what God’s generosity means.”³ Enough work for all of us in the vineyard—and resources sufficient to sustain life. Even in this “weak hint,” perhaps we may catch a glimpse of the extravagant grace of God—and it is for everyone. First, last: heaven’s reign may indeed turn our expectations upside down!
- Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 235-37.
- A similar rabbinic parable develops the point in just this way: the short-day worker is praised for his superior virtue and accomplishment, emblematic of a particular rabbi; see Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 229-30.
- Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 216.