“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16 – NRSV)
This parable is unique to Matthew. It explicates the preceding verse: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30). In fact that very saying is repeated at the end of the parable (20:16). This saying indicates a theme common to the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus reaches out to those on the margins. Thus Matthew 11:19 has already told us “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” God’s incalculable and incomprehensible mercy seems to be the focus in this parable. Money and hours and the law pertaining to such things are all calculable and comprehensible. Mercy is of a different order. There is no way of quantifying that. It has a logic of its own. “As the heavens are high above the earth so great is his hesed (mercy, steadfast love) for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).
the kingdom of heaven is like: The reference is to the dynamic in the story, not just the landowner.
vineyard: Central to the story is the symbol of the vineyard. The symbol is used again by Matthew 21:33-44 in the parable of the wicked husbandman. The symbol is used more than once in the Bible to refer to Israel – for example, Isaiah 5:1-7: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes ….” etc. The use of this symbol may be found also in Hosea 10:1, Jeremiah 2:21; 5:10; 6:9 & 12:10, Ezekiel 15:1-8; 17:3-10; 19:10-14.
went out early in the morning to hire laborers: This is a statement of accepted practice. Jesus’ listeners would have been very familiar with this practice. Everything in this story is thoroughly comprehensible except the settling of accounts. This landowner represents something very special. Leon Morris reflects on the lesson the disciples might have received here: “Peter and the rest of the Twelve have indeed left all for Christ, but they must not think that their priority in time gives them an overwhelming advantage. The new parable impresses these lessons, but adds an even more important one—God acts toward us in sheer grace. There is no question of salvation being an arithmetical process, adding up the good deeds and the bad ones and coming out with salvation or loss according to whether the balance is on the credit or debit side. That is not the way to understand the dealings of a gracious God.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 498-499.)
friend: The landowner addresses the complainant in a very respectful manner. The Greek noun – Hetaire, meaning “friend” or “comrade” – is used similarly by Matthew in the parable of the wedding guests – 22:12 and when Jesus greets Judas in the garden – 26:50.
The concept of the “seven deadly sins” is derived from the teachings of one of the great spiritual guides of the fourth century – Evagrius of Pontus (d 399). Certain sins are called “deadly sins” because they tend to undermine and eventually destroy our relationships with God, ourselves, other people and the world at large. In other words, they draw us into a world of unreality and thus tend to destroy our very humanity. One of those “deadly sins” is envy. It is born of comparing ourselves with others.
The landowner asks the man who is grumbling: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The “deadly sin” of envy only arises when the labourer starts comparing himself with the others. Comparison sets him on the path of falsity. It leads him to lie to himself about himself and the whole situation. The truth is, he is getting the wage he has agreed to. He has no basis to grumble. So why is he grumbling? Indeed, why might we feel sympathy for him?
There are occasions when comparisons are useful, even necessary. If, for example, I am hiring someone to do a special job, I will necessarily compare the qualifications of the applicants. But there are also many occasions in life when comparisons are not useful. Comparing myself with others may in fact may lead me into envy and therefore down a path of unreality and eventually destruction. So why do I do it?
There are a number of reasonable responses to this question. Let me suggest one. I compare myself with others – thus disposing myself to the “deadly sin” of envy – because I have not yet begun to experience the truth of who and what I am. I am not at home in my own being. The truth is that I am a unique expression of God’s love. So are you. I am a unique word spoken in time. So are you. I am a unique place for God to become present in the world. So are you. I am loved infinitely as this unique one. So are you. I can be faithful to this or unfaithful. So can you. My refusal to compare myself with you and your refusal to compare yourself with me, helps us both be real.
Thomas Merton sums it up nicely: “We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, 1962, 31-32)