“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: 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).
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 20:1-16 – Jesus once again uses a parable to teach his listeners: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard”. Let us use our imaginations to accompany this landowner as he goes about his business. What words come to mind? Ordinary, familiar, routine. He acts with authority. He is – as the saying goes – “his own man”. People seem to trust him. Why does he return repeatedly to the place where laborers wait to be hired at 9am, 12noon, 3pm and 5pm – the so-called “eleventh hour”? There is no suggestion that the landowner actually needs more laborers – especially not at the eleventh hour. Rather, the implication is that the laborers need him. He seems to be concerned for these men and he acts with care and generosity towards them.
“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’.” Are we to imagine the manager, on the basis of past practice perhaps, decides to pay “the usual wage” to them all, making no distinction on the basis of hours worked? In which case, this suggests a culture of trust and generosity at the vineyard. When those who “bore the heat of the day” ask for more than was agreed upon, they are annoyed, they bypass the manager and go straight to the landowner. He stands by his manager, offering a gentle but firm response: “‘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?’”
There is a graciousness in the manner of the landowner. A gracious – graceful, graced – manner suggests habit rather than a one-off action. The man himself is gracious, not just his behaviour, not just at this moment. This in turn suggests a person who experiences life as gift. He approaches people, events and things as a grateful man, one who knows that, in the end, whatever he has that is worth having is received rather than achieved. Living is ultimately about cooperation and participation rather than competition and mastery.
And what can we imagine about the laborers? How do they feel? The disgruntled laborers are victims of themselves, not the landowner: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Caught up in themselves, they are unable to look objectively at the landowner and appreciate the good and gracious man that he is. And how many of us can sympathize with them! What of the other labourers? If you, for example, are one of those who has been hired later in the day – perhaps at the eleventh hour – how do you feel? If you do not feel grateful, why not?