The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew. The stories that surround this parable — the rich young man and Peter’s claim to have “left everything,” Jesus’ third prediction of his death, and 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.
In the preceding story (cf. 19:23-29),
27 Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
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 current disciples but for all who have followed, since “many who are first will be last” (19:30).
Jesus predicted his death to the disciples for the third and final time (21:17-28; cf. Matthew 16:21; 17:12; 17:22-23).
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”
After this prediction, the mother of James and John requested special privilege for her sons.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”[g] They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
They, too, “have borne the burden of the day” since they’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his mission.
We hear the concern — and, perhaps “envy” — from the other disciples. But, Jesus warned them as well: greatness comes through service (cf. Matthew 20:25-28).
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
God’s generosity will not succumb to human jealousy.
Matthew 20:1-16 is a true-to-life parable.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner (οἰκοδεσπότῃ) who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f]
“Day laborers” would be readily available in the market place, but it would be unusual for a wealthy “landowner” to recruit his own workers. Usually, the household manager (οἰκοδεσπότῃ) would have hired the laborers and paid their wages (cf. 20:8). The manager would likely not have returned to the market place to hire additional workers at the end of the day. Fearful of his boss’ reaction, he likely would not have offered these workers the same wage. It would be considered an unwise investment in labor.
The “workers union” grievance seems reasonable. Why would those who have labored less receive an equal share? The modern invention of the “trade union” is a hallmark of freedom and justice. History chronicles story after story of wealthy and privileged businessmen who exploited powerless workers. Over the course of the 20th century, the original intent of the trade union evolved and, while exploitation and injustice may have become less, other issues surfaced that often set worker against worker. So, we are not surprised that the workers in Jesus’ parable grumbled about concerns of fairness and of justice.
However, the landowner had a different concept of fairness, and he could choose to do what he pleased with his resources.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” is the translation of a Greek idiom translated, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” suggests a deeper problem. Earlier Jesus had taught, “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” (6:22-23). The “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.).
Let’s consider the last group of workers. It is curious that they had not been hired earlier. When asked, “Why haven’t you been working?” their answer is revealing, “No one would hire us!” In other words, no one wanted them. Do you wonder why? Perhaps, they were the sort of people that landowners did not want to hire.
Generally, household managers made wise decisions (e.g., 13:27-30; contra 21:33-41). This parable should be deemed the parable of the household manager’s generosity as opposed to the laborers in the vineyard. Earlier Jesus taught that those “trained for the kingdom of God” are expected to live like their household manager (i.e. God) (13:52) who generously provides for all of the “laborers.”
The parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard” – their work ethic or their complaints. It is a story about the graciousness of the household manager – the generosity of God. Even if we fail to view the world through God’s eyes, he will send rain on the just and the unjust. Herein lies the point of the story: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
The parable is intended as a warning to the disciples: don’t think that because you are close to me that you are the favored few. They may have set out with Jesus from the beginning; but others will come in later and receive abundant grace. Grace is not the sort of thing one bargains for or stores up. God doesn’t make contracts with us as if we could bargain or negotiate a better deal. He makes covenants in which he promises everything and asks of us everything. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for our effort. He is doing what comes naturally to his overflowing nature.
We can often get the misguided understanding that the church is God’s inner circle – the favored ones. In reality, God is in the marketplace, looking for the people others ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, and surprising them with his generous grace.
In this way, we are trained for the “kingdom of God.” We treat the “less honorable” with special honor (1 Cor. 12:23). We “sow generously” in hopes that others will praise God (2 Cor. 9:13). This is the follower of Jesus: the one who chooses to be a servant… just as Jesus … who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life.