The Next Faithful Step
The Parable of the Late-Coming Workers
Matthew 20:1-16 recounts a parable whose ambiguities have led to interpretation in several directions. The story itself is clear enough: a landowner hires day laborers to work in his vineyard, hiring a first group early in the morning, and then going out looking for additional workers four more times during the day. He has agreed to pay the first group one denarius for the day’s work, but the surprise, and the tension, of the parable, emerges as he pays the same wage to all the workers, even those who have worked only an hour. The first group speaks up in disgruntlement, and the landowner replies justifying his action.
There are ambiguities we can find within the parable itself. For instance, the motive of the landowner for his surprising decision remains unclear. He himself responds to the workers’ criticism simply by saying “I wish to give to this last group the same as I give to you” (v. 14). Some hear in this “a distinct note of grace”1 and understand the landowner to be mirroring the beneficence of God. Others point out that the confrontation seems not to be about goodness but about fairness: “Am I not allowed to do as I wish with what belongs to me?” (v. 15) Does the landowner mirror the love of God, or the more austere reality of God’s sovereignty?
Another ambiguity: the landowner makes five hiring sorties during the day; the reason is not clear. It would have been easy to clarify this with a reference to the urgency of the harvest or some such matter, and there is a tendency to suppose that the parable evokes the eschatological urgency of the preaching of the end times. But nothing along this line is stated, and so it may be that the heart of the parable is to be found in another direction. The conversation between the landowner and the as-yet-unhired laborers (20:6-7) absolves them of laziness or shirking, but does not help in discerning the motives for his action: whether a concern for the harvest or, as some suggest, the beneficent kindness of the landowner.
A second level of ambiguity is found as we attempt to set the meaning of the parable in its context in Matthew. There is general agreement that it represents an answer to Peter’s question in 19:27. Reacting to Jesus’ comment on the difficulty of the rich in entering the kingdom of God, Peter replies, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you; what then will there be for us?” While Jesus immediately affirms the place of the Twelve in the kingdom (19:28,29), many readers have heard in Peter’s question a certain spiritual pride, and in Jesus’ parable a rebuke to it. In this line, Peter, much like the “older brother” in Luke’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), feels that his clear dedication over the long term entitles him to consideration and reward. In our parable, the workers who put in a full day seem to express a similar sense of entitlement. Does the parable address a clash between groups in Jesus’ ministry—the old faithfuls and the new recruits—or perhaps tensions in Matthew’s community between Jewish followers and Gentile converts? Some have suggested that the unhired workers suffered from a social stigma, and were thus to be paralleled with the “unworthy” such as tax collectors and harlots.2 Such references are suggestive, but not required by the text itself.
Further, the parable is bookended by Jesus’ observation that “many of the first will be last, and the last, first” (19:30; 20:16). The simple phrase spreads many ripples through the pool: that God’s judgment of who or what is “first and last” dwarfs human judgment; that personal security at the judgment seat cannot rest on personal assessment; that God’s approval does not depend on the longevity of one’s group membership; that the urgency of the end times governs even the most routine transactions.3
If these are some of the outriding possibilities of interpretation and application, the heart of the parable points less clearly to the varying responses of the audience to the ministry of Jesus (which we see especially the Parable of the Sower, Matt. 13:1-23), and more focally to the implacable controlling decision of God, represented by the landowner, who gives no reasons for his actions (whether of mercy or of urgency) but requires the grumblers to acknowledge the reality of his lordship, and to desist from the irrelevance of whining or envying (20:15). As F. D. Bruner puts it, “the extravagance of the parable ought to be respected: the text stops on the note of the incomprehensible grace of God. And so should we.”4