The lectionary reading for Trinity 15 in Years A is the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matt 20.1–16. Once more in the lectionary we are focussing on Jesus’ teaching that is recorded only in Matthew, just as we did with the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt 18. Like the previous parable, this one is, in style and content, quite characteristic of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere, and it shares the introduction of ‘the kingdom of heaven it like…’ a person—so there is no real case for supposing that this was a later creation rather than going back to the actual teaching of Jesus.
What is striking, though, is that in this section Matthew follows Mark’s order of material. In both Matthew 19 and Mark 10 we have Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce, Jesus’ blessing children, and the encounter with the rich young ruler, and following this parable we have Jesus’ third prediction of his passion and a dispute about greatness. This parable in Matthew is inserted as additional material, though as with last week’s reading, it amplifies an aspect of teaching that is already present. It is strongly linked to the previous material by the introduction ‘For the kingdom of heaven…’ (Matt 20.1), and the final slogan ‘The last shall be first…’ in Matt 20.16 is a repetition of the final slogan of chapter 19.
The central figure in the parable is introduced immediately. The term oikodespotes literally means ‘master of the house’ (hence ESV translation) and such a figure is common in Jesus’ economic parables. But the focus here is on the farming of the land, rather than the management of the household, and so other ETs rightly describe him as a ‘landowner’. Within the socio-economic structure of the first century, this is someone who is quite a long way up the scale of security and stability, above artisans, tenant farmers, day labourers and slaves, and thus someone who contrasts sharply with the other characters in the story.
The scenario that Jesus depicts here makes perfect practical sense—though of course the ‘vineyard’ is a potent symbol of God’s people Israel in both the OT and the teaching of Jesus. Farm work would start early in the morning; when I was working in a kibbutz in Israel as a volunteer, we started at 6 am in the spring but as early as 3 am in the summer in order to get our work done before the heat of the day at noon. Here, though, the hired men work all through the day.
The agora where the men are waiting would be the main square in the village or town where market trading would take place. The times at which the landowner goes to the marketplace are ‘early…at the third hour…the sixth hour…and ninth hour’ following the Roman way of counting from roughly 6 am to 6 pm. Some English translations give the equivalent times of day by our own clock—though this misses the final time of ‘the eleventh hour’ (Matt 20.6) which has become proverbial.
The landowner agrees to pay a denarius for the full day’s pay—certainly fair and just, though not exceptional. In Tacitus Annals 1.17, we read of mutinying soldiers demanding a denarius as a fair day’s pay. As the day progresses, there is no suggestion that the work has increased, or that the landowner has underestimated the work that needs to be done—he appears to hire the later workers because he sees them unemployed, and knows, with those listening to Jesus’ parable, that if they don’t work, they won’t eat. They are described as argos, the opposite of doing ergon, work; this term can have a pejorative overtone, and so some ETs translate it as ‘idle’. But they are only idle in the sense that an engine might idle—there is no work to be done.
At the end of the day, again we have the practical situation we would expect; supervisor, whom we might call a foreman or charge hand, distributes the pay according to his master’s orders. But this is where things start to take a strange turn. Those hired last are paid first, which both sets up the final slogan ‘the last shall be first…’ but also creates the narrative tension for the complaint of those who have worked hardest.
And it is at this point that, as we read the parable, the parable reads us.
The reader instinctively sympathizes with the aggrieved workers in vv 11–12; it doesn’t seem fair. The retort of the landowner is of course technically correct: no one has been cheated; the agreement has been scrupulously observed. Why then do we still feel that there is something wrong? Because we cannot detach ourselves from the ruling convention that rewards should be commensurate to the services rendered. (R T France, NICNT, p 748).
We might want to ask whether Jesus has particular groups in mind when telling the story. The most obvious is the disciples (the Twelve) themselves, given that there has just been a discussion about both the challenges and rewards of discipleship, and that the question of rank and greatness will resurface very soon! The teaching might be important to (Jewish) Matthew in contrasting faithful Jews who have a long legacy of obedience to God with Johnny-come-lately Gentiles who are new to the feast of the kingdom of heaven. Or both Jesus and Matthew might be anticipating the challenge of ‘eleventh hour’ conversions which always provoke these kinds of questions.
Perhaps we ought to think of all these situations and more. Many of us will have encountered the church member who is diligent in doing his or her duties over the years, and appears to have an implied sense of rank and privilege as a result, which makes it hard to welcome those new to faith into the community. To this context, the parable speaks a word of radical egalitarianism; all stand equal before the landowner whether they are early or late to the work. At that level, those who were hired first remind us of the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son and forgiving father in Luke 15, who never realised that being in the home and in relationship with his father was all the reward that he needed.
Although it is not the focus of the parable, the practical questions of justice, equality, and differentials in the real world are also raised. I recently watched a fascinating video about whether we get on in life by hard work or just by being lucky, and the presenter demonstrates how much more luck or random chance (or however else you want to explain it!) plays a decisive role. More than that, those who do get to the top of the pile are sure that it was only by their hard work, and they go on to communicate a distorted view of the world in which their success merits greater reward—the presenter calls it ‘egocentric bias’. (I hope to reflect on this at greater length in a future post).
Despite all that, the primary focus of the parable is what ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is like. In the real-life work situation we might link commitment and hard work to just reward—so Paul can say to the Thessalonians ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat’ (2 Thess 3.10). But that is not the whole of reality, and is not the dynamic of God’s grace.
We do better to focus on the quality of the reward. The blessing of eternal life is the same for all. one are not more saved than others. (R T France, NICNT, p 751).
There is a fascinating connection here with the previous teaching about forgiveness. Jesus’ hyperbolic use of numbers in the discussion about ‘how many times must I forgive’ demonstrates that calculation is not the point—if we are still calculating, then we haven’t understood Jesus’ teaching! And the same is true in this parable; whilst the early workers are doing their sums, the landowner doesn’t appear to be calculating profit, loss and margins. What matters is that the workers get paid.
The kingdom of heaven does not operate on the basis of commercial convention. God rules by grace, not by desert…by the uncalculating generosity of the kingdom in which the first are last and there is no room for envious comparisons. (R T France, NICNT, p 748)