The uncalculating generosity of God in Matthew 20

The lectionary reading for Trinity 16 in Year 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.

Given that Matthew has arranged the main elements of Jesus’ teaching into his five blocks (become a disciple, 5–7; share the good news, 10; see the kingdom grow, 13; live as the people of God, 18; anticipate the end, 24), here we have a substantial section of Jesus’ teaching (as shown if you read a ‘red-letter’ text), which is also about the kingdom. The parable even begins with the same repeated formula we encountered in Matthew 13, ‘The kingdom of the heavens is like [a man who]…’ So Matthew five-block arrangement is a framework, but not an absolute one.

We can also see the eschatological context of Jesus’ kingdom teaching very clearly here—and this is another example of where the chapter divisions and lectionary choice might be a little misleading. This section really starts at Matt 19.28: ‘Jesus said to them…’ and explicitly sets the context of God’s justice and reward in the age to come. Where Mark 10.30 and Luke 18.30 point to the ‘hundredfold’ or ‘manifold’ rewards of faithful, costly discipleship as beginning in this age (a reflection of the shared benefits of life in community as shown in Acts 2.42 ff), in Matthew Jesus associates this more firmly into the age to come.

He does this by using an unusual word, παλιγγενεσία, palingenesia, meaning rebirth or renewal, which occurs only here and in Titus 3.5, where it is used of individuals rather than, as here, the whole world. But this connection between personal rebirth (see John 3) and the rebirth of creation is one that is common in Paul, finding clearest expression in 2 Cor 5.17 ‘When anyone is in Christ—new creation!’ Jesus’ words here about ‘the Son of Man on his glorious throne’ anticipates the eschatological ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31.

This then creates the framework for the parable that follows. The end of the working day is, in effect, the end of the age, and the wage the workers receive is their eschatological salvation and life in God in the age to come.

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. His motivation is his compassion for them, not a concern for his own project. 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. There are two striking details here that it is easy to miss (and I missed when I previously wrote about this passage!).

The first is that the master of the house (οἰκοδεσπότης, Matt 20.1, 11) has, for a moment, become the ‘Lord [kurios] of the vineyard’. This picks up on the theological significance of the vineyard as an image associated with the people of God, and God as the Lord of his people. Yet, as we saw, the narrative context is that of Jesus himself being the one who sits on his ‘glorious throne’ (Matt 19.28) and (as in Matt 25) the one who issues both reward and punishment. Here is another Christological hint—the sovereignty of God over his people will be exercised by the Lordship of Jesus.

The second interesting detail is that the master does not call in the servants himself, but delegates it. This sits in narrative parallel with earlier images of eschatological judgement, so that in the parable of the wheat and tares, the Son of Man sends his angels to gather the harvest (Matt 13.41) and in the parable of the net, it is the angels who separate the good from the bad fish (Matt 13.49).

Within the narrative of the parable, 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 still 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)

Come and join Ian and James as they discuss all these issues and their application:

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8 thoughts on “The uncalculating generosity of God in Matthew 20”

  1. Interesting to see the use of palingenesia in Matthew 19:28. If it’s correctly translated as rebirth, born again, or something similar, anothen in John 3 may be best translated born ‘from above’ rather than ‘born again.’ How many sermons might then need to be re-written?
    And it’s a great video pointing out the role of luck/chance/good fortune in our achievements. Often those at the bottom of the social hierarchy can see this but those at the top (and that includes in churches and NGOs) tend to think it’s largely their hard work or unique talents or skills. Do you think this can also be applied to whole organisations and institutions as well as to individuals? Daniel Kahneman’s, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow,’ is excellent on this area.

    • Yes, the video is great!

      I hope most people notice the ambiguity in John 3. In any case, it is indeed a rebirth that comes from above, and anticipates the rebirth of the world…

      (But I wonder if we make the connection enough in our teaching…?)

  2. Dear Ian and James,
    Thank you for your recent conversation on Matt.20:1-16 -scholarly, engaging and stimulating as ever! I am curious about the bread of your proposed sandwich, the two adages: is there any significance in the reversal of first, last – last first in 19:30 to read last, first – first last in 20:16? Is the chiastic arrangement simply doubly emphasising the point that in the economy of God’s grace, first/last is irrelevant? Or are they making slightly different but related points, depending on how we interpret the meanings of ‘first’ and ‘last’ -in which case (without getting too “bake-off” about it!) should we see the parable ‘sandwiched’, as you suggest?

    • Good question! In this gospel particularly, I think the focus is on the qualifications for the kingdom. In the next chapter (Matt 21.31) he says “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” In other words, the unexpected who repent enter the kingdom ‘ahead’ of the expected who do not.

      In the end, we are all equal in the kingdom. But I think Jesus is using this hyperbolic language to indicate the unexpected nature of the entry.

      Does that make any sense?

  3. There seems no doubt that Jeus,Paul et al were concidered as Johnny – come latelys. rocking the boat,radicals
    Mark 15:10 & Act 17:5 etc.
    In both secular and sacred situations there is a lot of “quenching the spirit”and one does not “get on” if one does not toe the accepted line, if one is lawfully engaged in dissent.
    Sadly too many are very precious about their roles and do not realize that the meek will inherit the world. The meek are those who let others have the world for now as ultimately God will and does exalt us. It is the essential nature of Christ.

  4. Just wondering whether these very helpful and stimulating comments are always related just to the set gospel reading and not the other readings?

    • Yes, they are. There is already enough to say in one blog post!

      Perhaps, in future lectionary cycles, I might venture into the other readings. If so, should it be the OT or the other NT readings?

      • Yes, please!
        Though, if it were thought that the Gospels brought out contention in comments….
        Having said that, a biblical theology hermeneutic may assist in opening up the whole counsel of God, or Jesus’s self -hermeneutic of the Emmanus road.


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