Matthew 20:1-16
George Lyons


In the immediately preceding context (Mt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30) Jesus briefly answers two paradoxical questions. The question of a rich young man brought out the disciples' lingering hope for self-salvation. Jesus' conviction regarding this impossibility elicited the astonished query, "Who then can be saved?" (19:25). Jesus' reassuring reply, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible," (19:26) raised a further question for Peter, "We have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?" (19:27). Jesus reminded him that the basis for rewards in the Kingdom was the reverse of human expectations: "But many that are first will be last, and the last first." The disciples thoroughly misunderstood the nature of the Messianic Kingdom and their place in it (20:20-28). Jesus told the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard to elucidate the constitution of the Fatherly Reign of God.

It is not necessary (with Bultmann 199; Jeremias 38; Fenton 319; and others) to see the parable as originating in a controversy of Jesus with the Pharisees over his treatment of tax gatherers and sinners misapplied by the early church as instruction to the disciples on the last judtment. Perhaps Pharisees were included in Jesus' audience (19:2-3, 10, 13, 16, 22-23), who also could profit from its teaching. In spite of their good works and virtuous lives, they merited no greater claim on the Father's mercy than did the publicans and sinners.

The story accurately represents its first century Palestinian setting. Unemployment was not uncommon. But during the time of the grape harvest, workers were in demand. "The vintage and the pressing had to be finished before the onset of the rainy season. . ." (Jeremias 136). It would not be surprising to find a householder seeking to employ the idle more than once during a day. The unexpectedly generous wage illustrates the rule of end stress, calling the hearers attention to the settling of accounts (cf. 18:23 and 25:14). This parable indirectly answers Peter's question (19:27) on rewards for Kingdom service.

Exegetical Analysis

The expression "the kingdom of heaven is like . . ." (20:1) does not compare the Kingdom to "a man" but to his activity — the hiring of laborers and the reckoning of payment (Jeremias 136). Care must be taken to resist the temptation to the allegorizing which sees the hiring of laborers as the progressive action of the Kingdom in history (Via 149) — the various Old Testament covenants culminating in the "eleventh hour" inclusion of the Gentiles in the divine plan (example cited in Hunter 24).

The times: early (6 AM), third (9 AM), sixth (12 noon), ninth (3 PM), and eleventh (5 PM) hours and the end of the day (6 PM) are merely scenery in the story (Fenton 320). There are really just two groups of laborers — those hired early in the day who agree to a definite wage and grumble upon receiving it, and those hired later who agree to work with no specified wage and are satisfied with the householder's generous payment (Plummer 272). Thus the twice repeated application of Jesus on the first and last (19:30 and 20:16) is appropriate.

There are some allegorical elements in the story. The householder (oijkodespovth/ — from oi[ko", "house," and despovth", "master" — Earle 183) is later referred to as "lord" (kuvrio" — 20:8). Undoubtedly, he represents God (as in 13:27, 13:52, and 21:33).

The vineyard may be a symbol for Israel (as in Ps 80:8-15; Is 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; and Mt 21:33-46 ||) or for the Church, the new Israel (as in Mt 26:26-29 ||; Jn 15:1-17; Rom 9—11). It is the setting for work and the payment of wages.

The wages (tovn misqovn, "reward" — 20:8) of day workers was paid at the end of the day (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15; Tobit 5:15). It was one denarius (20:2, 9) — the normal amount paid for a full day's work during the ministry of Jesus (Billerbeck as cited in Jeremias 136). In the parable, it represents eternal life (Argyle 150; Fenton 319; and others), reward in heaven (5:12), or "God's impartial goodness to all" (Bultmann 199).

The first-century equivalent for the unemployment office according to the custom of the day was the village market place (ajgora'/). Here unemployed workers (ajrgoiv from e[rgon with the negative prefix a- — M'Neile 283) gathered. The owner's question: "Why do you stand here idle all day?" (20:6) expresses reproach rather than surprise. Is the answer of the unemployed a "poor excuse," concealing their lack of initiative (Jeremias 136-137)? Or, is the employer evading his own responsibility for failing to hire more earlier?

The householder's promise — "Whatever is right I will give you" (20:4) — would not mean to the laborers anything the employer thought fit to give them. More likely, they took it to mean the appropriate proportion of the ordinary denarius wage, commensurate with their hours of employment (M'Neile 283). However, the unemployed were in no position to bargain — anything was better than starvation.

At the end of the day, the owner called his steward (a symbol for Jesus?) to pay all the workers the full day's wage, including the last (Jeremias 36, 137). The reckoning begins with the last so that those hired earlier may see what they receive. Those hired first grumble when their wage is only what they were promised — the same wage paid the others. They expected more because they had "borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat" (20:12). Was this a jab at the Pharisees who considered it their lot to bear "the burden of the Law" (see Mt 11:28-29; Acts 15:28)?

The householder's response, "Friend . . ." (eJtai're — v. 13) may be variously understood. Though normally used as a kindly greeting (M'Neille 284), on the lips of Jesus it is always a shameful rebuke (see 22:12 & 26:50; Fenton 320). Jeremias interprets it as "a mode of addressing someone whose name is unknown: It implies an attitude that is both friendly and reproachful . . . the person addressed is in the wrong" (137). The phrase "is your eye evil because I am good?" (v. 15b) is an idiomatic expression for "Do you begrudge my generosity?" (RSV).

Statement of Teaching

The twofold thrust of the parable illustrates the dual nature of the Kingdom of God in Jesus teaching: present — "summons to the divine vineyard" — and future — "distribution of wages at the end of the day" (Jeremias 34 — his words but not his usage). The message to all not a part of the Kingdom is: "You go into the vineyard too" (v 7). The message to those already in the Kingdom (vv 13-15) is: "Do not forfeit salvation by murmuring, self-justification, or rejection" (Jeremias 35).

Jeremias correctly observes that the "first receive . . . not condemnation, but the agreed wage" (35). But the wage "is very different to different receivers; objectively the same, subjectively it is very different . . ." (Trench 184). The grumblers "get the reward that was promised them; but they have lost the power of enjoying it" (Plummer 274), because of their greed and jealousy. What's more, they are invited to leave the vineyard (v 14).

Taking into account the expulsion of the grumbling workers, the parable may teach that "reward is wholly by grace" (Rom 4:4; Via 153-154). Certainly "God keeps His promises to those who serve Him, but He remains Master in His own world."(Plummer 272). The Pharisees, and even the disciples, needed the reminder that by "their impenetrable legalistic understanding of" life in the Kingdom "grounded in the effort to effect their own security, they exclude themselves from the source of grace" and the resulting tragic loss of Kingdom existence (Via 154-155).

Some suggest that Jesus teaches that quality more than quantity "determines the value of work in the Divine Kingdom. . . . The first in amount of service and sacrifice becomes, through pride, or vain-glory, or self-seeking, last in the esteem of God . . ." ( Bruce 188). Others stress that God is not arbitrary in his behavior but limitless in his generosity, "compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. . . . This is what God is like, merciful" (Jeremias 57). But a denarius in not particularly generous. Still others note that God does not distinguish between the first and last. "There is such a thing as a twelfth part of a [denarius]. It was called a pondion. But there is no such thing as a twelfth part of the love of God" (T. W. Manson cited by Hunter 54.)


Heaven is a gift of the free grace of God. He, therefore, need not answer to humans for what He does with His gift (Fenton 519). Eternal life is undeserved by all who receive it. In response to this grace, how can a mature Christian grumble if others, apparently less deserving, receive the identical gift? Grace is "the love of God — spontaneous, beautiful, unearned — at work in Jesus Christ for the salvation of men" (Hunter 54). Instead of begrudging God's generosity, we ought faithfully to work in God's vineyard, joining the Lord who pleads to those not yet hired: "You go into the vineyard, too" (v 7). "All the labourers [in the parable] came as soon as they were called" (Plummer 273).

Judgment and reward is determined by the human response to opportunity, and service, measured by his motive (Buttrick 163-164). Privilege implies responsibility. "Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required" (Lk 12:48b). "The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men" (Titus 2:11). "How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" (Heb 2:3a). "For God shows no partiality . . . since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. . . . Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . . For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 2:11; 3:23-24; 4:4-5; 6:23).