Proper 20 • Matthew 20:1–16 • September 18, 2011
By David I. Lewis
Introduction: Today’s Gospel reading contains a parable that is unique to Matthew’s Gospel, the so-called parable of the workers in the vineyard. A title that better reflects the pragmatics of this parable might be, “Jesus’s parable of warning to his disciples against focusing upon the rewards for discipleship and then making sinful comparisons between themselves and other disciples.” Or, more simply put, this could be called “the parable about how the first can become last.” It falls to the preacher, then, to put this parable into its proper narrative context so that it makes sense for his hearers.
Narrative Context: This reading is part of a larger section of narrative related in 19:16–20:16. This narrative begins when the young man with great possessions rejects Jesus’s call and then Jesus warns his disciples about the dangers of wealth because it is this man’s wealth (and not his reliance on keeping the Torah) that is the cause for his rejection of Jesus. This prompts an observation and question from Peter: “Look, we left everything and followed you. What then will there be for us?” That Peter’s comment does not show (complete) misunderstanding is evident from the straightforward reply of Jesus. Jesus gives a great promise to both the twelve (19:28) and then to “any man” who might leave everything for him (19:29). But with these promises comes the dire warning in 19:30: “But many of the people who are first will be last and many of the last will be first.”
Today’s lesson then follows. The conjunction ga,r that introduces the parable in 20:1 shows that the parable will provide explanation for the warning in 19:30. Note then how in 20:16 the explanation/punch line that Jesus gives to this parable recalls once again this warning. Introduced by the adverb ou[twj in 20:16 it reads “in this way the last will be first and the first will be last.” So the parable, framed by the parallel (and chiastic) statements in 19:30 and 20:16, tells how the warning of 19:30 could become true. The entire parable then serves the function of warning against attitudes and behaviors that could result in a disciple of Jesus losing out on the promises of 19:29—in particular the promise of eternal life, i.e., how the first can become last.
The Parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” Note that the comparison is to this householder and his actions. These actions include his looking first for these and then for other workers throughout the day and later his choosing to pay all of his workers exactly the same wage at the end of the day.
The first section of the story (20:1–7) relates how this householder throughout the day goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. He begins early in the morning. Then he goes out again at the third (9 am), sixth (12 pm), and ninth (3 pm) hours. Finally, in an element of the story that the original hearers would probably have found to be utterly ridiculous, this man goes out at the eleventh hour (5 pm) to hire workers for only one hour. The workers can be divided into three groups: There is the first group of workers who have agreed with the householder to work a full twelve-hour day for a denarius (a day’s wage). There are the workers hired at the third, sixth, and ninth hours who will work less than a full day and are promised to be paid “whatever is fair” (20:4). Then there are the workers hired at the eleventh hour who are simply told (emphatically) to go to the vineyard and are not promised any wage (though it may be assumed that there will be some pay).
The contrast set up is especially between those working in the vineyard all day (the first) and those who have been standing idle in the marketplace most of the day and who have worked for only one hour (the last). With this contrast established, the hearers then may begin to consider this question: We know the householder will pay the first workers a denarius, but it is not said what he will pay these others. What wage, then, will these others receive—in particular the last group that worked for only one hour?
The second section of the story (20:8–15) tells of how the householder pays his workers at the end of the day. When the householder begins with those hired last and pays them a denarius, the question created by the earlier sequence is now reversed: If he pays the eleventh- hour workers a denarius, then how much will he pay those men whom he hired first? Will they now receive more than a denarius? The great surprise—which really should not be a surprise—is that he also pays them a denarius.
That all are paid the same leads to the conflict through which this parable makes its point; the members of the first group of workers now complain against the householder because he made the men who worked for only one hour equal to them who worked the entire day. The householder then responds to one of these complainers—this one man is perhaps representative of the whole group. This response is central to understanding the story:
“Hey buddy, I am not treating you unfairly. You agreed with me to work for a denarius, didn’t you? Take what is yours and go! I want to pay this last guy a denarius just as I also paid you. Certainly it is lawful for me to do what I want with what is mine, isn’t it? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”
The householder’s point is that he paid this worker what they agreed upon and that he can pay the others whatever he wants to pay them because it is his money. Why has his generosity and goodness caused this one complainer (and the others) to become greedy and contentious? Well, this has happened because these workers have made comparisons between themselves and the others, and now they are more fixated on the wage paid to these others than upon their initial agreement with their employer. Now their eyes have become evil and they are greedy for more than they are to lawfully receive.
The reader is now confronted with a quandary. On the one hand, it is natural for us to identify with the complainers as it indeed may not seem fair that the men who worked the longest and the hardest do not receive anything more than those who worked less—in particular those eleventh-hour workers. On the other hand, the householder has paid these workers what they agreed upon, and they neither have the right to expect more nor do they have the right to complain about whatever he chooses to pay the other workers. With whom will the hearer identify—with the householder or with the complaining workers? The answer to this question will reveal the hearer’s own attitudes.
Decoding and Explaining the Parable: The ἄνθρωπος householder is Jesus. The workers called at various times throughout the day are the disciples whom Jesus calls. In the context of Matthew’s narrative, Peter and the other apostles would probably stand for the first workers hired. In addition to these first disciples, other disciples will be called. I don’t think we should make too much of the various hours in which workers are hired and the order in which the workers are paid at the end of the day. These elements of the parable function more to make sense of the story. The workers hired first must be paid last in order to set up the conflict between them and the householder—and so for this parable to make its point.
Again, the purpose of this parable is to explain and amplify the warning of 19:30: “But many people who are first will be last . . .” The parable shows how this can happen. The members of the first group of workers are discontented not because they were cheated, but because the householder paid the other workers the same as them. In this same way, the disciples of Jesus could make sinful comparisons between themselves and other disciples when it comes to the subject of rewards, and so lose focus upon their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ who graciously called them and promises to reward them—and who will also graciously call others and reward them as well. As I understand “the first being last” in this parable to mean the exclusion of these people from eternal life (as happens to Judas Iscariot), then this danger is very dire indeed. He who has ears to hear would heed our Lord’s warning.
Considerations for preaching
As this parable functions as warning, this should be reflected in the sermon as well: The pastor will warn his hearers of the dangers of fixating on rewards and of comparing themselves to other disciples instead of focusing upon their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ who called them and promises rewards. Let the hearers beware of any attitude that would respond to Jesus’s goodness and generosity with “an evil eye” that is greedy and may even contend with the Lord regarding his grace when this grace is shown to others.
Note that Jesus does not accuse Peter and the others of displaying the attitude of the first group of workers. He warns them against this attitude. The preacher, therefore, should not necessarily accuse his hearers of having this attitude. Nevertheless, this parable (as do others) may leave the hearers considering this question: “That worker who complains—is it I?” Thus, this warning could bring the hearers to consider their own attitudes and behavior, and it could result in genuine conviction of sin.
Our Lord Jesus Christ chooses to give eternal life to all of his disciples and in this way, treats them all the same. In the parable, the householder’s generosity brings about conflict between him and the first group of workers; our Lord’s generosity to each of us and to our fellow disciples should be a cause for joy and faithfulness. Remind your hearers of how their Lord graciously called them through the gospel into eternal life and how their relationship with Jesus should remain most important as they follow him today.