“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
*Portion of an exegetical paper I wrote on the topic.*
The parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16 is part of Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom. Matthew is the only writer who tells the story, which places its composition around A.D. 63 and for the benefit of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The details of the parable would have been very familiar to Jesus’s audience. Brad Young offers a sitz im leben perspective (on-scene contextualization):
The setting assumes the difficult economic conditions of first-century Israel. Many day laborers are standing in the market hoping to be hired for a day job. The original audience could readily identify with these workers and their real-life situation…Day laborers were on the bottom end of the economic structure. They received minimal wages for sporadic work. As the primary wage earners, they had to support their families by the odd jobs they could acquire for day service. During the time of harvest, the situation improved as landowners needed additional day laborers to harvest the crops on time.
One noticeable aspect of this parable is that at its outset the householder, not his steward, works from early morning to late evening to acquire laborers. This would have been an immediate signal to the listening crowd that their normal worldview was about to be challenged.
The parable can be divided into three acts: Act One, the hirelings (vs. 1-7); Act Two, the payments (vs. 8-11); and Act Three, the dialogue between the owner and the grumbling workers (vs. 11-15).
It is obvious that the parable involves economic details. The only condition imposed on the workers is proper work for a day’s wage. This was the denarius, a silver coin that meant a usual day’s pay. The parable, however, should not be used to imply any message about economic arrangements in society, a proposition not obvious in the illustration.
Moreover, the owner’s pay arrangement is simply impossible in the developed world and modern economy. Business leaders and workers would spurn the idea.
A Hard Pill to Swallow
The workers are recruited throughout the day and are finally called in to be paid. This is where the parable does what it is characteristically known for, which is setting up listeners for a surprise. The owner starts by paying the laborers who have worked the least amount of time first—and they receive just as much as those who have toiled all day in the heat.
The first-comers are begrudged. When confronted the owner explains that he had kept his word and had also decided to be gracious to those who had come later. Donahue says:
“If the reader too quickly identifies the owner as God and is unwilling to experience the same feelings as those who worked all day, the challenge of the parable loses its force. Hardly any parable in the Gospels seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society as does this one…The constant complaint in our society about welfare is proof that popular morality operates according to the principle of ‘equal work for equal pay.'”
The laborers who had been fortunate enough to receive work in the morning should have rejoiced at the generosity of the owner.
Still, one significant limitation of the parable needs to be pointed out. Those who labored all day earn their day’s wage by their work; but Jesus did not believe that anyone earns a place in the kingdom by his or her work. It should be understood that parabolic language should not be pressed too far.
God’s Undeserved Favor
What is the message of the parable? It is first a parable of the kingdom by which Jesus illustrates the incredible grace of God. It drives a wedge between two ways of thinking about Christian life and one’s relationship with God.
The first mindset centers on human goodness and the ability to earn one’s way into the kingdom. But a problem arises here because distinctions are easily and often made between those whose length of service and fervor for the kingdom are exemplary and those who have less to show. The simple standards of justice and the ranking of time and effort determine degrees of worth.
The second way of thinking ventures much deeper into the gospel to show us that God’s way with us makes no distinctions between us. Each of us are accepted and loved by him, and we are saved not due to any efforts we make but purely as a result of his grace. It is that “God loves us not because we are lovable, but because God is loving in a radical way.”
This is the gospel. Borsch says, “We either ‘take what belongs to us and go’—a way of living that cuts us off from true fellowship with God and others—or we receive from God what he has graciously chosen to give.”
Credits: Borsch, Frederick Houk. Many Things In Parables: Extravagant Story of New Community. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988./Donahue, John R. The Gospel in Parable. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988/Young, Brad H. Jesus The Jewish Theologian. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995