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Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard


Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to the generosity of a landowner who hires laborers at various times during the day and then surprisingly pays the last hired with the same wage as those hired first.


This parable continues Jesus' teaching about discipleship and entering the kingdom (see 19:13-30; 20:20-28) that surrounds his third prediction of his passion and death (20:17-19) and just precedes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11). It uniquely and characteristically expands Jesus' kingdom saying about the "first being last, and the last being first" (see Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30) into a parable that illustrates its cryptic point. That this is true is emphasized by the fact that Matthew has framed the parable with the repetition of the saying, although in reversed sequence (compare 19:30 and 20:16). Also at the center of the parable the owner explicitly instructs the laborers to be paid "beginning with the last and then going to the first" (20:8), and there is repetition of the motif of "first" and "last" at a number of other points in the parable (20:10, 12, 14).

This parable is further given a special stamp by its link to characteristic Matthean themes. The landowner's agreement to "pay…whatever is right" (20:4) and his assertion that he has done them "no wrong" (20:13) actually disguise the same Greek root "justice" or "righteousness" that underlies them. "Righteousness" (see 1:19; 5:17-20) is now interpreted in terms of a God who insists on being generous ("good"; see 19:17). Such generosity that presumes to make first and last "equal" (20:12) incites the begrudging eye of the "evil one" (20:15, in the Greek)-the one from which disciples are invited to pray for deliverance in the Lord's Prayer (6:13). God's generosity of the landowner is interpreted in terms of the persistent theme of "justice" or "righteousness." The same Greek word underlies all of these references. The parable thus holds both promise and threat. The generosity of a forgiving God who insists on reversing the traditional standards of "justice," in making the last first, will also generate the kind of anger that will result ultimately, and soon in the narrative, in the death of God's Messiah.

Matthew 20:1-16

The Labourers in the Vineyard

20‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage,* he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.* 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.* 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?* 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”* 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’*

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