Proper 25A

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


  • Exodus 16:2-15 & Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 [Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Psalm 145:1-8]
  • Philippians 1:21-30
  • Matthew 20:1-16

Gospel: Pay them all the same!

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is known only from Matthew. That single attestation would tend to count against the historical value of this story, but the nature of the story is such that most critics accept it as authentic.

Samuel T. Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament] offers some partial rabbinic parallels to this parable:

There are three passages in rabbinic sources which are of note here; but not one combines both the form and the message of this parable. First, one could point to the well-known statement “Some obtain and enter the Kingdom in an hour, while others reach it only after a lifetime.” The idea here is parallel to that of the parable but not its form.
When R. Bun bar R. Hiyya died, R. Ze’ira came in and delivered a eulogy over him: “Sweet is the sleep of the labourer whether he has eaten little or much. It is not written here ‘sleep,’ but whether he has eaten little or much. To what can R. Bun bar R. Hiyya be compared? To a king who hired many laborers and there was one who was more skilled in his work, more [than others]. What did the king do? He walked up and down with him. At evening the laborers came to get their wages and he gave him the same wages as he gave to them. Whereupon they murmured and said, “We labored the whole day long and this one worked but two hours and he gave him the same as he gave us.’ The king said to them, ‘This one did in two hours more than you did in the entire day.’ Similarly, R. Bun labored in the study of Torah for twenty-eight years and learned what a diligent scholar could learn in a hundred years.” [TJ Ber 2.8, 5c]
... to what can this be compared? To a king who hired two laborers, one of them worked a whole day and received a dinar, and one worked one hour and received a dinar. Which one was more beloved to him [the king]? The one who worked one hour and received a dinar. Similarly, Moses our teacher served Israel for one hundred and twenty years, and Samuel served for fifty-two years, and the two of them were equal before the Omnipresent, as it is said, Then the Lord said to me, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me ...” [Jer. 15.1], and likewise it is written, Moses and Aaron were among His priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon His name [Ps. 99.6], and similar to these verses it is said, sweet is the sleep of the laborer whether he has eaten little or much [Koh. 5.11]. [M. Semahot, ed. Higger, chap. 3, pp. 222-221]

The parable was voted red by the Jesus Seminar, with the commentary in The Five Gospels as follows:

This parable exaggerates the actions of the vineyard owner: he goes into the marketplace repeatedly to hire workers for the harvest. He begins at daybreak and continues the process until the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour day. The repetition of the owner’s activity and the play on words and themes are evidence of oral transmission.

When the time to pay the laborers comes, those hired at the end of the day are paid a full day’s wage (v. 9). Those hired at the outset of the day now expect to be paid something more than they had bargained for (v. 10). But they are paid the same wage, which, in the context of the story, is surprising (the story evokes responses and expectations that run counter to daily routine and to the policy of hardened employers). The conclusion of the parable is upsetting and disturbing for those who worked under the boiling sun the whole day; but it was also surprising for those who were paid a full day’s wage for only a few minutes of labor. The behavior of the vineyard owner cuts against the social grain.

In this parable, both groups of participants get what they did not expect: the first get less than they expected, in spite of their agreement with the owner (v. 2); the last get more than they expected, since as idlers they could not have expected much. This reversal of expectations comports with Jesus’ proclivity to reverse the expectations of the poor: “God’s domain belongs to you” (Luke 6:20) and the rich: “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain” (Mark 10:25 // Matt 19:24 // Luke 18:25). As a consequence, the Fellows awarded this parable a red designation, although it is attested only by Matthew. (p. 225)

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus] puts aside his usual historical skepticism and affirms the historicity of this parable:

This piece, which has been handed down only by the First Evangelist, is stamped with Matthean language ... But we can rule out the possibility that the whole pericope is a Matthean construction, since v. 16 has been put here by Matthew taking up 19.30, and picks up only one detail of the pericope: the order of payment in v, 8b. Here Matthew understands the parable wrongly, since it in fact stresses the equality of the recompense and the reason for it (v. 15). (p. 212)
The parable inculcates one notion. God is gracious without discrimination to all who are active in his vineyard, Israel. It is free from ideas which could have come from the community, and also corresponds to Jesus’ message that God seeks the lost (cf. Luke 15.11-32; 18.9-14). The parable certainly goes back to Jesus. (p. 213)

B. Brandon Scott [Reimagine the World] comments on the social significance of the parable:

In the Vineyard Laborers, the first hired complain that by paying the last hired the same amount they have received, the master has made them equal. Their essential complaint is that the master has destroyed the order of the world. The entire Roman empire was organized as a patron-client system. The ultimate patron was the emperor, and power worked its way downward, with his clients in turn becoming patrons for yet other clients. And their fleas have fleas, too. Such a system ensures a hierarchically arranged social order in which no one is equal and every social engagement is a contest to determine one’s place in the hierarchy. (p. 132)

David Flusser [Jesus] observes:

The paradox of Jesus’ break with the customary old morality was marvelously expressed in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). ... Here as elsewhere the principle of reward is accepted by Jesus, but all the norms of the usual concepts of God’s righteousness are abrogated. One might think that this comes about because God, in His all-embracing love and mercy, makes no distinctions between men. With Jesus, however, the transvaluation of all values is not idyllic. Even misfortune does not distinguish between the sinner and the just man. ... Jesus’ concept of the righteousness of God, therefore, is incommensurable with reason. Man cannot measure it, but he can grasp it. It leads to the preaching of the kingdom in which the last will be first, and the first last. It leads also from the Sermon on the Mount to Golgotha where the just man dies a criminal’s death. It is at once profoundly moral, and yet beyond good and evil. In this paradoxical scheme, all the “important,” customary virtues, and the well-knit personality, worldly dignity, and the proud insistence upon the formal fulfillment of the law, are fragmentary and empty. Socrates questioned the intellectual side of man. Jesus questioned the moral. Both were executed. Can this be mere chance? (p. 101f)

Jeremias Jeremias [The Parables of Jesus, 34-38]offers this insightful interpretation of the parable:

[Matthew] has inserted into a Marcan context the parable about the ‘first’ (Matt. 20.8,10) and the ‘last’ (Matt. 20.8,12,14), in order to illustrate the saying in Mark 10.31 (par. Matt. 19.30), “But many that are first will be last, and the last first,” with which Mark ends the previous address to Peter. ... for Matthew our parable represented the reversal of rank which would take place on the last day. He will have drawn this conclusion from the instruction given to the steward, v. 8b:
“Call the laborers and pay them their wages,
beginning with the last, up to the first.”
... But [the order of payment] is clearly an unimportant detail in the course of the parable. There can be no great significance in the order of payment; a couple of minutes earlier or later can hardly be said to assign precedence to anyone or deprive him of it. In fact, no complaint is made later on about the order of payment which, taken in context, should merely emphasize the equality of the last with the first. Perhaps it is simply intended to indicate how ‘the first were made to witness the payment of their companions.’ But it may be simpler to take arxamenos apo to mean, as it often does, ‘not omitting,’ ‘including,’ so that v. 8 was not originally concerned with the order of payment at all, but meant, rather -- ‘Pay them all their wages, including the last.’ In any case the parable certainly conveys no lesson about the reversal of rank at the end of time since all receive exactly the same wage.
... each hearer must have been compelled to ask himself the question, ‘Why does the master of the house give the unusual order that all are to receive the same pay? Why especially does he allow the last to receive a full day’s pay for only an hour’s work? Is this a piece of purely arbitrary injustice? a caprice? a generous whim?’ Far from it! There is no question here of a limitless generosity, since all receive only an amount sufficient to sustain life, a bare subsistence wage. No one receives more. Even if, in the case of the last laborers to be hired, it is their own fault that, in a time when the vineyard needs workers, they sit about in the marketplace gossiping till late afternoon; even if their excuse that no one has hired them (v. 7) is an idle evasion ... yet they touch the master’s heart. He sees that they will have practically nothing to take home; the pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. It is because of his pity for their poverty that the owner allows them to be paid a full day’s wages. In this case the parable does not depict an arbitrary action, but the behaviour of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. This, says Jesus, is how God deals with men. This is what God is like, merciful. Even to tax-farmers and sinners he grants an unmerited place in his Kingdom, such is the measure of his goodness. The whole emphasis lies on the final words: oti ego agathos eimi [because I am good] (v. 15)!
Why did Jesus tell the parable? Was it his object to extol God’s mercy to the poor? If that were so he might have omitted the second part of the parable (vv. 11ff). But it is precisely upon the second part that the main stress lies, for our parable is one of the double-edged parables. It describes two episodes: (1) the hiring of the laborers and the liberal instructions about their payment (vv. 1-8), (2) the indignation of the injured recipients (vv. 9-15). Now, in all the double-edged parables the emphasis falls on the second point. What, then, is the purpose of the second part, the episode in which the other laborers are indignant, rebel, and protest, and receive the humiliating reply: ‘Are you jealous because I am good?’ The parable is clearly addressed to those who resembled the murmurers, those who criticized and opposed the good news, Pharisees for example. Jesus was minded to show them how unjustified, hateful, loveless and unmerciful was their criticism. Such, he said, is God’s goodness, and since God is so good, so too am I. He vindicates the gospel against its critics. Here, clearly, we have recovered the original historical setting. We are suddenly transported into a concrete situation in the life of Jesus such as the Gospels frequently depict. Over and over again we hear the charge brought against Jesus that he is a companion of the despised and the outcast, and are told of men to whom the gospel is an offence. Repeatedly is Jesus compelled to justify his conduct and to vindicate the good news. So too here he is saying, This is what God is like, so good, so full of compassion for the poor, how dare you revile him?

Jesus Database

  • 031 First and Last - (1) GThom. 4:2 & P. Oxy. 654.4:2; (2) 2Q: Luke 13:30 = Matt 20:16;(3) Mark 10:31 = Matt 19:30; (4) Barn 6:13a [this last attestation is not included in Crossan's version of this inventory]

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