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


Matthew 20:1-16


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.