The Gospel of Matthew

Highlighted Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Summary of the Text

Despite our vast differences, there seems to exist an innate sense of “fairness” in all humans when it comes to things such as “waiting your turn” or “cutting in line.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more culturally and generationally transcendent moral value than “hey, no cutting!”

This is why Jesus’ “Parable on the Equal Wages for Unequal Work,” the title given to today’s text from Matthew 20.1-16 by R. T. France,[1] strains against our natural sensibilities of fairness. In this story, the owner of a vineyard hires four groups of workers that correspond to the times of day in which they were hired: (1) early in the morning before the work-day commenced; (2) at the “third hour” or about 9 am; (3) at the “sixth hour” or about noon; and finally (4) at the “nineth hour,” or 3 pm (Matt. 20:2-5).

Despite the differing times of their hiring, each of the four groups have all agreed to work for the same wage, a single denarius. That a denarius is the currency chosen for remuneration as opposed to the Jewish shekel underscores that the compensation agreed upon is commiserate to the expectations for a daily wage in the broader Roman economy (20:2). In other words, this vineyard owner’s practice of hiring day-laborers for his work does nothing to raise any eyebrows amongst this parable’s listeners who live and work under Roman rule — he is being eminently fair with his temporary employees who would otherwise be idling away their time in the marketplace (20:3).

Nevertheless, the portrayal of the vineyard owner takes a shocking turn in verse 6. As readers of the parable, we should expect such a plot twist, for unlike the four other groups of workers hired at three-hour intervals, yet another group is hired “at the eleventh hour” or roughly 5 pm, just two hours after the last group and about an hour prior sunset and the natural end to the workday. Our sense that something fishy is afoot is confirmed when the end of the day arrives and the vineyard owner instructs the foreman to issue each group the same wage. Those hired at the crack of dawn and who suffered the brunt of the labor during the heat of the day received the same single denarius as those brought in just before closing.

As expected, the grumbling and complaining that ensued began with those hired first. Upon realizing what those hired last were paid, the first group’s innate sense of fairness immediately had them thinking that if those who only worked an hour or two were given a denarius, surely, they who had worked all day would receive more.

However, the vineyard owner remains resolute in his original promise. Legally, he had agreed to pay each worker a certain wage and he did just that. While the complaining of the early workers elicits a sense of unfairness, the vineyard owner’s response reorients how his actions might be viewed from the perspective of the most recent workers.

For the early workers, the owner might appear stingy and unfair, but for workers hired last, he is incredibly generous — they received a full day’s wage for only two hours of work! It is this latter sense that is highlighted by his closing words of the story that is somewhat obscured by the state of most modern English translations. In verse 20:15 the owner closes his remarks by saying that pay who and what he did, “…because I am good” (the KJV is alone in translating the Greek here literally as opposed to interpretively).

In other words, this parable presents two different ways that these events can be viewed as “unfair.” On the one hand, from the perspective of the early workers, the vineyard owner’s actions might be viewed as “unfair” and miserly, but from the perspective of the workers hired last, this man is “unfair” in that he is incredibly generous and gracious! Many readers, and no doubt this parable’s original listeners, identify with the early workers, but in ending the story as He does, Jesus wants us to consider closely the latter.

As is the case with most of Jesus’ parables, there are a variety of angles and approaches to this one. From a literary perspective, one of the keys to understanding this parable is to realize that it is bookended in 19:30 and 20:16 with a variation of the same statement, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:16). As a result, this parable is meant to be viewed as an explication of the foundational principle of the Kingdom economy that values giving away over hoarding and following rather than leading, where workers do not receive what “they deserve,” but rather are rewarded in an exceeding abundance that far outstrips what is “fair.”

Contextually, the word “For” that begins the parable in 20:1 in most translations is a signal to the reader to what is about to follow is an explanation and illustration of what came before. The current section of Matthew in which this parable is nestled begins in Matt. 19:13, the story of the disciples rebuking the children who want to come to Jesus. There, the children with nothing to offer, come to Jesus and He accepts them. In the following story in 19:16-22, a “rich young ruler” also “comes to Jesus” with everything to offer, but “goes away” grieving because Jesus called him to abandon all his possessions.

This is immediately followed by 19:23-28 where Jesus famously says that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, a short parable that ends with Peter’s inquiry, “We have left everything and followed you. So what will there be for us?” (Matt. 19.27). Thus, the broader context that contains our “Parable on the Equal Wages” is dominated by those with nothing, but through seeking and following Jesus, receive rewards befitting a king, as opposed to those with everything in this world that ultimately go away disappointed. It is no coincidence that the rich young ruler “went away grieving” in 19:22 and the early workers who felt slighted were told to “Take what’s yours and go” in 20:14.

Ultimately, that this parable involves a vineyard owner and his workers immediately calls to mind God’s relationship with Israel, images that used elsewhere in the Gospels (cf., Jn 15:1-11) that grow out of their rich heritage in the Old Testament. While it might be tempting to go further and to try to identify each group of laborers in the story, it is perhaps better to stick with the overarching thrust of the parable that in making “the last first and the first last,” “God rewards human beings according to an unexpected goodness.”[2] Thus, our “rewards” in the kingdom come not by way of what is “earned” or “deserved,” but rather, just like those workers hired right before closing who nevertheless receive a full day’s wage, on the incredible generosity of God.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 2007.

[2] D. C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 332.

Jeff Volkmer<br />

Jeff Volkmer has served in a wide variety of both academic and pastoral positions over his 25-year career in ministry, with most of these spent as a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages.

Jeff has a passion to help others see the wonder and beauty of the Scriptures in a way that allows them to know the Lord more fully and love Him more deeply, and simply put, to help make the Bible make sense to believers and non-believers alike. He holds a ThM in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary and is in the final stages of a doctorate in Semitic Linguistics from the University of Oxford.

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Key Quote

The God who lavishly clothes the flowers and feeds the birds (6:26–29) delights to give his servants far more than they could ever deserve from him. It is that principle, rather than the disappointment of the whole-day laborers, which is the main focus of the parable, but their very natural disappointment and sense of unfairness helps the readers to re-examine how far their reactions are still governed by human ideals of deserving rather than by the uncalculating generosity of the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom in which the first are last and the last first there is no room for envious comparison.”[1]

[1] France, 721.

Key Illustration


The Selfish American

Anyone who knows me is well aware that I am a cycling fanatic — I race bikes, I fix bikes, I read about bikes, and when it comes to the world of professional cycling races, I am the spandex-clad equivalent to a member of Bills Mafia jumping through a folding table. That is why when the 2007 edition of the Tour de France had its opening prologue in London just southeast from where I was living at the time, I had arrived at the race route at 5:30 am to stake out a spot along the rails delineating the course where the cyclists would speed by nearly 6 hours later! I wanted nothing to stand in my way of watching my skinny heroes participate in a race that I had been watching NBC specials on since I was 8!

So you can imagine my irritation when a woman came by as the race was going on, asking that I yield my position so that “she could watch.” Now, I am normally a pretty generous person, but this was a step too far! I had been there for 6 hours waiting to fulfill a life-long dream of watching a stage of the Tour de France and she expected to just walk up through the throng of people and take my front-row seat! I was having none of it and continually denied her increasingly angry demands until she shouted at the top of her lung “YOU SELFISH AMERICAN,” and stormed off.


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