Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
he found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
20:4 What is just: although the wage is not stipulated as in the case of those first hired, it will be fair.
20:8 Beginning with the last … the first: this element of the parable has no other purpose than to show how the first knew what the last were given (Mt 20:12).
20:13 I am not cheating you: literally, “I am not treating you unjustly.”
20:14–15 The owner’s conduct involves no violation of justice (Mt 20:4, 13), and that all the workers receive the same wage is due only to his generosity to the latest arrivals; the resentment of the first comes from envy.
20:16 Different interpretations have been given to this saying, which comes from Mk 10:31. In view of Matthew’s associating it with the following parable and substantially repeating it (in reverse order) at the end of that parable, it may be that his meaning is that all who respond to the call of Jesus, at whatever time (first or last), will be the same in respect to inheriting the benefits of the kingdom, which is the gift of God.
The parable of the vineyard workers shines a spotlight on the extravagant generosity of God. The late hires received from the divine landowner the same compensation as the early arrivals, yet this was neither earned by their efforts nor owed to them according to the terms of the contract. It was not something they deserved or merited. It was simply a gift that the Lord was free to bestow at his good pleasure.
The early hires, however, mistook divine generosity for divine injustice. Theirs was an instinctive human reaction to an unfulfilled expectation (“we should have gotten more than the latecomers”) combined with a perception of unfairness (“the latecomers got a better hourly rate than we did”). Many of us can relate to the perspective of the disgruntled workers; their initial reaction—and perhaps ours—is to think they have been cheated.
But this is not the case, as the landowner explains in verses. The injustice lies instead with the grumbling laborers, who have become envious of the others. Envy is not simply jealousy, which is the desire to attain or possess what another person has. Envy is the sin of being upset at another’s good fortune. The Book of Wisdom traces its beginning back to the devil himself.
The parable thus conveys a theological message about God’s goodness as well as a moral message that cautions readers against envy. The challenge is to rejoice at the liberality of God manifest in the lives of others. None of us is deserving of his grace or has a claim on his blessings. We all have reason to be grateful that the Lord is “generous.”
– Curtis Mitch