1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”Matthew 20:1-16
Parables are tempting. They tempt us to take them at face value. They tempt us to allegorize. They tempt us to point fingers. They tempt us to oversimplify. But parables are never that easy. They’re demanding. Challenging. Upending. They force us to wrestle with new ideas and to rethink the status quo. They provoke. Disturb. Unsettle. They’re subversive. And that is exactly what the parable in this week’s Gospel lesson does. It forces us to see the familiar anew. It compels us to look again.
Before I offer my reading of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, I’d like to extend a few warnings. First, we need to be careful not to allegorize the parable. The parable stands on its own; it finds meaning without metaphor. The landowner need not represent God and, as Amy-Jill Levine (216) reminds, the first-hired laborers aren’t a metaphor for wayward Jews. This leads to my second warning. Our readings must guard against supersessionism. Jesus was not anti-Jewish nor do his teachings replace the Law and prophets. Jesus’s parables are up to something else. Finally, it isn’t necessary to read Matthew’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven as about salvation in a far-off, distant future. Jesus’s parables are rooted in the daily life of his first-century context. His words echo and describe the lived realities of his contemporaries and seek to envision the world anew.
This week’s parable starts with a landowner who goes in search of day laborers for his vineyard. The landowner, like any good entrepreneur, gets an early start. He likely hopes to secure the best of the bunch and carefully selects the most promising workers. The landowner agrees to pay a denarius to his hired help before sending them out to work. So far, the story is as expected. So far nothing upsets.
Later in the morning, however, the parable tells us that the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace. Three more times the landowner returns to the marketplace to find laborers standing idle. This is where the parable begins to agitate. Who does the landowner see and why are they idle? Translations mislead. The Greek does not say anything about idle workers as translations suggest. It tells us that the landowner saw others without work in the marketplace (Matthew 20:3). The word often translated as “idle” literally means without labor (argos). The laborers aren’t described as idle. They aren’t just standing around. They’re described as unemployed. There is a difference.
Throughout the span of the workday, the landowner continues to find laborers in the marketplace without work. Interpreters often make assumptions about these unemployed laborers in Matthew’s gospel. Some assume they were late getting to the job market and missed out on the early jobs. Others assume that they had little interest in manual labor and turned away jobs deemed too physical. Still others assume they were lazy and/or unwilling to work. But there is no reason to assume these workers were late, too choosy, lazy, or didn’t want to work. It is more likely that our own cultural assumptions and stereotypes about the unemployed cloud our ability to grasp the situation at hand.
If we are willing to listen to those standing around without work, however, a new possibility emerges. Why are they standing around without work? “Because no one has hired us,” they reply (Matthew 20:7). They aren’t lazy, they’re desperate enough to stand around all day waiting for work. The laborers are many; the jobs are few.
Interpreters of this parable often paint the landowner as generous and charitable because, as they say, he hires workers he doesn’t need. But this isn’t in the text, and it isn’t the only possible interpretation. In a recent class on the parables, a student painted a different picture of the landowner. The student compared the landowner to a department store manager during the holiday season. She explained that store managers often intentionally hire too few workers to avoid additional overhead costs during the holidays. Only when things get too dire, she explained, does a store manager hire the help needed to cover the holiday surge. As a result, store employees are left stressed and overworked while others search and wait despairingly for jobs.
It is possible the landowner in this week’s parable similarly chooses profit over people, that he tries to get away with as few hands as possible. In this reading, it is only when he is desperate enough that he heads back out in search of more hired hands. Even still, he doesn’t hire enough help. It takes two more trips to the marketplace. Why did he not hire all the laborers the first, second, or third time? In this interpretation the laborers were there in the marketplace all along. The landowner just wasn’t willing to hire them at the beginning of the day. But the parable doesn’t stop there. It continues to challenge.
When evening comes the landowner enlists his manager to pay the laborers the same wage, starting with the workers who began their shift at the end of the day. The parable goes on to explain that the first-hired workers begin to grumble against the landowner, expressing dissatisfaction and insisting equal pay for equal work. The landowner replies, “Friend I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:13-15).
It is easy for us to fall prey to victim blaming and side with the landowner. The parable sets us up to take him at his word. It tells us that the laborers grumble and that they’re envious. But parables are never simple. They provoke and challenge. We must look again.
A couple of details in the parable stand out to me. First, why does the landowner pay the last first? Why does the parable give us this detail? Wouldn’t the story have the same effect if he paid them in any order? After all, employees talk. It is likely that they’d know they were paid the same in any order they were paid. So, what is this detail up to? Maybe it details an attempt to turn the employees against each other. Maybe it illustrates how the employer manipulates and tries to keep the upper hand in the relationship. Is this why he bids his manager to pay the laborers? He employs another to do his dirty work. Finally, how generous is a daily wage? Much like minimum wage in our own context, a daily wage isn’t enough to maintain a normal standard of living for those without steady employment. We forget these workers are day laborers. Employment is often irregular and unreliable, especially in seasonal work such as agriculture. A daily wage is hardly a living wage.
At the end of the day the parable doesn’t promote egalitarianism, it critiques capitalism and cautions against victim blaming. It reminds us to listen to the unemployed and to take them for their word. It reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven exposes unjust economies and resists practices that prioritize profits over people. It reminds us to cross-examine those with the upper hand. The parable ends, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20: 16). The landowner says it first, then Jesus refines and reframes it. The first-hired aren’t the “first” and the last hired aren’t the “last.” This isn’t a story about disgruntled employees. It’s a story about employers and the employed. It doesn’t boast of a generous boss; it exposes unjust labor practices, both then and now. This is how the parable shocks, surprises, and challenges norms.
The way we read the text matters because it shapes the way we treat the people around us. As we revisit the story of the Parable of the Laborers, I wonder how the parable might help us reconsider today’s labor market and the unemployed in our midst.