The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16a)

From: The Biblical Scholarship Website

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.

The landowner should probably be identified with God (Isa 5), the other option being Jesus. Hours are reckoned from sunrise (6 am; “early in the morning” in v. 1). The Greek literally reads “about the third hour” (9 am) in v. 3, “about the sixth and ninth hour” (12 pm and 3 pm) in v. 5, and “about the eleventh hour” (5 pm) in v. 6. “Evening” (v. 8) corresponds to about 6 pm. Landowners hired workers especially during harvest. Unemployed day laborers were common. Vineyards were plentiful in Galilee. Vineyards commonly symbolized the people of Israel (Ps 80:8-9; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Jer 2:21; 12:10).

2 And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

The Greek literally reads, “agreeing with the workers for a denarius a day.” This is what the workers are each paid in v. 9 (translated “a full day’s pay” in the NET). The denarius was a silver coin and the normal rate for a day laborer in first-century Palestine (hence the translation “the standard wage” in the NET).

3 When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work.

It is possible the workers hired later in the day were considered less impressive than the workers hired earlier in the day. This could tie in with the last being first (19:30; 20:16) if the last are envisioned as somehow less desirable. The landowner looking for additional workers repeatedly is intended to communicate spiritual truths; it is not a realistic depiction of how workers were hired. This strange hiring behavior draws the interest of the hearer.

4 He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’

Initially it would be assumed that “whatever is right” is a percentage of what those hired earlier would be paid.

5 So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing.

6 And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’

In real life workers who had not been hired by 5 pm would probably have given up finding work for the day. The fact that the landowner addresses this group gives them greater importance in the parable.

7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’

Since they had waited all day it is apparent these workers wanted to work.

8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’

Day laborers were paid each evening (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15). This verse introduces a manager who plays no other role in the parable. There is no need to identify him with Jesus. The last hired being paid first prepares the way for v. 16 and allows those hired first to know all workers received equal pay.

9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay.

The last group hired had worked only an hour while the first group hired had worked twelve hours.

10 And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage.

11 When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’

The Greek word translated “complain” is used in Num 14:27 LXX of Israel complaining against God in the wilderness (it is also used for the grumbling against Moses and Aaron in Num 14:2, 36). It may have been surprising to hearers that the workers would complain against someone who might employ them in the future. This complaint is similar to the complaint of the older son in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:28-30).

13 And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage?

“Friend” (hetaire) is a polite title but may suggest a mild reproach (cf. 22:12; 26:50). No respectful address is used toward the landowner in v. 12. The standard wage was agreed to in v. 2.

14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you.

The phrase “I want to give” calls attention to the landowner’s grace.

15 Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

A positive answer is expected to the first question. The Greek literally reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The “evil eye” refers to an evil intention, such as envy, resentment, or miserliness. The workers are not objecting to injustice, but to generosity. God gives his disciples more than they deserve. The final question invites the hearer to consider whether he is like the complaining workers.

The theme of divine generosity is enhanced by an awareness of the employment situation for day-laborers (“involuntary marginals,” Carter) in first-century Palestine. The day-laborer did not have even the minimal security which the slave had in belonging to one master. There was no social welfare program on which an unemployed man could fall back and no trade unions to protect a worker’s rights. An employer could literally “do what he chose with what belonged to him.” (v. 15) In such a setting no work meant no food for the family. The extraordinary behavior of this landowner in adding extra workers after he has already recruited all he needs in the early morning therefore probably indicates not that he could not calculate his labor needs in advance but that he was acting compassionately to alleviate the hardship of the unemployed. It is unlikely that he needed the extra workers, and his excessive payment of them speaks for itself. (1)

16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

This principle frames the parable, appearing here and in 19:30. Here, both the “first” and the “last” are disciples. The “last” are the last in rank or worthiness. All disciples are equal in God’s eyes. In the kingdom there is no room for envious comparisons.

Reading 19:16–30 one might suppose that salvation is according to works: one must obey the Torah and Jesus Christ. But 20:1–15 disallows this simplistic interpretation. For it clearly teaches, albeit in a picture, that there is no necessary proportion between human work and divine reward; or, as Isaac the Syrian provocatively put it, ‘How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?’ (Asc. hom. 51). Many have found a Pauline doctrine of grace in 20:1–15. In this connexion Bonnard, p. 293, even refers to ‘Matthean Paulinism’. At the least Sanday (v) was right: while in Matthew ‘the future reward is represented as determined by what a man does to deserve it’, it is also ‘represented, not as owed or earned, but as given out of the manifold mercy of God’. (2)

Applications of this parable abound. In its original historical setting, the latecomers to the kingdom were the “tax collectors and sinners.” In the larger sweep of salvation history, one may think of Gentiles hearing God’s word later than Jews, of people coming to faith during different periods of church history or at different ages in life, of Christians with varying degrees of commitment and faithfulness, and the like. The significance of this parable can scarcely be overestimated. . . . The reason we object to equal treatment for all is precisely the objection of the workers in this parable—it doesn’t seem fair. But we are fools if we appeal to God for justice rather than grace, for in that case we’d all be damned. Nor will it do to speak of salvation begun by grace but ever after preserved by works. True salvation will of necessity produce good works and submission to Christ’s lordship in every area of life, or else it never was salvation to begin with. But all who are truly saved are equally precious in God’s sight and equally rewarded with eternal happiness in the company of Christ and all the redeemed. (3)

Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. The New American Commentary 22. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Volume III: Commentary on Matthew XIX-XXVIII. Vol. 3. 3 vols. International Critical Commentary. New York: T&T Clark, 1997.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary 33B. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.

Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Osborne, Grant R. Matthew. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan, 2010.

  1. France 2007, 748–749 
  2. Davies & Allison 1997, 76 
  3. Blomberg 1992, 304–305 


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