This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder a passage which the ESV titles “Labourers in the vineyard.” It’s in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1-16. Do read it before you continue reading this post.
It’s a Jesus parable, a story with a sting. There are two key players. First, a wealthy landowner. Second, landless peasants who go hungry if someone doesn’t hire them. The landowner hires a first batch of peasants after promising them the going rate of a denarius for the day. He hires four more batches, the last of whom work for only one hour. He pays the one-hour workers first and works his way up to the 12-hour workers. All get one denarius. One 12-hour man tells the landowner he’s unjust. The landowner responds, “why do you label my generosity ‘injustice’?”
Read in isolation, the point Jesus wished to make isn’t clear. Even when read in context, the lesson isn’t immediately obvious.
The title in the ESV doesn’t help us understand. Even the title in The Message version doesn’t help: “A story about workers.” The title in the J B Phillips version is helpful: “But God’s generosity may appear unfair.”
Last week, in The man God delivered to the jailers, I introduced the word “pericope.” One reason why it’s so hard to title the present passage is because it can stand alone: it’s a pericope. But when it’s made to stand alone – as in the lectionary – it’s impossible to understand!
Readers of The Living Bible may struggle less to understand it, because this version doesn’t insert paragraph breaks. It doesn’t even supply headings. So, it’s easier to see the context of the passage, which Bible scholar Klyne Snodgrass expresses clearly:
The parable is part of Jesus’ answer to a question put to him by Peter:
“We [Jesus’ inner circle] left everything to follow you. What will we get out of it?” (19:27)
Why did Jesus’ inner circle ask him that question? They asked because Jesus had just had a conversation with a rich young man which ended poorly. The man said he’d faultlessly obeyed all of God’s commandments. And he asked Jesus what more he needed to do to “get to heaven.”
Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and follow him. That was too much for the rich young man. He “went away sadly, for he was very rich” (19:22). Jesus then added:
“It is almost impossible for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. I say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God!”
Earlier, Jesus had told the disciples he was going to be killed in Jerusalem – Peter was so upset by this that he tried to “talk sense” to Jesus. I wrote about this in Caught between a sentence now and in the future?
After Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, and his needle-camel story, the disciples wondered about their future. Would they “get no reward” for their discipleship? What was to be their fate? This was Jesus’ reply:
“In the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you … will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (19:28-30)
Verse 30, which ends “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” is the last verse in chapter 19. Our passage, which Phillips titles “But God’s generosity may appear unfair,” follows in chapter 20.
The parable has four “movements”:
1b-7: Five hirings by the vineyard owner, each for a shorter duration.
8-10: Equal payment for every hireling by the vineyard owner.
11-12: One hireling who worked more hours complains of injustice.
13-15: The vineyard owner defends his goodness.
So, what’s the meaning in the story?
The last verse in our passage, verse 16: reads “So the last will be first, and the first last.” This is an echo of the last verse in the previous passage: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Verse 15b reads: “Do you begrudge my generosity?” A footnote in the ESV tells us the original words: “Is your eye bad because I am good?”
The word “good” echoes what Jesus said to the rich young ruler: “There is only one who is good” (19:17b). This signals that the vineyard owner in the parable depicts God. God is good because he gives to the poor – the very thing the rich young man chose not to do.
“Bad eye,” in the language of those days, signals envy, comparing ourselves with others, thinking we deserve greater reward because we put in more; seeing “injustice” when generosity is displayed.
The worker who worked 12 hours got paid what he was promised. No injustice was done to him. But he complained. Why? Because those who worked one hour – in the cooler part of the day – were paid the same as those who worked much longer, in hotter conditions!
Jesus never answered the disciples’ question: “What will we get for following you?” He told them to be contented that he had given them work, and to believe that he would reward them fairly, in due course.
Why? Because the “reward” for the apostles included intense suffering.
Space permits me just one example. According to one legend, Apostle Matthew was stabbed to death while he was conducting baptisms in Ethiopia. On whose orders? The King. Why? Because he opposed the King’s insistence that a nun called Ephigenia should marry him.
It’s very likely that some of the people whom Matthew led to become followers of Christ “had easier lives.” Did Matthew envy them? Did he have an evil eye? I think not. Why? Because his master’s words, “Is your eye bad because I’m good?” remained in his ears.
Those words should remain in our ears too. Those words are the surest protection against the enticements of status, wealth, greed.
Peace be with you.
 English Standard Version.
 Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus.
 Jesus repeated this to his inner circle in 20:17-19.
 A scene depicted by Caravaggio in his painting “The Martyrdom of St Matthew.” You can read a discussion of it here: https://www.art-theoria.com/painting-of-the-month/the-martyrdom-of-saint-matthew/.
 These words had not yet settled in the ears of the mother of James and John, for in 20:21, she asks Jesus to “let my two sons sit on two thrones next to yours.” This is why Snodgrass says the context runs till 20:34. There are other pericopes in the context, including the episode with children in 19:13-14, which I do not have space to discuss.