20‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.*10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
Translation: For the kingdom of heaven is like a human housemaster who came out early in the morning to hire workers into his vineyard. And agreeing together with the workers (for) a denarius (per) day, he ordered them into his vineyard. And he came out around the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the place of assembly. And he said to them, "And you go out into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever (is) right." And they went out. And going out again around the sixth (hour) and ninth hour, he did in like manner. Around the eleventh (hour), he went out and he found others standing, and he said to them, "Why are you standing here all day free from labor?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard."
When evening happened, the lord of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the workers and pay them wages beginning from the last just as the first." And the ones going out at the eleventh hour came (and) they took a denarius apiece. And the first came supposing that they would receive more, and they received a denarius apiece. Receiving, they grumbled around the house-ruler, saying, "These last ones did one hour and you have made them equal to us, the ones who bore the burdens of day and burning heat." But he answered one of them, "Partner, I did not act unjustly to you. Did you not agree with me a denarius? Take up (what belongs to you) and go. I desire to give these last the same as you. Is it not lawful to do what I wish with what is mine? Or is your eye evil because I am good? In this manner, the last will be first and the first last."
Background and situation: The passage appears only in Matthew. Immediately preceding our lection, Peter asks Jesus what the disciples will get for having left everything to follow him (19:27-30). Jesus tells Peter that "at the renewal of all things," the disciples will sit on twelves thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Not only that, they will receive "100 fold," and eternal life to boot.
Following this episode is the third statement of the passion of Jesus, the one featuring the mother of James and John who angles to get special treatment for her boys (20:17-28). She wants her sons to be at Jesus' right and left hand when the kingdom comes.
Seen as part of one long discourse, the three episodes highlight the question of reward. The reward will be stupendous, but that is still not quite the whole story. Indeed, "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (19:30). Then follows the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in which the last hired receive the same reward as those who were first.
The contrast is between the "first" and the "last." The last hired are clearly paid first so that the first hired will see what has happened. Otherwise, what difference would it make? The "house-ruler" wants everyone to know what he has done.
Grumbling ensues. The "house-ruler" hears the grumbling and responds to one of the grumblers whom he calls etairos--"partner, comrade, friend." The "house-ruler" denies doing wrong. The contract he had made with the "first" is fulfilled. Moreover, the "house-ruler" asserts his freedom to pay the rest whatever he pleases--"whatever is right."
Then, the "house-ruler" asks this strange question: "Or is your eye evil because I am good?" (The NRSV, wrongly, has, "Or are you envious because I am generous?")
The word "good"--agathos--is framed by the words ego and eimi. Ego eimi is the Greek translation of the tetragrammaton, YHWH, the name of God revealed to Moses. In other words, ego eimi is the name of the God of Israel.
That the word agathos--"good"--is placed "inside" of the ego eimi is to confirm what Matthew had just written in 19:17: "One (God) is good." If Matthew means the "house-ruler" to be God, then the ego agathos eimi is not sarcastic. The "house-ruler" is God, and God is good.
One would suppose that God's goodness would manifest itself as justice, treating each according to what they deserve. According to the usual standards of what constitutes justice, the first hired have a strong case against the "house-ruler". They have been treated unfairly.
But, no, God's "goodness" is not revealed as justice, but as mercy. Themes of justice abound throughout the parable, but the fullness of that justice comes to expression as equal treatment for all. The overflowing generosity of God's love ignores all human merit.
Alternative view: That's one interpretation. Obery Hendricks offers another. He notes, first of all, what the story tells us about working conditions in first century Israel. People work from dawn to dusk for a denarius.
This was indeed the "usual daily wage," but it was not a living wage. Compare today's "minimum wage" with a true living wage and you get some sense of the difference. A denarius was just about enough to keep you coming back for another day of work so you (perhaps) can survive to work another day.
Furthermore, there is a sizeable pool of day laborers in the story. At each point of the day, workers are available. Even at 5:00 in the afternoon, some are still in the day labor market. This indicates a sizeable number of unemployed--a sizeable pool, in other words, of people who are reduced to scrambling for any little bit of work they can get.
Clearly, for Hendricks, the housemaster is not God, but more akin to a plantation owner. By offering the pittance of a denarius, the housemaster is exploiting labor. The housemaster apparently has an exceptionally large vineyard. (He keeps coming for more workers.) How could the housemaster have attained all that property if not by foreclosing on peasant debt?
Then, to top it off, the housemaster cops an attitude when talking with the last chosen. "Why are you standing around idle?", he asks, all but calling them lazy. He presumes that they are unemployed because of some choice, as if he didn't know that they were unemployed in the first place because they had been forced off their land.
In paying the last the same as the first, the housemaster insults those who were first hired. When the first "grumble," the housemaster singles out their leader--the text says he spoke to "one of them"--denies doing wrong, and then fires him. "Take what belongs to you and go." The housemaster adopts an all-too-typical strategy: Fire the union organizer.
Hendricks makes a valuable contribution to understanding the parable. We shouldn't automatically assume that the housemaster is God. (The text specifically identifies him as anthropo, a human being.) Nor should we too readily adopt the first interpretation mentioned above without considering that other interpretations are possible.
Etairos: Whichever interpretation one opts for will likely be influenced on how one interprets etairos, which NRSV translates as "friend" in verse 13. Hendricks says that etairos is not a positive greeting. It's on the order of "fella" or "buster." Robert Capon sometimes uses etairos in this way also.
Matthew uses etairos in only three places--here, in 22:12 where it refers to the guest at a wedding banquet who refuses to wear the wedding garment, and in 26:50 where it refers to Judas, the arch-traitor. None would be considered a positive example.
On the other hand, the most common rendering of etairos is as "friend, comrade, partner," particularly as it applies to fellow laborers or servants. Etairos is not so much the designation of a personal friend, but more as a partner in some enterprise.
If Hendricks is right that the use of "friend" is sarcastic, that would support his argument that the land-owner is haughty and dismissive. If the Gingrich Lexicon is right, the first are considered "partners" with God in the management of the vineyard.
I find Hendricks' thesis plausible, but finally opt for the first interpretation on the basis of the ego agathos eimi, which, to me, clearly refers back to the pronouncement that only God is "good." If the house-ruler is correct, and speaking without irony, that would make God the owner of the vineyard.
In any case, in either interpretation, the parable comes down on the side of subverting class-based heirarchies. "The last will be first and the first last." If the housemaster is God, then God's mercy reigns supreme, and God's mercy is what constitutes God's "goodness." If the housemaster is a plantation owner, the parable is clearly a slam at economic exploitation of the poor by the rich.
Image: 11th century Byzantine