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Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’  So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  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?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’  He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  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.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; 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?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This is a confusing parable.  I mean, if I had worked all day in the hot sun, I wouldn’t be happy about those who only worked for one hour getting paid the same thing as me.  Sure, technically, the boss can pay whatever he wants.  But let’s not pretend that’s fair.  We’ve all experienced unfairness, and not just in wages.  If you do all the work and somebody else prances in at the last minute and gets as much thanks as you did, that’s not fair.  If you all the ideas and your boss takes all the credit, that’s not fair.  What is this story about?

Over the years I have heard several (of what I would call) bad interpretations.  I have heard preachers say that this story is about the Jews and the Gentiles.  Commentator Stanley Saunders puts it this way:  “In this reading, God is the gracious master who rewards all the workers equally (= salvation), thereby upsetting the workers who toiled all day (the Jews) by giving the latecomers (Gentiles) the same rewards.  We should always be deeply suspicious of allegorical readings that turn out to favor Christians at the expense of Israel.”[1]

Another interpretation is the full-day workers are those who serve God for years.  They are the ones who do everything right, who try to live good lives, who serve on committees and give generously and are good church members.  And they do it all to earn their way to heaven.  They’re planning on entering heaven on the installment plan.  But then we have the johnny-come-lately folks, the ones who lived wild lives of debauchery and fun and then have death-bed confessions.  And so God forgives them and welcomes them to heaven without a single payment into the installment plan.  And so the ones who served God faithfully are jealous, and God says, “Why can’t I be generous with my grace?”  Although I’m all in favor of God’s generosity of grace, I still think this is missing the point.

“Jesus’ parables are meant to get us to think critically about the world we have constructed, free us from our cultural shackles and self-deceptions, and enable us to discern more clearly how God works in the world.  Instead of allegory, we should read the story on its own terms, as a straightforward account of the interactions between a landowner and the day laborers who work for him.”[2]

Then we encounter another problem with interpretations of this parable.  I was disappointed this week by the writing of a scholar whose work I usually like.  Listen to how he describes the workers who were hired last: “These were not the eager beavers who had been standing at the farmer’s front gate at dawn.  For whatever the reason they had slept in.  Maybe these were the ne’er-do-wells of the community–the kind of people who were unemployed but seemed to lack the gumption to do a whole lot about it.  All day they had sat around on the fringes of the town square, sipping cheap beer maybe and just watching passively as over and over the farmer came looking for new workers. . . So, long about the time these lollygaggers were getting ready to head on home  to sit on the sofa and channel surf the evening away while munching on the frozen pizza they had bought with their unemployment checks at the A&P, the farmer comes back one last time.  ‘Why have you guys been lazing around this town square all day doing nothing?’ the farmer asks.  ‘We dunno,’ they reply, ‘guess it’s cuz no one hired us.’  Well, there was a reason for that, too, of course, but when the farmer tells them to get to work at last, they readily agree.  Shucks, for an hour they could put up with most anything.  ‘A little hard work never hurt anybody’ the old adage says, and a little hard work was precisely what these fellows would be doing.”[3]

This commentary is dripping with classism, elitism, privilege, and anti-worker bias.  This gentleman is not the only commentator who has done this.  Others have claimed the unemployed workers had been sitting around gossiping or showing indifference through their evasion of work.  A Latino scholar, Pablo Jimenez, points out that the assumptions made by some scholars (particularly white scholars) displays their prejudice.  He writes, “These commentators ignore that seasonal workers usually have to attend several ‘work calls’ during the day.  They go from job site to job site until they are hired.  They may even go to a new job site after completing an assignment.  In short, these sad remarks advance one of the main tenets of the ideology of the powerful: the idea that the poor are lazy.”[4]  “The text does not necessarily depict the workers as . . . lazy or non-industrious.

The text does not offer reasons why the workers were not seen by the homeowner in his first few rounds of going to the marketplace.  The text presents the unemployed workers’ excuse without judgment.”[5]  To assume that they were lazy is a bias rooted in classism and in our country, racism.

Now I’m on page four of my manuscript and so far all I’ve told you is what the text doesn’t mean!  Before I run out of time let’s look at what it might mean for us today.

The first potential interpretation is that God, as the landowner, wants to treat everyone equally.  Not only is God going to be fair to those who are able to work in God’s kingdom but God is going to meet the needs of those who can’t.  We’re not all alike, we’re not all on the same journey, and God doesn’t expect the same thing from us.  God is concerned about each one of us, and we don’t have to earn that grace.

But here’s what upsets God.  When those who had worked the longest complained, they weren’t complaining about a breach of contract—the landowner (God) did what was promised.  Their complaint included an indictment against the other workers.  “By paying them the same wage, you have made them equal to us,” they said.  “The first hired see themselves as first in value and priority – not as equals.  They were first in line, so they think this earns them some privilege.  They seek to find any advantage over their neighbors that they can obtain, and have the gall to think they have been treated unfairly when they have received the same as others….They look at life as a competitive system, not a cohesive one. . . . But that is not the life God wants for us.  God wants us to see each other as equals, as siblings of one another,”[6] and therefore we should be happy that others’ needs are being met, too.  We may not be able to relate to vineyard owners and day laborers, but we can certainly relate to that message.

But here’s another possibility, and I’m sorry, but it’s harder.  Let’s say that the landowner doesn’t represent God.  If we let go of that assumption we can allow ourselves to see something different.  Stanley Saunders points out:  “We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice.  We should remember, however, that at the end of the day the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity.  The injustices are intensified, not overturned.  Day-laborers constituted a limitless and disposable fuel–bodies to be burned up—that made the ancient economy run.  Our world is again full of such bodies, who make our clothes, produce our food, and assemble our electronic gizmos, yet never gain enough traction to be able to join the world of consumers.  The parable thus pulls back the curtain on the ways our own world works, as it would have for Jesus’ audience.”[7]  And although the vineyard owner does in some ways act justly, he also operates in a way that is most likely to increase envy, to build resentment.  “He uses his interaction with first-hired, last-paid workers to declare his own justness and goodness.  He is also only doing what is his right ‘with what belongs to me’ (20:14).  The implicit message in these words is that it all belongs to him, including the workers, with whom he can do what he pleases….The parable in fact depicts a limited, and thus false, form of justice.  We can tell it is false justice because it produces envy and division, rather than wholeness and healed relationships.  It is a harsh reminder that there is no justice, no kingdom of heaven, when we end up alone in the world.”[8]

So maybe the story is about God taking care of us all, and treating us all as equals, and wanting us to see one another as equals in God’s family, too.  And maybe the story is an indictment on a system that is entirely stacked against those who want to believe that we are equals.  And maybe it is both.  It is comfort and challenge.  It is pastoral and provoking.  And you know what that means?  It means there is room for all of us.  There is room in this parable for those who need to be reminded that no matter what the world tells you, you are loved by God and God longs to meet your needs.  There is also room for those who need to be reminded that just because we’re comfortable doesn’t mean the system is fair.  Let’s work together to bring God’s just and peaceable kingdom to fruition.


[1] Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3395

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hoezee, Scott. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-20a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[4] “The Laborers of the Vineyard: A Hispanic Homiletical Reading” in Journal for Preachers, January 7, 1997.

[5] leftbehindandlovingit

[6] Points to Ponder by Bret S. Myers, 9/15/2020, posted in several groups on Facebook.

[7] Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3395

[8] Saunders

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