Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



A. The Enclosing Sayings.

A saying about "the first and the last" introduces and concludes the parable (19:30; 20:16).

B. The Originality of the Context.

Is the present context original? Some answer this question in the negative, contending that 20:16 obscures rather than expounds the parable's original intention. C. H. Dodd writes that the saying of v. 16 "is found elsewhere in different contexts, and has no obvious appropriateness in relation to the parable" (The Parables of the Kingdom, 94). Joachim Jeremias thinks that v. 16 "has been added to our parable as a generalizing conclusion, but does not tally with its meaning" (Parables, 37). In Jeremias' judgment (p. 38), Jesus' own purpose in telling this parable was to vindicate his gospel (for "tax collectors and sinners") against its critics (notably "the scribes and the Pharisees") - in other words that Jesus' purpose here is the same as in the three parables of Lk 15 (cf. 15:1-2). Thus also Dodd: this parable's "striking picture of the divine generosity" contributed to "Jesus' retort to the complaints of the legally minded who cavilled at Him as the friend of publicans and sinners" (Parables, 94-95). On the contrary, I believe that the above question should be answered affirmatively.

C. The Matthean Context.

I will argue (1) that 19:30 and 20:16 expound the parable's original meaning; (2) that the parable relates significantly to the teachings of chs. 18-19 and to the remainder of ch. 20; and (3) that Jesus' purpose here is similar to - but not identical with - his purpose in Lk 15 (note how the conversation between the landowner and the first group of workers, Mt 20:9-15, recalls that between the father and the elder brother in Lk 15:25-32).


A. The Introduction. 20:1a.

As in the parables of ch. 13, Jesus is not saying that "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner" (thus NIV), but rather that the following story depicts what happens when the kingdom comes. "The Kingdom here is not compared to the master of the house, nor to the labourers or the vineyard, but, as so often, its arrival is compared to a reckoning" (Jeremias, 136). Thus the NEB is preferable: "The kingdom of Heaven is like this. There was once a landowner..."

B. The Hiring of Workers.

1. The reckoning of hours. The day's work begins "early in the morning," about 6 a.m. "The third hour" is then 9 a.m., "the sixth hour" 12 noon, "the ninth hour" 3 p.m., and "the eleventh hour" 5 p.m. - one hour before sundown and the end of the workday.

2. The wages. The denarius (Greek dsnarion) was the usual daily wage for manual laborers. We might say that a denarius is equivalent to about 25 cents; but this is very misleading, given the fact that their standard of living, and the purchasing power of their money, were very different from ours. "A good ox could be bought for 100 denars, a young bullock for 20, a ram for 8, and a lamb for 4.... One denar per day was considered a good wage. The great Hillel did manual labour for half that sum; and R[abbi] Meir, who was an accomplished scribe, earned 2 denars a day as a writer of documents" (T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, 219).

3. The agreement. The parable relates that the landowner agreed to pay "a denarius for the day" to the first workers whom he hired (v. 2); that he agreed to pay the second group "whatever is right" (v. 4); and that he "did the same thing" for the workers hired at 12 and at 3 (v. 5). However, he says nothing about a wage when he hires the "eleventh-hour" group; to them he says simply, "You also go and work in my vineyard" (v. 7).

C. The Paying of Workers.

1. The time of payment. The wages are paid at the end of the same day (v. 8), in accord with Lev 19:13b, "Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight" (Lev 19:13b). The rationale is given in Deut 24:14-15, "Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it."

2. The order of payment. The owner instructs his foreman to pay the workers their wages, "beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first [arxamenos apo t©n eschat©n he©s t©n pr©t©n]" (v. 8b). Jeremias suggests that v. 8 "was not originally concerned mainly with the order of payment, but meant, rather - 'Pay them all their wages, including the last'" (pp. 35-36). But in this case it would have been more natural to say arxamenos apo t©n pr©t©n he©s t©n eschat©n." As it stands, the Greek more naturally means that the last workers hired were the first workers paid; so also Gundry, 397. (This in turn may help to explain the grumbling of the first group: they witness the payment of the last group.)

3. The amount of payment. Every worker receives the same wage, a denarius. Responding to the protestations of the first group, the landowner explains that he has paid them according to his fairness and justice (v. 13), and the last group according to his goodness and generosity (v. 15).

D. A Rabbinic Parallel.

The following story is preserved in the Jerusalem Talmud (and cited by Jeremias, 138).

At the funeral of a distinguished scholar named Rabbi Bun bar Hijja, another rabbi presented a eulogy in parabolic form. "He began by saying that the situation was like that of a king who had hired a great number of labourers. Two hours after the work began, the king inspected the labourers. He saw that one of them surpassed the others in industry and skill. He took him by the hand and walked up and down with him till the evening. When the labourers came to receive their wages, each of them received the same amount as all the others. Then they murmured and said: 'We have worked the whole day, and this man only two hours, yet you have paid him the full day's wages.' The king replied: 'I have not wronged you; this labourer has done more in two hours than you have done during the whole day.' So likewise, concluded the funeral oration, has Rabbi Bun bar Hijja accomplished more in his short life of 28 years than many a grey-haired scholar in a hundred years (sc. therefore, after so brief a span of labour, God has taken him by the hand and gathered him to himself)."


A. Two Questionable Interpretations.

1. Historical allegory. T. W. Manson (Sayings, 219) thinks the parable spans Israel's history. The first workers represent the Patriarchs. The owner's return to the marketplace at the third, sixth, and ninth hours recalls "the summonses issued to Israel from time to time through the prophets." The eleventh hour is "the period of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself, [and the workers are] the publicans and harlots for whom there seemed to be no place" in the Kingdom. The hour of payment is "the end of the present age," when work is ended and rewards are given. To my mind such allegorizing is unwarranted (especially in the absence of such an interpretation from Jesus, as in 13:18-23, 37-43), unnecessary and misleading (see below). But cf. comments on 21:33-44.

2. Theological eisegesis. Nor is the parable intended to teach that God's appointed way of salvation is by grace and not by works. This is indeed a Biblical principle, powerfully advocated by Paul and upheld in Mt itself. But the validity of a principle does not guarantee the presence of a principle. Manson rightly states that "the parable has nothing to do with the question of salvation by grace or works" (p. 218). If we try to argue that it does, then we quickly run into a problem. For the first workers receive the very same wage as those who are hired last; and if the latter group is paid out of the pure generosity of the owner, the first workers are (according to the agreement) receiving precisely what they deserve. The owner's dealings with the first group illustrate the principle of Rom 4:4, "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation." But Paul is arguing that all are saved on other grounds. The parable's true intention lies elsewhere.

B. The Grace of the Landowner.

The owner of the vineyard is unquestionably the central figure in the parable (Jeremias, Parables, 136). The most outstanding characteristics of the owner are his goodness and generosity, qualities he has every right to exercise (note how these qualities are accentuated at the climax of the parable, vv. 14-15). It hardly matters whether we identify the owner as God the Father (ibid., 37) or as Jesus (Gundry, 397). For God is "with us" in Jesus Christ his Son; and it is in the person and work of Jesus that the goodness and generosity of God come to supreme and final (i.e. eschatological) expression. The conduct of the owner toward the last group of workers, shows that he is not acting in accord with "strict justice and sound economics" (Manson, Sayings, 220).

Moreover, unlike the rabbinic parable cited above, there is not the slightest evidence in this parable that this group is more deserving than those who have worked all day. "The labourers who were engaged last show nothing to warrant a claim to a full day's wages; that they receive it is entirely due to the goodness of their employer" (Jeremias, 139). In Manson's words, "God's love cannot be portioned out in quantities nicely adjusted to the merits of individuals. There is such a thing as the twelfth part of a denar. It was called a pondion. But there is no such thing as a twelfth part of the love of God" (Sayings, 220).

C. The Equality of the Workers.

We now return to the sayings which enclose the parable itself. Jesus says in 19:30, "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." And he says in 20:16, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

1. The key to interpretation. It is clear that Matthew records these two sayings to help interpret the parable they enclose. First, and most obviously, he puts the saying both before and after the parable; the two form an inclusio. (Owing to the climax of the parable, 20:16 reverses the order of the clauses. But this fact does not in the least diminish the force of the repetition; if anything, it heightens it.) Secondly, 20:1 is linked to 19:30 by the conjunction "for" (gar): "For the kingdom of heaven is like this" (the "for" was absent from NIV's 1st ed. but is properly included in the 2nd ed.); and likewise 20:16 is joined to the preceding parable by the adverb "thus" (hout©s). By these means, Matthew points us both to his and to Jesus' main purpose in relating the parable.

2. The first and the last. If the flanking sayings help us to understand the purpose of the parable, the parable helps us to understand the sense of the two sayings. In the parable all the workers - from the first ones hired to the last — are treated equally. Each one receives a denarius, no more and no less, vv. 12, 14. (The distinction remains, of course, between the owner's justice to the first and his generosity to the last.) Accordingly, I suggest that in this context, the sayings of 19:30 and 20:16 are to be understood in the sense that the first equals the last, and the last equals the first. (The reversal of the order of the clauses in 20:16 underscores the point.) Jeremias mentions this interpretation, noting the same thought in 4 Ezra 5:42 ("He said to me: I will make my judgment like a round dance; the last therein shall not be behind, nor the first in front"). Yet he adds, "But, leaving this out of consideration, the point of the story, intended to startle the audience, was surely not, 'Equal pay for all,' but 'So much more pay for the last'" (Parables, 36). But the parable itself relates that there was equal pay for all; the last workers do not receive more pay than the others.

Why did Jesus tell this parable? What needs was he addressing?

D. The Perils of Pride.

1. The social context. In Lk 15 Jesus addresses an audience beyond the community of disciples - an audience opposed to Jesus because he receives "tax collectors and sinners" (15:1-2). In Mt 20 he addresses persons within the community of disciples. Ever since ch. 16 (where Jesus abandons the religious opposition, v. 4, and where in the wake of Peter's confession he begins to teach the disciples about his forthcoming Passion and Triumph, vv. 13-28), Jesus has increasingly concentrated on instructing his disciples. This is especially evident in ch. 18, the uniting subject of which is relationships in the Church. While the Pharisees and the crowd are again present in ch. 19, Jesus continues to offer instruction to the community of believers (concerning marriage, children, and wealth); and at the end of the chapter he speaks of the prospects for his followers. It is out of these closing verses of ch. 19 that the parable arises. 19:30 is included in Jesus' answer to the remarks of Peter in v. 27; and (as we have seen) the parable of 20:1-15 is offered as an exposition of 19:30. In other words, the parable is addressed to the Church.

2. The danger. In Mt 18, by calling disciples to humility and compassion toward the erring within the community of believers, Jesus warns against pride in Christian relationships - against pride's competitiveness (see comments on 6:1-18) and against its urge to exert power over other people. Then in 19:27-30 Jesus promises the apostles positions of singular authority (next only to that of the Son of Man himself) in the coming kingdom. We can easily imagine how the apostles might become inflamed with pride as they reflected upon that honor. Does not the ambition so evident in 20:20-28 grow out of 19:28? Now that the twelve apostles are promised "twelve thrones" alongside Jesus, the mother of two of the apostles craves yet more on her sons' behalf - namely the thrones closest to Jesus! And her request in turn arouses the indignation - rooted in the competitive pride - of the other ten disciples.

3. The lesson. In face of all this, Jesus presents the parable of 20:1-15, in the process carrying forward the teaching of ch. 18. Jesus has promised the twelve apostles positions of singular honor. Even as he does so, he is aware of the great temptations that such honor will bring. (Such are the risks he willingly takes. Significantly, the certainty of dangers does not cause him to withhold or to withdraw the honor itself.) In face of those dangers, Jesus says, "The first are like the last, and the last are like the first." Let the apostles beware lest, in pondering their exalted position, they become proud and begin to despise and lord it over the members under their care. Let the apostles remember that, while there are differences of function in the Church (some indeed are apostles, others are not), there is a fundamental metaphysical equality among all members. As the parable shows, even the least members - indeed especially the least - of the Church receive the great goodness and generosity of God. Let church leaders beware lest they treat such folk with undue harshness and in terms of strict justice. Let the apostles and other leaders beware lest they begrudge such people the generosity of God (cf. v. 15) and thus come to emulate the attitude of the Pharisees (Lk 15). On the contrary, let the leaders reach out to such people with the very love and compassion and grace of the Church's Lord. 1 Pet 5:1-6 shows that Peter learned the lesson well.