8 May 2013

Matthew 20:1-16

“When 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.’ 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.” (vv. 8-10)


Jesus' parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like often begin with an everyday situation and draw the listener into what at first feels familiar territory. But then they have a strange, surprising, or bewildering twist: the parables provoke listeners by defying their expectations of what is just and who is worthy. Surely it is not fair for the workers who have only been there an hour to get the same pay as those who have been working all day?

This parable of the labourers in the vineyard, along with others, existed as teachings of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven before the Gospels were written down. This does not make their context in Jesus' ministry as told by a particular Gospel writer less important or less true, however.

Matthew's Gospel uses this parable here to end a section in which the disciples are engaged in soul-searching about their own sacrifices. After Jesus sent away the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-22), the disciples began to wonder if anyone could be saved. They remembered how much they had given up to follow Jesus: Peter says, 'Look we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?' (Matthew 19.27)

Jesus reassures them, but then immediately Matthew inserts the vineyard parable, ending it with the same promise with which Jesus ended his reassurance to the disciples: "the last will be first, and the first will be last" (v. 16). Today's parable already concerned the nature of grace in the kingdom of heaven. But Matthew's Gospel uses it to expand the meaning to give a direct message to insiders among Jesus' own followers not to hold themselves above those who might follow.

To Ponder

  • With whom do you identify in today's passage?
  • Why, in your view, does Jesus use so many parables with money-related themes?
  • How far do you think parables should be translated into policy?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.