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“The Workers in the Vineyard” is a parable of the kingdom of heaven. By means of it Jesus illustrates God's way of reigning in grace. It contains a surprise ending, in which there is equal pay for all of the workers, which is undeserved by those who had been hired later in the day than those who had worked all day. The parable surely does not make an economic prescription; its outcome is untypical of ordinary life, and that is what makes it so memorable.
The parable can be divided into two chief parts: (1) the recruiting of the laborers for the vineyard in the morning and throughout the day (20:1-7); and (2) the settling up in the evening (20:8-15). The final saying (20:16) does not belong to the parable structure (Virkler and Ayayo 2007).
20:1-2. The expression “the kingdom of heaven is like” is a typical introductory phrase that introduces other parables found in Mathew (13:31, 33, 44, 45, 47). The comparison is not between the kingdom and a landowner, but between the kingdom and what follows in the parable as a whole. It is the case with the kingdom as with what follows.
The time of the landowner's going out is not specified except that it was early in the morning. The hearer or reader is to imagine that it would be early enough to enlist workers who would begin their work at sunrise, typically about 6:00 a.m. 9. That time is implied also by what follows. The next three times of recruitment are in segments of three hours each (20:3-5). Since the next time of hiring is at 9:00 a.m., the time of hiring the first group of workers would be 6:00 a.m. They are supposed to work for the entire day, as the promise of a day's wage implies. A denarius was considered adequate pay for a day's work, neither generous nor miserly (Virkler and Ayayo 2007).
The manner of recruiting workers is a familiar sight even today. One finds the same scene played out in various parts of the world (including the United States) wherever there are fruit and vegetable crops that need planting, weeding, or harvesting by migrant and other temporary workers. Those looking for work stand at a place where landowners can come in trucks and hire as many as they need.
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The laborers portrayed in the parable have no permanent employment, no ongoing economic relationship with an employer. In this respect they differ from other workers who have permanent work on an estate. Their lives and livelihoods are less secure than those of full-time workers, since their employment is seasonal.
The landowner who goes out to hire laborers is surely a metaphor for God. Jesus' parables typically speak of kings, fathers, and masters as the major figures, and in each case the hearer or reader makes the metaphorical connection (Virkler and Ayayo 2007). That the landowner is a metaphor for God is confirmed by the use of the figure of a vineyard, which is a traditional symbol for Israel (Virkler and Ayayo 2007). The parable itself may not have to do with Israel specifically, but since the lord of the vineyard in Jewish tradition is God, so too in this case. Furthermore, the metaphorical representation of God as an employer is quite popular in Judaism, and this is not the only Jewish parable to explain God's dealings with the human race in terms of the behavior of an employer.
20:8-11. The second major part of the parable begins at 20:8. With the coming of the evening, it is necessary to pay the workers, as the law prescribed (Virkler and Ayayo 2007). The landowner, now called owner of the vineyard, orders the payments to be made, and they are made by the manager of the vineyard (and therefore of the workforce as well) on behalf of the owner.
Payments are made, beginning with the last hired. The sequence is surprising. One would expect that those hired earliest would come first, followed by the others, concluding with those hired last. Those who had been hired first and paid first would then be on their way and not observe what the others received. But the parable contains a dramatic touch at this point. When a full day's wage is paid to those who worked for only one hour, there is suspense in the minds of all those who worked longer, particularly those who worked all day. The imagination of the hearer or reader of the parable goes to work. Those who worked longer will inevitably think that they will receive more. The thought is expressed in 20:10.
20:12. Those hired at daybreak object to the transaction. They charge the landowner with two injustices; he failed to take into account (1) the amount of time that they had spent on the job in contrast to the others; and (2) the fact that they had borne the heat of the day, while the others had not.
The response of the landowner is what has been called an instance of reframing. The workers complain about unfairness, but the landowner does not give a direct response to their charge. He does not respond on their terms. Instead he comes up with a new frame of reference altogether, and that is the perspective of generosity (Virkler and Ayayo 2007).
The parable ends with, “So the last will be first, and the first last”. It is meant that God doesn’t care about the amount of time one spends with him: he values each and everybody equally. What God really values is the effort put into the task and the degree of devotion expressed by the person. Also, this parable shows that God is generous and loves all people, regardless of whether they came to him early or late in their lives.