In Matthew 20 we are introduced to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which some have suggested is better named the parable of the generous landholder. This parable cannot be found in Luke or Mark. It is also extremely straightforward, and require little exegesis. In this story, a landholder hires workers throughout the day, yet agrees to pay each of them the same wage, regardless of how long they work. To access this passage in the Lectionary, click here for the Catholic, and here for the RCL version.
What is interesting is that the first set of workers agree, before hand, to the terms of the deal. The landholder does not impose terms, nor are the laborers unwilling to work. This story is purely symbolic, and the opening verses suggest that we accept the Lord’s terms of discipleship before entering the vineyard. In other words, we need to accept both the faith and the Lord’s will, before we can effectively labor the vineyard.
At the third hour, the landlord brings in additional workers, promising “whatever is right.” And the landlord does the same in two more shifts. Yet the Landlord’s determination to get ever more workers into the vineyard is such that the negotiation becomes somewhat comic in Mt 20:6-7,
And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
At the end of the day, the laborers who are hired last are paid first, and all of the laborers receive the same pay. While the laborers hired first grumble, the landholder reminds each of the laborers that they were paid according to the terms that were fair – the terms the first group received. The parable’s purpose is not to suggest that the landholder is sly or irresponsible.
The parable teaches the Christian two simple ideas. First, there is always room for another in the Lord’s vineyard, and in heaven. The decision of the landlord in the parable to invite more workers at the eleventh hour is reminiscent of another parable, that of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:9:
Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.
And also what Jesus says in Matthew 9:37-38:
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Second, the parable teaches us that “God rules by grace, not by desert.”1 God is free to bestow grace as God sees fit, and He does not dispense grace in some one-to-one correspondence with what we do. However, it is unwarranted to overlay Pauline theology of unmerited grace on Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel is not concerned with unmerited grace: he is concerned with faith and the work of discipleship, which are two sides of the same soteriological coin.
The reward that all the laborers in the vinevard, who persevere until the end of the day, receive is the same, won by Jesus on the cross, and far in excess of what they deserve (and in that sense, unmerited): the Kingdom of Heaven.
(1) R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew.