The Kingdom of Heaven Should Be Like This Guy

Matthew 20:1-16
Proper 20, Year A
(See below commentary for translation notes)


My comments this week are going to be more of a line-by-line commentary than I usually do. No particular reason, except that this week my thoughts seemed to follow certain words in the text that pulled me in for a comment, more than some of the broad strokes of the story.

When I read parables like this one, I often think of Listerine. That’s not a joke, I really do. You hate the taste of it, it's hard to swallow, but you know in the long run it's good for you. It's like the Church World Service blankets: you hate them. They scratch, they're ugly, they're heavy, but in the long run, if you're homeless, they're pretty nice to have around.

Like other parables, like the so-called prodigal son, it’s so radical it offends us, so we try to rub off its offensive edges when we read it and share it.

Jesus says the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He is stirring up the social order of things; he is challenging our sacred assumptions. We think the front of the line is the place to be; right at the top, next to Jesus. But this parable says just the opposite. This parable says that not only will the people at the end of the line get paid the same as us, they also get it first.


First half of the parable: The Hiring

Verse 1: The Kingdom of Heaven is like…
The “Kingdom” (or “Reign,” or “Realm”) is always a flag issue that we overlook far too often. To begin with, be clear that Matthew is not talking about “Heaven” as most people in most churches probably believe. Matthew speaks from the most traditionally Jewish perspective of any of the Gospel writers, and all but refuses to use the word “God,” in any of his writings. But a quick check of some of the “Kingdom of Heaven” passages in Matthew with the other Synoptic Gospels finds that all of them prefer the word “God.” Jesus, when he used it, meant Kingdom of God, not heaven.

Having said that, the phrase is still fraught with interpretive difficulties. In my opinion, it is not quite as political as some left-leaning commentators would like, but neither is it the sweet “God’s Love is within you” of the conservative ones (an exaggeration, but you get the point). To use the word “Kingdom,” in an occupied territory of the Roman Empire was a dangerous political action. In the New Testament (as distinct from the Old), the word “Basileia,” was used almost exclusively to refer to God or Christ’s rule in the coming age. But outside of the Christian writings, the term meant the actual kingdom that an empire (meaning, in the First Century, Rome). For a Jewish peasant to be preaching about an alternative way of living and being and serving and acting, using the rubrics of “Kingdom” was politically threatening and Jesus’ use of it was probably a major contributing factor to his execution. At the very least, in this and many other of his parables, Jesus sketches out what life would be like under this alternative world view.

It is threatening to the social mores of his time and to the hierarchical economic structures that controlled commerce and the peasantry. It says something about how owners would treat their workers in a just society, and—more dangerously—it proposes a radical model of behavior for other landowners. What would their livelihoods be like if they decided to treat their workforce as though they were humans with families instead of production elements in the business cycle, to be moved and cut at will and paid the absolute minimum possible to keep them alive and working and not revolting. The backlash of this parable is not reported, but it would be difficult to believe that it would have been received with gladness by the other landowners in the region.

To illustrate this point, you might tell the story of the protests a the Market Basket supermarket chain in Massachusetts. Their CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, was a very wealthy man (worth $675m, according to Bloomberg[1]), who made a truck load of money off of the stores. But he also treated them more fairly than almost any other chain in America. He paid them a little more than other chains, for which the workers were grateful, but he also treated them generously and decently with steady schedules, time off and health care benefits, and by all accounts was loved by them. He also kept prices low because most of the stores were in modest income neighborhoods where high prices would be a stretch for many of the residents. And he made money too. During his tenure of running the company he also made a lot of money for the family and stock holders. According to Forbes, they made an estimated $217 million in earnings on $4 billion in revenue in 2013.[2]

However, he didn’t make enough money for his cousins and board members of the company, so in the summer of 2014, he was fired and immediately, his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, took over the company and started changing the profit sharing policies to give less to the local store managers and more to the absentee board members and stockholders.

The workers in the stores erupted in protest and almost overnight so many people walked out that essentially Market Basket ceased to exist. Those that tried to remain open had few customers, in part because they had no suppliers and no one to stock the shelves and in part because the customers boycotted them. Then, weeks later, after loud and raucous and extremely public wrangling, Arthur T. bought back the badly damaged company from his cousins and board members and cheering workers and consumers returned to the stores. Incidentally, millions were lost in the protests, and he had to leverage all of his considerable wealth to buy it back at more than $1 billion, so while the conflict is over, the struggle to rebuild will go on for a long time.

This story is not an exact duplicate of the parable of Jesus, but could at least serve as an interesting parallel. There have been other news reports recently wondering how the blood-in-the-water, all or nothing, CEOs of other chains are viewing these developments. Will other companies start demanding a leadership that doesn’t pay them rock bottom salaries just above poverty. Remember the Brouhaha last year when MacDonald’s published a tip sheet for its workers on how to get by on their wretched salaries? Among the tips were the suggestions to apply for food stamps and check on neighborhood food pantries. That enraged their workers and this year they exploded in nationwide protests for an increase in their base salaries.

All of this could take you way beyond the text, if you let it, but referencing it on your way to building the sermon, could help keep it sounding contemporary and relevant for your listeners.

1 “Went out early in the morning to hire laborers”
Unusual action for an owner. Usually they wanted nothing to do with the riff-raff that they hired to work on their farms. They pushed this distasteful task onto their managers (v. 20:8). For what it’s worth, you might note that Arthur T. Demoulas was known to have a hand in at least some of the hiring and interviewing of some of the local managers of his supermarkets. More than likely Jesus has intentionally tweaked the customary so as to make the later confrontation between the disenchanted workers and the owner more face-to-face.

Words and phrases such as “Landowner,” “hire laborers,” “his vineyard,” householder,” his manager,” all indicate that this man was a person of considerable means. Part of the one percent of his day, perhaps even higher. There was no middle class to speak of in First Century Palestine, there was a tiny core of wealthy elites and a vast bottom of poor and desperately poor. The workers in this story are probably representative of the latter group because they evidently have no farmland of their own and no steady employment in the city or town.

3. Day laborers…
The market was full of them. By the accounts in the New Testament and other writings, we know that there must have been an enormous number of jobless (and often homeless) people waiting at any given day, for this kind of work. Usually they had lost their farms due to mounting debt and flocked to the cities and towns to look for urban or agricultural work. They waited in the marketplace, the ancient equivalent of the employment bureau. They got by day-to-day during the harvest season, but had to beg or starve during the off seasons. Notice that the NRSV says they were offered the “usual daily wage,” but the Greek word, denarius, could also be understood as the most basic minimum living wage. It was one step up from starvation. It was the least that an employer could offer and still guarantee that his pool of workers would not die and he would be without a workforce. “Their situation was more precarious than slaves,” writes William Carter, author of Matthew in the Margins, “since an employer had no long-term investment in them.”[3] A denarius is only barely a day’s wage, never enough for them to get back on their feet and put something away for the off season.

…for his vineyard.
“Vineyards involved significant initial investment until they became productive. They were high yield and more profitable than basic survival crops involving grains” (Carter, p. 395).
Since it takes so long for vineyards to be lucrative, he could well have inherited it. Or he inherited sufficient wealth to allow him to take a loss on it for several years before it began to turn a profit. Or else he had considerable wealth from other sources. In any of these scenarios he was far from poor.

v.3-4, The fact that there was an oversupply of workers is seen in there being so many who were just “standing idle in the marketplace” (v.3). “Idle” (ἀργός, argos) means inactive, but specifically inactive from work, that is, unemployed, not relaxing or playing checkers. They are, after all, in the market to find work. It means they are standing in line. In fact, what the workers say when asked is that “Nobody has hired us.”

    I used to work with a church organization in Southern Oklahoma that worked with migrant farm workers from Mexico. This was back before just saying that last phrase could cause a loud discussion. I was completely blind to any politics about why they were there, I just cleaned the temporary shelters they were housed in and distributed clothes that the church had collected from parishioners. Most of the workers there had nothing but what they were wearing. They would work fifteen-to-twenty hours a day during the harvest season and then go back home with more money than they could have made in their home country in a year. Each morning, dozens of them would line up in front of the big house that doubled as an office and a “Mess Hall” and wait to be called out of the crowd to go into the fields that day to pick something or other. My recollection was that it was cabbage or corn, but I never accompanied them to the fields, so I don’t really know. What I do remember is seeing them waiting in a long line, sometimes until late in the day, hoping the foremen or managers would pick them. When they did, they would be picked out of a crowd as though they were produce. The foremen would barely look at them. They weren’t people with families, they were a variably priced piece in the production chain. There were far too many of them looking for far too few openings for them to have any say what-so-ever about their incomes or treatment. As Carter puts it, describing the workers in Jesus’ parable, “That there were unhired laborers available at this time suggests over supply and unemployment”[4]

v.5-7 the landowner goes back three more times. Each time more potential workers show up and each time he hires them all. “Idle” here, clearly does not imply laziness.
     Note that when he goes to the market place a second time he doesn’t say the price (as he did in v. 2), but says “I will pay you what is right.” Very key phrase. He doesn’t pay them what is fair, but what is just.

     Note the various times mentioned in the story. “Nine o’clock” is peri tritēn hōran, “the third hour,” which would roughly mean, “nine ‘o clock” (as the NRSV inconsistently translates it) The “sixth hour” is just before noon, and the “ninth hour” is just before 3 p.m. typically laborers would finish by 6 p.m., so those who were hired late in the process would expect to receive considerably less than a full day’s wage.[5]



Second half of the parable: The Payment

Mention in passing to your congregations that the end of the day was the customary time to pay workers. It was mandated so because the salary paid was so small, that many workers depended on it for each day’s food.[6] Roughly speaking it comes from Deuteronomy 24:14-15.
14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

The paying began from the last and went to the first. Remember the verse that ended the last chapter and led into this one? “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” On the one hand, setting up the last to be paid first is symbolic of the Kingdom (v. 16, 19:30; 18:4), but also, in terms of the power of storytelling, it forces the last to actually see the first receive their denarii and allows them the choice of getting greedy about how much theirs should have been in comparison to these slackers who were called late and still got full wages.

The owner’s involvement in this is again unusual. It should have been one of his managers. But for the benefit of the story, it allows the conflict between the owner and the workers, and between himself and his fellow owners, to be made more clear.

v. 10 “They thought they would receive more”
They (purposefully, in my opinion) forgot their agreement. They (who were paid last) saw the short-termers being paid the same as they had been promised and they figured the owner would break his contract and lift their pay commensurably.

Their argument might sound familiar today: why are those people, who just arrived, why are they allowed to have the same level of income that I have? I’ve been here longer, I should have the benefits, not those newcomers.

The way that Carter phrases it, “If the householder had paid them more, the issue would be generosity” (p. 397), but he paid them the same, which is an act of Justice. Or, as I noted it earlier, it isn’t fair, but it’s just.

v. 11-12 They Grumbled against the landowner. It’s the Greek equivalent to the word used in the story of the Israelites murmuring in the wilderness. The kjv in fact translates it as “murmured.” The word is γογγύζω, gogguzō, and means to say anything in a low, grumbling tone. It can also refer to the cooing of doves, though it’s more than a little unlikely that Jesus intended this in his usage of it.

v. 13-16
13, Note that most of the time (especially in Matthew’s Gospel) when Jesus calls someone “friend” it is when they have done something wrong (cf. 22:12; 26:50).

“I have done nothing wrong,” the owner says. You agreed to a basic living wage and I paid it. “Am I not allowed to do what I wish with what belongs to me? Is your eye evil because I am good?” (following the nrsv note). It is an evil that “consists of jealousy or envy, evil that is opposed to God’s purposes” (Carter, p. 398). The IVP Bible Background Commentary says that this was a common idiom in Palestine and meant a “stingy eye” (cf. Prov 28:22). To call someone this was a huge insult because they believed that God owned all things, and gave all things and therefore theologically there is no place for being stingy with God’s gifts.[7]

Final Comment

I think that Jesus is using this story as a metaphor for class distinctions, even though at this point in the story, he is applying it now to distinctions between the workers themselves and not the workers and the owner. There isn’t an exact parallel between the people who show up late and early and people who are rich and poor or powerful and powerless, but it’s similar. Instead of reinforcing expectations about class over workers and strong over weak, Jesus surprises the listener by saying everybody should be paid equally. Note that their complaint was “you have made them equal to us” (v. 12). A terrifying thought, even though the majority of these workers were all poor themselves. We got ours and we don’t want you second class people to get the same thing.

That is the most important line for knowing what Jesus wants you to see and hear in this story. The people who thought they deserved much more were complaining that Jesus treated the others equal to them.

Some of us are the long termers. We saw the steeple go up, we fixed the chowder suppers. We built the cross, we constructed the table, we wrestled with inclusive language, we painted the classrooms, and now some young scumbag comes along and gets converted a week before he dies and God says he loves that guy just as much as he does us.

[Broaden this to include other examples of people who are not among the elite…The front of the line is also economic, also racial, etc.]

It isn't fair, it doesn't comport with capitalism and the American free market system. He didn't pay his dues. He shouldn't be made equal to us. It isn't the way we have been taught to believe the system works. But that's because we are thinking in terms of Wall Street Journal economics. Jesus is thinking of Biblical economics. It's the Listerine principle. We don't like it, but in our heart of hearts it's true. We know it’s right.

[3]  Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), p. 396.
[4]  Warren Carter, “Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 392.
[5] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

Text and Translation Notes on Matthew 20:1-16 

The Laborers in the Vineyard
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[1] he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’[2] So they went.
5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle[3] all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[4]
10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[5]
11And when they received it, they grumbled[6] against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’[7]
13But he replied to one of them,[8] ‘Friend,[9] I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[10] 14Take what belongs to you[11] and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[12]
16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[13]

[1] Matthew 20.2 Gk a denarius A denarius, the chief silver coin of the Romans at this time, and of the value of about seventeen cents. A denarius was just barely subsistence wages, but was regarded as good pay for a day’s work. It was the pay of a Roman soldier in Christ’s time. In almost every case where the word occurs in the New Testament it is connected with the idea of a liberal or large amount. Compare Matthew 18:28Mark 6:37Luke 7:41John 12:5. (Vincent, alt.)
[2] “Whatever is right” (ho ean ēi dikaion). From δίκαιος,dikaios  Adjective. Righteous, observing divine laws, keeping the commands of God;  used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, and who therefore needs no rectification in the heart or life; approved of or acceptable of God. “Is fair” (Allen), not anything he pleased, but a just proportionate wage.
[3] “Idle” (ἀργός, argos) inactive, that is, unemployed.
[4] Matthew 20.9 Gk a denarius
[5] Matthew 20.10 Gk a denarius
[6] “Grumbled” (egogguzon, γογγύζωgogguzō)1) to murmur, mutter, grumble, say anything against in a low tone 1a) of the cooing of doves 1b) of those who confer secretly together 1c) of those who discontentedly complain (Thayer’s). Robertson calls this an “Onomatopoetic word, the meaning suiting the sound.” Murmur and grumble are both onomatopoetic.
[7] “Scorching heat” (καύσωνα) “The word is from καίω, to burn. It refers to the dry, scorching heat borne by the east wind. Compare Job 27:21Hosea 13:15. The wind blows from the Arabian desert, parching, dry, exciting the blood, and causing restlessness and sleeplessness. It seldom brings storms, but when it does, they are doubly destructive, During harvest the corn cannot be winnowed if the east wind blows, for it would carry away both chaff and corn. In Pharaoh’s dream (Genesis 41:6) the ears are blasted by it: Jonah’s gourd is withered by it (Jonah 4:8), and the vine in Ezekiel’s parable of the Babylonian captivity is blighted by it (Ezekiel 17:10)” (Vincent).
[8] “To one of them” (heni autōn). Was there a spokesperson for the group?
[9] “Friend” (ἑταῖρε) note that most of the time (in Mt’s gospel only?) when Jesus calls someone “friend” it is when they have done something wrong (cf. 22:12; 26:50) (Carter, p. .
[10] Matthew 20.13 Gk a denarius
[11] “Take” (ἆρον, aron). First aorist active imperative of airō. Literally, “take up” or “Pick up,” as if he had saucily refused to take it from the table or had contemptuously thrown the denarius on the ground. If the first had been paid first and sent away, there would probably have been no murmuring, but ‘the murmuring is needed to bring out the lesson’” [Plummer] (Robertson).
[12] Matthew 20.15 Gk is your eye evil because I am good? (ho ophthalmos sou ponēros estiṅ)
[13] “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (hoi eschātoi prōtoi kai hoi prōtoi eschatoi). The adjectives change places as compared with 19:30. The point is the same, though this order suits the parable better. Most likely not a part of the original parable of Jesus, but added by Matthew.
nrsv note: Other ancient authorities add for many are called but few are chosen.