There are many parables in the synoptic Gospels. They are in most cases story-like. They have a setting, contain characters, and proceed according to a simple plot. But unlike ordinary stories, they are told not to entertain the audience. Rather, they express deeper meanings that go beyond the surface of the narratives. Very often their endings contradict common thinking and startle the listeners. Materials used in the stories are drawn mostly from day-to-day experiences and they compel the readers to think more deeply.
Parables are a form of literary device that Jesus formulates to illustrate the kingdom of heaven. Jesus often starts a parable with: "The kingdom of heaven is like..." (Mt 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 47). He then goes on to tell a story. The intention is that by grasping the gist of the parable, one can, using analogy, understand the kingdom of heaven. Since the kingdom of heaven is the main theme of Jesus' gospel as well as the goal of our spiritual quest, parables deserve our serious attention. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (~4Mt 20:1-16) is hence worthy of our keen interest, although it may be hard to comprehend.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard" (Mt 20:1)â€”Jesus thus begins this strange narrative. The owner of the vineyard first hired some laborers to work for him at approximately 6 a.m., agreeing to pay them a denarius as the day's wages. He went out again about 9 a.m. Finding that some other men were "standing idle in the marketplace" (Mt 20:3), he hired them immediately and asked them to work in the vineyard. He did not reveal what kind of price he would pay this group of laborers but simply said that he would give "whatever is right" (Mt 20:4).
The landowner went out twice again, at about 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. respectively. The story does not tell us why he went out of his vineyard so regularly. Perhaps, seeing that the field was huge and yet the workers were few, he needed more hands to finish the job. But it is also likely that as a master, he was at his own liberty to stroll around his estate for pleasure. On these two occasions, he hired some more workers he happened to meet outside the vineyard and agreed to pay, presumably, "whatever is right." What is more interesting is that he went out of the vineyard again about 5 p.m., only one hour to sunset. This time he found, to his surprise, more men still standing at the street corner. Out of curiosity he asked, "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" (Mt 20:6). This sounds more like a rhetorical question because from his previous encounters on the same day, he should have known why they were standing there idle.
"Because no one has hired us" (Mt 20:7) was the reply in unison, a reply intended more to impress upon the parable-listeners these men's plight than to remind the vineyard owner of the reason for their idleness. The owner, without a second thought, hired them right away, a dramatic decision which perplexes our common sense. It would seem unlikely that he needed these additional hands in order to complete the work; at least the story does not hint that this is the case. The landowner was, at any rate, free to do whatever he liked, and he certainly had a plan in mind when he called this company into his vineyard almost at the day's end.
The second half of the story grows more incomprehensible as Jesus' parable continues. When the day became dark the owner of the vineyard instructed his steward to pay all the workers their wages, "beginning with the last to the first" (Mt 20:8). We wonder why the order of the payment was arranged in such a way. Why was the owner more eager to pay those who came last than those who first entered and worked in the vineyard? Were those who came later worthier than those who came early? In what way? More than that, not only is the sequence of payment illogical, but the amount of payment to the different laborers is contrary to our wisdom. No matter how long they worked in the vineyard, they received equal wagesâ€”a denarius! (Mt 20:9-10) Unfair indeed was this kind of treatment! No wonder those who labored the longest "complained against the landowner" (Mt 20:11). They protested that the final batch worked only one hour while they themselves had borne "the burden and the heat of the day" (Mt 20:12). If the owner were wise enough, he would not have incurred such resentment, one which appears justifiable at least on the surface. And if he were shrewd enough, he would not have spent his money so unnecessarily. His way of thinking and doing things really bewilders the audience.
The owner of the vineyard, seeing the reactions from the grunters, responded composedly. He maintained that in dealing with his hired hands, he did not make any mistake. He observed what had already been agreed upon between the two parties (Mt 20:14). If there was anything unusual about his distribution of wages, that was but his generosity (Mt 20:15). And with respect to his character, it should not be taken as an object of complaint but should be welcomed as a laudable virtue. The laborers' antagonism towards it reflected their psychological state, either greedy or envious. The owner rhetorically asked why he should not have the right to dispense whatever belongs to him. It was an authority he quickly claimed to quell the complaints. Jesus thereupon ends His parable with "The last will be first, and the first last," a maxim that reverberates in some other verses (cf. Mt. 19:30; Mk 10:31; Lk 13:30).
The story does not tell us whether the grudging laborers accepted the vineyard owner's explanation with ease. Neither do we know, more interestingly, what the last laborers' reactions were when they received payment beyond their expectation. As the audience, however, we are left puzzled after hearing the story. The questions remain: why was the owner so generous to those who worked for him less than a full day? Maybe he had the right to deal freely with his own money as he claimed, but from what kind of consideration did he derive the principle of wage distribution? Most importantly, if Jesus intended to relate this parable about the kingdom of heaven, what was the real message concealed within it?
It is obvious that the vineyard owner was not a worldly-wise man whom the captains of industry would praise. Any man imitating the owner's administrative methods would certainly go out of business sooner or later. (We are sure that the audience realized this while Jesus was telling this parable, for who in the world would run his business in this manner?) That the owner needed laborers to work for his vineyard and therefore hired some for this purpose was a scenario common enough. But it seems that he did not calculate at the outset how much manpower he needed in order to finish the entire job. That was something very uncommon. Recruiting new employees without considering the total budget and the schedule of progress would certainly result in failure.
If the parable is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven, the principles of doing things and dealings with people must be very different from what we commonly assume. The landowner was a man related to the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus affirms at the beginning of His parable. Since he was not an ordinary man, what he did reflected a quality rarely seen in our human world. The parable tells us that when the owner saw some men standing idle in the market place, he, without the necessary negotiations, immediately called them to work for him (v. 3-4). He seemed to care more for their joblessness than whether they could really make contributions to his vineyard. This strong sense of care was the motivation behind his hiring. So when dusk approached, finding that there were some more men unhired, he nonetheless asked them to go into the vineyard as he had previously done (v. 6). He realized how little time was left, not for himself but for those unhired. "No one has hired us" (v.7) was a disheartening reality which would have brought the temporary laborers and their whole families into misery. No job today meant no bread tomorrow. The men standing idle at the corner knew this cruel reality, and so did the owner of the vineyard.
The owner's genuine concern extended to the way he paid wages to the laborers. The order of payment, "beginning with the last, up to the first" (v. 8), indicates the master's care for the least fortunate. He did not mean to be unfair to those who had worked hard and long for him. Actually he did not mistreat them in any way. He just preferred to be more gracious to those who were either less capable or more afflicted. He knew dearly how many hours each laborer had put in for him, and those who had worked only one hour certainly did not deserve a full-day's wages. But the principle of human relationship in the kingdom of heaven is not based on meticulous calculation; rather, it is rooted in love and concern. The owner paid his laborers not according to how much they had done for him but how much they needed for the day's subsistence. His way of payment was altruistic; the denarius was indeed a free gift.
Parables are simple stories composed out of ordinary things, just as the vineyard, the laborers, and the landowner are common scenes and characters in the living context of the listeners. They are also uncommon stories, because they read like riddles or puzzles which challenge our common sense and disturb our value system. With a subtle twist, what we consider normal or reasonable turns out to be inadequate or even a mistake against the measuring scale of the kingdom of heaven.
When Jesus tells a parable, He creates a new context into which He invites His audience. Only those who carefully listen and cheerfully understand are eligible as participants, whereas those who misunderstand or reject are excluded. It is this radical element, comprising true understanding and willing acceptance, which is perplexing and annoying. Thus to receive citizenship in the kingdom of heaven requires special identification. On the one hand, the listeners are asked to identify themselves with the laborers. They have to think that they are jobless and penniless and standing idle in the street waiting to be hired. Only a generous and merciful master who comes to the street at regular hours can relieve their miserable plight. Upon hearing the call, they should grasp the opportunity and go right into the vineyard without hesitation. It is an invitation, free and bountiful. On the other hand, the listeners should identify themselves with the landowner, too. As the vineyard owner's magnanimity demonstrates, one should not treat one's subjects or employees as inferior and thus exploitable. In the new situation of the kingdom of heaven, the rich and the powerful should take others' misfortune into serious consideration and give away what one can possibly give. As far as this radical ethic is concerned, love and care reign supreme.