Mt 20: 1-16
A major difficulty in interpreting the parables of Jesus is that we can never be sure when, where and in what circumstances Jesus spoke a parable. The setting provided by an evangelist usually reflects his own concern. It is evident that Matthew intends the parable of the labourers in the vineyard to be understood in close connection with Jesus’ promise of reward to disciples (19:27:30). It is just as clear that the parable does not fit smoothly into that context. For Jesus, the parable surely has to do with God’s generosity which transcends human standards.
The saying, ‘So the last will be first and the first will be last’ (v. 16), is certainly not the conclusion of the original parable — it is an independent and floating logion (see 19:30; Mk 10:31; Lk 13:30). We can even see why it was added in Matthew. Verse 8b, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first,’ seemed to represent a reversal of rank that would take place at judgment and the saying would appear to be perfectly in place. But it is so only at first sight because the wage is still the same in each case. Besides, v. 8b may be rendered quite accurately: ‘Pay them their wages, including the last as well as the first.’
The parable, then, originally ended at v. 15, and the key to it is the last phrase of the verse: ‘because I am generous.’ It is this goodness that explains the apparently capricious conduct of the householder. For, indeed, at first sight, it does seem unfair that all the workers were to receive the same wage. But when we understand his motive we judge his conduct very differently. A denarius represented a day’s wage, just enough to support a family; anything less, and especially payment for a single hour, would be inadequate. It is because he had pity on them that the owner called them to his vineyard in the first place and it is because he has pity on them that he pays them all a full wage. There is nothing arbitrary in his conduct — it is the action of man who is full of compassion for the poor. So, too, does God act, for God is all goodness and mercy. This is the message of the parable.
But if we look at it again we shall see that it is two-pronged, that it is made up of two episodes. First we have the hiring of the labourers and instruction about their payment (vv. 1-8), and then follows the indignation of the recipients who feel themselves cheated (vv. 9-15). It is characteristic of such parables that the emphasis falls on the second part. Because that is so here, we should realize that the parable is aimed at people who resemble the murmurers. The fact is: God is not ‘fair!’ The parable shows what God is like, full of compassion for the poor. It points out how wrong-headed it is to be scandalized by his great goodness. Matthew is hitting at some ‘begrudgers’ within his community. God’s prodigal goodness is an affront to human level-headedness. God’s love of sinners is insult to the pious…
The Gracious Word: Commentary on Sunday and Holy Day Readings, Wilfrid J. Harrington, O.P., Dominican Publications, Dublin, `95, p. 182-183.