NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1: God’s kingdom is like a man who owned some land. One morning, the man went out very early to hire some people to work in his vineyard.
This is an obvious continuation of our Lord’s teaching in the previous chapter. Remember, He was talking about entering the kingdom of heaven after the young man He invited to be His 13th disciple had walked away. Jesus pointed out how hard it is for people to give up worldly wealth for heavenly treasures when they should be willing to give all to follow Him into God’s eternal kingdom where there are riches far beyond what the world has to offer. Now the Master wants to point out another aspect of the reward that awaits those who are willing to forsake all to follow Him. Therefore, this parable was intended to illustrate God’s equality of grace in dealing with those who first receive the invitation to work for Him and those whose invitation comes later.
It is also worthwhile to note since Jesus starts His parable about a man who owned a vineyard that according to Jewish tradition, a field had to be of a certain size in order for it to be called a vineyard. For instance, in the Jerusalem Talmud several Rabbis were discussing trees and vines, and one of them said: “A vineyard that is planted by [intervals of] less than four amah” — Rabbi Simeon says, “[It] is not [considered] a vineyard.” An amah is the same as a cubit, and one cubit is 18 inches. So, four amah would be 6 feet. Therefore, there had to be multiple rows of vines six feet apart.1 So we can imagine that if this vineyard owner was having to hire more and more workers, it was one of great size.
There is also the possibility that by using a vineyard in His parable, Jesus was reminding His Jewish listeners of the song found in Isaiah that begins: “I want to sing a song for someone I love, a song about my loved one and his vineyard.”2 But it wasn’t so much the time spent in working, but the quality of their work that counted. As Solomon says, “Every time you find work to do, do it the best you can. In the grave, there is no work.”3 Furthermore, the sight of people standing around in the marketplace looking for work is a tradition that exists to this day. In every major city where I have lived, it wasn’t long before we noted those places where migrant works congregated in hopes that someone would stop and offer them work so that they could make enough for that day in order to exist for another day.
Jesus did not invent this parable, we find similar accounts in Jewish writings. For instance, we read in another story told by a Rabbi that says: “A king hired many workers. One worker excelled very much in his work. What did the king do? He took him and walked with him back and forth through the rows of crops and did not let him finish his day’s work. Toward evening, when all the workers came to be paid, he gave him a full day’s wages along with the rest of them. The workers complained and said, ‘We toiled all day, and this one toiled only two hours, and he gave him a full day’s wages!’ The king said to them, ‘This one worked and accomplished more in two hours than you did in a whole day.’”4 As in the parable of Jesus, the focus is not on the amount of work, but the quality of work being done.
Also, in our Lord’s parable, it is obvious that this king was aware of the traditional custom of hiring as outlined in Jewish verbal Law. The rules outlined are as follows: “One who engages workers and demands that they commence early or work late – where local custom is not to commence early or work late if he did not stipulate this as a requirement before hiring them, he may not compel them to do so and even though he agreed to pay them more than other workers, he cannot say: It is because of the early or late work schedule; since he didn’t specifically mention this, they can respond by saying; You pay us extra, because of the quality of our work.”5 This now brings into focus that the workers must be informed what the pay will be before they begin, that way there will be no confusion at the end of the day.
The hiring of such workers was commonplace, especially in the summer when the days were long. In one place, the Rabbis were discussing what constitutes the beginning of a work day and at what hour should workers be hired. Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra made it clear that if the whole eastern sky is already lit up and everyone is at his place of work, it would be far too late to go out and find workers to hire because too much of the day is already gone.”6 Jewish scholars say, this is a reference to contractors who do not leave early enough in the morning to hire their men for a whole day’s work.7
We also see that it was a standard custom to pay each worker at the end of the day. As the Rabbis taught: “A worker hired by the day can collect his wages that night and if he is not paid by then the employer has violated the rule: ‘Do not let the worker’s wage remain with you overnight till morning;’8 if hired by the night, he can collect it in the morning, and if he is not paid by then, the employer has violated the rule: ‘Do not withhold the wages of a … hired worker. Rather you must give him his wage on the day it is due to him.9 If engaged by the hour at night he can collect for the whole night and if engaged by the hour by day he can collect for the whole day.”10
One venerable Jewish Rabbi adds that if an employer does not pay his workers their wages on time: “He violates four admonitions and a positive commandment: He transgresses the commandments not to oppress a colleague, not to steal, not to hold overnight the wage of a worker and not to allow the sun to set before having paid him, and the positive commandment to pay him on time.”11 Jesus shows His wisdom here by not introducing new stories for His listeners to try and figure out, but takes familiar ones and expounds on them for more enlightenment as to His message.
Verse 2: He agreed to pay the workers one silver coin for working that day. Then he sent them into the vineyard to work.
It is important that we make note of the fact that the wage was agreed upon before the workers were hired and accepted the job, knowing that was what they were going to get paid for working that day. But nowhere did the farmer tell them how many hours they would work. So they could expect to get that wage whether they labored ten hours, eight hours, six hours or four hours. It would all be part of what made up the work for that day.
Chrysostom looks for a spiritual element in this agreement by asking: “What then does the parable mean? By the vineyard, He means the commandments of God, and the time of working refers to the present life. The workers – those called to the task at different times: early, at the third hour, at the sixth, at the ninth, at the eleventh—are those who have come forward at different ages and lived justly.”12 However, In my own thinking, I feel that Jesus was certainly thinking of the vineyard as the kingdom of God here on earth, and the workers are those whom the Holy Spirit calls to become part of that kingdom. And the wage for such work is the same for everyone. After all, if the basic return is eternal life, what can be added to that?
This is what Cyril of Alexandria gives us to consider: “Their single denarius is the grace of the Spirit, perfecting the saints in conformity with God and impressing the heavenly stamp on their souls and leading them to life and immortality.”13 Therefore, since God paid the same price for the redemption of each soul, and since Christ offered His life for each and every one of those who come to Him, and since His promise of everlasting life in the realm where He has gone to prepare a place for each one of us, then who should think that they will be given more for what they do for Him here on earth, even if they labor longer than others.
Therefore, it’s not a matter of how long you work but how hard you work. The kingdom of God has been functioning here on earth since it was established by our Lord Jesus after His resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. So the amount of time each of us spends in the vineyard is between us and the One who called us to work. That’s why no one who ministered in the kingdom for sixty years should be upset when someone who was only able to get in two years before both were called to their eternal rest each receive the same reward: Everlasting Life.
1 Jerusalem Talmud: First Division, Tractate Shebi’it, Ch. 1:3
2 Isaiah 5:1-6
3 Ecclesiastes 9:10
4 Rabbi Bun bar Rabbi Hiyya: Jerusalem Talmud, First Division: Tractate Berachot, Ch. 2:8, [I:2 O-Q]
5 Mishnah, op. cit. Fourth Division, Tractate Bava Metza, Ch. 7:1
6 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Yoma, folio 28b
7 Ibid. Footnote (2)
8 Leviticus 19:13
9 Deuteronomy 24:14-15 (cf. Leviticus 19:13)
10 Mishnah, op. cit. Fourth Division: Bava Metzia, Ch. 9:11
11 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Mishpatim, Tractate Sechirut, Ch. 11, Halacha 2
12 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 64.3
13 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 226