NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 9-10: The workers who were hired at five o’clock came to get their pay. Each worker got one silver coin. Then the workers who were hired first came to get their pay. They thought they would be paid more than the others. But each one of them also received just one silver coin.
Keep in mind, Jesus is telling a story to illustrate His earlier statement that in the Kingdom of God some who thought they should be first will end up being last, and those who were thought they would last will be first. It has nothing to do with status in the hierarchy, but on the invitation that will be sent out to enter the kingdom. Most scholars believe that Jesus was trying to get the Jews to understand that just because they were the descendants of Abraham, this did not guarantee their entry before the Gentiles were invited. It had to do with faith in the Messiah as their Savior. Up to this point, many of the Jewish leaders refused to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, while our Lord was often forced to say to a believing Gentile: “I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such trust!” After saying this, Jesus then foretold how believing Gentiles would replace unbelieving Jews at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.1
Here in these verses, where Jesus talks about the expectation of the first workers hired when they came at the end of the day for their pay, the Aramaic Version reads: “they hoped that they would receive more.” There seems to be an innate philosophy born in mankind that declares that he who serves the longest deserves the most. This is etched in the declarations and constitutions of most nations and inscribed on the worker’s bill of rights in every company. But when one honestly takes the argument of quality over quantity, the conclusion is different. Yet even this does not really bring out the point alluded to here by Christ. The supposition on the part of these laborers here was based upon the pragmatic approach that they were hired first, consequently, they should receive the highest wage to compensate for the period amount not necessarily the amount their labor produced.
In his sermon on this text, Chrysostom cautions against putting too much emphasis on the wrong topic in the parable. He writes: “So what was the point of this parable and what does it want to accomplish? To make those who convert in their extreme old age more earnest and to make them better and not to let them think they have less. He introduces others who are angry over the rewards of these elders, not so as to show them pining or eaten with envy – far from it – but to show that the elders enjoy such great honor as even to cause envy in others. This we too often do when we say, ‘The fellow criticized me because I thought you worthy of such great honor,’ when we have not been criticized and do not really wish to abuse him but just to show him how large a gift the others enjoyed. But why did he not hire them all at once? As far as concerned him, he did hire all. But if all did not listen at the same time, the time difference was caused by the inclinations of those called. And so some are called early, some at the third hour, some at the sixth, some at the ninth hour and some at the eleventh when they were about to obey.”2
So it appears that Chrysostom also places the early hiring and the late hiring in perspective when it comes to those who heeded the Gospel early on and those who accepted it later. So Chrysostom goes on to say: “Paul also makes this same point when he says, ‘When it pleased Him, separating me from my mother’s womb.’3 When did it please Him? When Paul was ready to obey. For God wished it even from the beginning, but Paul would not yield; then it pleased him when he too was ready to obey. In this way too Christ called the thief (on the cross), though He was able to call him even earlier, but he would not have obeyed.4 Some may say, ‘No one hired us.’ As I said, we should not busy ourselves too much about every detail in the parables. But here it is not the master of the house who said this but those workers; he does not contradict them, not so as to perplex them but to draw them to him. For that he called all—as far as concerned him—to him from the first, even the parable shows when it says that “he went out early in the morning to hire.”5 To put it another way, when the foreman first went to the market place, all of the workers who eventually got hired were there already. It was only a portion of them that answered each call until all were employed. No wonder he was so perplexed when he went back to the marketplace at the end of the day and there were still some standing around that had been there since morning.
The fact that they all got what they were promised was not satisfactory for some of them. Their attitude does, however, distinguish them from today’s strikers in that they did not demand more than what was promised, only that the late comers should have been paid less. When it comes to the spiritual vineyard and harvest field, hopefully, the older saints will not demand greater heavenly rewards so as to discourage the younger workers who are just joining the workforce in these last days of the harvest.
Cyril of Alexander adds to what we referenced before: “Among these [workers] the first seem to have toiled more than the last as having been subject longer to the devil’s fanaticism – sin and death and corruption not yet being overpowered. If examined on an equal basis, the matter supposes that more is owed to the earlier workers, because they lived their life when death and the devil ruled; for this is ‘the burden of the day and the scorching heat,’ when not even the dew of the Spirit was present to help men to righteousness.”6 Bishop Cyril is not arguing for the complaining workers but merely laying out their mindset and thinking.
Verses 11-12: When they got their silver coin, they complained to the man who owned the land. They said, “Those people were hired last and worked only one hour. But you paid them the same as us. And we worked hard all day in the hot sun.”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with workers who put in 10 hours of difficult and tiring labor to expect a greater salary than late hires. I’m sure the landowner would have no objection to paying those who worked longer and harder a higher wage. But there are three points here that must not be over looked. First, both the first hires, last hires, and all in between hires were offered the same salary for their work. Second, it would be hard for any recruiter to get people to come and work at the end of the day for only a small amount of money. And third, the main point in hiring these workers was to complete the job of harvesting before the grapes dried up and turned sour. So in the end, they could all rejoice equally for a job well done.
Let me give an example from everyday life. Whether it is on a baseball field, football field, soccer field, hockey rink, or basketball court, if in the final moments of the game when the score is tied and a player is brought in off the bench for one special play. Most of the other team members have been playing the whole game. They are tired and worn out. But this fresh new player hits a home run, or kicks a field goal, or scores a goal, or hits a three point shot. What do the other players do? They jump up and down and swarm this player, lifting him or her up on their shoulders. Sometimes, this player who was on the field or court for only minutes, it declared the most valuable player. In other words, they all rejoice and celebrate the win. So it should be in the kingdom of God.
Gregory the Great shares what this grumbling to the householder means on the spiritual level. He writes: “But we can ask why those who were called, even though late, to the kingdom are said to murmur. No one who murmurs receives the kingdom of heaven, and no one who receives it can murmur. Our ancestors up to the Lord’s coming, however righteous their lives, were not let into the kingdom until He came down, who by His death opened up the paradise that had been closed to the human race. Their murmuring means that they lived in such a way as to obtain the kingdom and yet were kept for a long time from obtaining it.… We who come at the eleventh hour do not murmur after our labor, and we receive a penny. After our Mediator’s coming into the world, we are led to the kingdom as soon as we leave the body. We obtain with no delay what our ancestors obtained only after waiting a long time.”7
This sounds familiar to what some Jews believed to have been, on one occasion, a voice speaking out of heaven, suggesting that a hard working faithful servant, like Keti’ah ben Shalom, a convert to Judaism,8 who once worked for a Caesar who hated Jews, can earn more in one hour than some who take many years to earn. So if the king paid on merit, he had every right to give those who worked less time than those who worked all day.9
Then Chrysostom gives us the following in his sermon on this text: “What does this parable wish us to understand? For what is said at the beginning does not agree with what is said at the end but appears totally at odds. For in the first part He shows all enjoying the same rewards and not some being thrown out and some being brought in. And yet He Himself, both before the parable and after the parable, said the opposite, that “the first will be last and the last first,” that is, first before the original first; [those who worked all day] do not stay first but become last. To show what this means, Jesus adds, ‘For many are called, but few are chosen;’10 so in a double way He criticizes one group and encourages and consoles the other. The parable does not say this, but it says that they will be equal with the just and those who have toiled much. ‘You have made them equal to us,’ it says, ‘who have carried the burden and the heat of the day’.”11
So far in this parable, Jesus is assuring those who were hired first but paid last, that as long as they were faithful in their task, they would be paid in full. At the same time, He takes away any concern from those hired last that they will somehow be cheated out of a full reward just because the message reached them late in the day, when they may have been standing in the market place all along. I’m sure that Jesus took note of some wrinkled brows as to how what the owner was doing could be deemed fair to all those who spent the whole day in the vineyard. So He continues on so that everyone will understand what He intended for them to comprehend by using this parable.
1 See Matthew 8:10
2 Chrysostom: Matthew Homily 64.3
3 Galatians 1:15
4 Luke 23:40-43
5 Chrysostom: ibid.
6 Cyril of Alexandria: ibid.
7 Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies, 19.4
8 Converts to Judaism: Stories from Biblical Times to Today by Lawrence J. Epstein, Rowman & Littlefield, New York, 2015, p. 53
9 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 10b
10 Matthew 22:14
11 Chrysostom: ibid.