NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 13: But the man who owned the field said to one of them, “Friend, I am being fair with you. You agreed to work for one silver coin. Right?”
The Jews had a labor rule that if a contractor hires a person for a stated amount, but the firm only pays them the going wage, then the contractor is responsible to make up the difference out of his own pocket.1 So it was imperative that the owner’s foreman for this field reiterate the amount he promised to pay. So in this parable, this issue seems to be who worked the longest, not who was the most productive. Jesus does not say in His parable that they all strove and labored hard the entire time they were in the field, only that they had been hired at different times and sent into the field to work for the same amount of pay.
Chrysostom has an interesting question on whether the owner broke his word on the amount he agreed to pay. He says: “The question is whether the first ones, who were righteous and pleased God and who shone brightly from their labors through the whole day, at the end are possessed by the lowest vice, envy and jealousy. For they saw the others enjoying the same rewards and said, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the weight and the heat of the day.’ Even though they were not going to be penalized or to suffer any loss of their own pay, with these words they were angry and displeased at the blessing others received. That was proof of envy and jealousy. And what is more, the master of the house, in justifying and defending himself to the speaker, convicts him of wickedness and the lowest envy, saying, ‘Did you not agree with me for one denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to these last ones what I give to you. Is your eye envious because I am good?’”2
And this seems to be the gist of the argument here, those who worked the longest were accusing the owner of showing favoritism to the newly hired. Let’s put this in perspective. From the time of God’s promise to Abraham, and the covenant He made with Abraham’s children through Moses, the Jews had worked century after century on trying to keep all the laws they were given, hoping that, in the end, their righteousness would lead to them being granted everlasting life. But then here come these disciples of Jesus, and in a few short years, they are granted the same eternal life, but through Jesus of Nazareth. The first group was working for their reward after laboring long and hard, while this group had it granted to them through grace at the beginning. So in that light, we can see where Jesus knew the Jews would be upset when they found out that what they as a nation had worked so long and hard for was also going to be given to the Gentiles who, as a people, had not worked very long before payday.
Verses 14-15: “So take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same pay I gave you. I can do what I want with my own money. Why would you be jealous because I am generous?”
The vineyard owner is making a valid point here. The workers who accepted the job early received exactly what they were promised. Why, all of a sudden, should the pay for their labor go up just because someone else received the same for their work, even though it was for a shorter time? A promise was a promise, and the owner was intent on keeping his promise. It is said that Rabbi Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch had an interesting saying about man’s will and God’s will. He is quoted as saying: “Do His will as if it was your will that He may do your will as if it was His will. Let His will cancel your will so that He can let the will of others cancel your will.”3 In their writings, the Rabbi’s also talk about sharing with a “liberal spirit.”4 The Hebrew here has also been rendered as “good eye.”5 Likewise, someone who, with an illiberal spirit, is referred to as having a “bad eye.” In other words, it’s how one looks at it, just like the optimist sees a glass half full and the pessimist sees the same glass as half empty.
Chrysostom touches on a similar point in his sermon. He says: “What then is to be understood from these words? From other parables also it is possible to see the same point. The elder son who was righteous is shown to have suffered from this same fault when he saw his prodigal brother enjoying great honor, even more than himself.6 So just as the one group received a greater reward in being the first to receive it, so the other group was more highly honored by the abundance of the gifts; and to these that righteous son bears witness. What then can we say? In the kingdom of heaven there is no one who justifies himself or blames others in this way; perish the thought! That place is pure and free from envy and jealousy. For if the saints when they are here give their lives for sinners, how much more do they rejoice when they see them there enjoying rewards and consider their blessings to be their own. For what reason then did He use this figure of speech? A parable is being told, and it is not necessary to examine everything in a parable to the letter. But when we have learned the point of the parable as composed, we should reap this harvest and not be overly particular about further details.”7
So the owner here in this parable is telling the disgruntled workers that they should not be jealous if they got what they were promised, and the others got more out of a spirit of generosity. For the Jews, people with such a generous attitude were referred to as “inhabitants of the world-to-come.” As one Rabbi quoted another Rabbi saying, “I saw in a vision the inhabitants of the world-to-come and they will be few!”8 In another place, a Rabbi is said to have called them: “sons of heaven.”9
Gregory the Great makes this point: “It is always foolish to question the goodness of God. There might have been a reason for loud complaining if He did not give what He owed but not if He gives what He does not owe. But no one should boast of his work or of his time, when after saying this Truth cries out: ‘So the last will be first and the first last.’ We know what good things we have done and how many they are; we do not know with what exactitude our judge on high will investigate them. Indeed, we must all rejoice exceedingly to be even the last in the kingdom of God.”10
Verse 16: So those who are last now will be first in the future. And those who are first now will be last in the future.
Here we find repeated what Jesus said earlier,11 but in a different context. The key to this whole parable is understanding the difference between a gift and a reward. As workers for Christ, we have all been offered the same gift – salvation and everlasting life. However, our rewards for being faithful will certainly be different. Job’s friend Elihu clearly understood this principle when he said: “You men can understand, so listen to me. God would never do what is evil! God All-Powerful would never do wrong. He pays us back for what we have done. He gives us what we deserve. The truth is that God does no wrong. God All-Powerful is always fair.”12 But this graceful admonition from Elihu was not appreciated by one Rabbi whose two students quoting their teacher as saying: “I prefer the ‘harsh’ speech of the Fathers than the ‘gentle’ speech of their descendants such as Elihu.”13
In other words, Elihu’s admonition was not forceful enough, it should be stated more emphatically with harsher consequences. Nevertheless, Jesus may be hinting that such rewards will not depend on how long we served, but the fact that we were faithful to the task given to us. That brings us to look at two topics addressed in this parable. One of them is “faithfulness.” As used in the New Testament it denotes two things: trustworthiness and steadfastness. Some try to add that as long as one is present they are faithful whether they do their job or not. For instance, someone who attends church regularly; is always on time; stays until the end, whether or not they participate in worship or ministry. This parable does not include anyone being paid who just went to the vineyard and stood around.
The other topic involves “fairness.” Those who worked the whole day were upset because those who worked only an hour were paid the same wage. But Jesus wanted them to understand a principle that would apply to the kingdom of God. For instance, if someone born again at the age of 16 who actively served the Lord for 60 years dies on the same day as someone who received forgiveness for their sins on their deathbed the night before, what would be wrong for God to grant them both eternal life through His grace? It would almost be like some passengers who were the first to be rescued from a ship sinking in the icy waters of the ocean complaining when they reached shore because they were not applauded more loudly than those plucked from the same ship just minutes before it sank. All lives that were saved should be celebrated equally here on earth because the angels in heaven rejoice over them as well.14
1 Moses Maimonides, ibid. Sefer Mishpatim, Tractate Sechirut, Ch. 9, Halacha 3
2 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 64.3
3 Mishnah, op. cit., Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Aboth, Ch. 2:4
4 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 72a
5 John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible Commentary, loc. cit.
6 Luke 15:28-30
7 Chrysostom, ibid
8 Rabbi Hezekiah quoting Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai: Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. First Division: Tractate Berakhot, Ch. 9:2, [III:10 B]
9Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sukkah, folio 45b (See also, Ibid. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 97b
10 Gregory the Great, op. cit.
11 Matthew 19:30
12 Job 34:10-12
13 Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Jonathan bar Haggai, who quoted the words of Rabbi Isaac in Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit., Piskha 14, p. 357
14 Cf. Luke 15:7, 10