Until we are Equal
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Workers on the field (down) and pay time (up). Byzantine Gospel illumination, 11th century, National Library of France.
Author’s note: this article draws on work previously published in Encountering the Parables in Contexts Old and New (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2022).
Growing up white in middle-class Melbourne, the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1–15) always left me with an abiding sense of injustice. Despite their best efforts, Sunday School teachers and preachers never quite convinced me that the parable spoke of the grace and generosity of God. I identified with the first-hired labourers. I got up early. I studied hard. I did well and felt entitled to success. Why should those who coasted through receive the same reward? I deserved more. I did not want to be equal.
Unburdened by questions of audience and context, I read the parable through the individualistic dualistic lens of my culture, hearing it in isolation, as if spoken into empty space. I never thought to listen to the parable as if among the audience to whom, according to Matthew, Jesus first told it. Nor did I pause to consider how the parable may have intersected with the lives of its earliest hearers, or whether the worlds it portrayed and that I inhabited were in any way analogous.
Things changed when I moved from Australia to rural Afghanistan. Well before dawn, men arrived at the bazaar and squatted, their tools of trade before them, waiting, hoping to be hired. When there was little work, they waited until nightfall and returned home empty-handed. Those were seasons of acute hunger. During peak agricultural and construction seasons, the strongest or most skillful were hired first. The infirm, the elderly, the not-quite-able were hired last, if at all. Hiring these last men delivered them from the indignity of begging and saved their families from hunger—if only for a day. Maybe the parable did speak of the generosity and grace of God.
But that was not the whole story. Sitting with extended families during lamp-lit winter evenings, I listened to folktales, legends, and memories of how things used to be, of how they belonged to the land, God’s land, sat beneath their own vines and fig trees, ate the fruit of their own labour, built houses and lived in them, and were not afraid. Enshallah (God willing), those days would come again. One day, maybe soon, cash crops would give way to barley, vegetables and grazing lands, families would till their fields with joy, and the land would flow with milk and honey. Enshallah! So, yes, the workers are grateful to be hired and grateful to be paid. And, yes, they are angry! The householder’s defence, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with what belongs to me?” (20:15), rekindles the rage of peasant farmers driven off ancestral lands and exacerbates the humiliation of begging for work on lands that were once their own.
But neither is that the whole story. The parable tracks the play of power in the hiring process. The householder contracts the first workers for a denarius (20:2). He tells subsequent groups, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just” (20:4), thus seizing the prerogative to determine what is just. He sends the last workers into the vineyard without mentioning payment at all (20:6–7).
Nooristan countryside, Afghanistan.
Photo: Aryub Zazai.
But that is still not the whole the story. A manager, not the householder, pays the workers (20:8). As far as we know, the householder-now-lord of the vineyard gives the manager only one explicit direction, “Call the workers and give them their hire, beginning with the last and then to the first” (20.8). Most landowners expect their managers to follow the usual rules of business: give as little as possible to get as much as you can. Did this householder direct his manager to give each worker a denarius? We are not told, but I suspect not. Had the lord of the vineyard expected all workers to receive a denarius, he would have been unlikely to direct his manager to pay the first last, a strategy guaranteed to provoke complaint. Was it the manager who practiced a different ethic, paying the last-hired workers the same as the first? Did the householder/lord of the vineyard know what his manager was doing before the first-hired complained? We are not told, but I suspect not.
The parable alone does not tell the whole story. It belongs to one scene of a much longer story. The Gospel writer invites us to imagine hearing the parable as if among those who witnessed an encounter between a young man and Jesus (19:16–22) and overheard or participated in a subsequent conversation (19:17–30). Did Jesus tell the parable in response to the questions of the young man (19:16, 20) and the disciples (19:25, 27), to illustrate his statement of 19:30, or to reflect on the entire preceding scene (19:16–30)? Jesus’ challenge/question to the young man was not one of possibility but of will: “If you wish to enter life . . .” “If you wish to be perfect . . .” (19:17, 21). Rich people sometimes do sell all they possess and give to the poor, but might Jesus have told the parable to endorse other less dramatic forms of discipleship, discipleship open to those who, not rich, are indebted or enslaved, discipleship that works best unnoticed? Might it be the manager and the manager’s (off-stage) actions to whom and to which Jesus invites those listening to attend?
The narrative to which the parable belongs is still only part of the story. Matthew’s Gospel continues the story of Israel as interpreted by the Jewish Scriptures. Listening as if among the crowd, I recall the tragic history of Naboth (1 Kings 21) and the word with which Elijah was sent to confront Ahab: “Thus says the LORD: Have you indeed killed and taken possession?” (v. 19). I remember a vineyard parable the prophet Isaiah spoke against the elites of his day (Isa 5: 1–7), “heroes at drinking wine” (Isa 5:22), at least some of whom were “lords” of actual vineyards: “Woe to you who add house to house and field to field . . .” (Isa 5:8). How, I wonder, did the parabolic householder acquire his vineyard?
Afghan workers waiting to be hired. Unemployment rates have risen since the regime change in August 2021.
No prophet appears in the parable of Matthew 20:1–15. The lord of the vineyard has the last word: “Mate, I do you no injustice; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go; I wish to give to this last the same as you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?” (20:13–15). Whether or not the householder initiated the equal payments, he claims that decision as his own. Listening as if among the crowd, I hear arrogance, derision and, possibly, fear. The lord of the vineyard frames the dispute in terms of his (claimed) goodness and our (alleged) evil. He flaunts his ability to do as he wishes with what he claims to own: the vineyard, employment, denarii and even we workers. The lord of the vineyard might have the last word but the manager silently testifies that the word of that lord neither defines nor determines the story.
How should we interpret Matthew 20:1–15? This parable is most often interpreted allegorically with the householder/lord of the vineyard representing God. This is the interpretation I received as a child and young adult. The allegorical identification of the householder exerts a decisive influence on how other characters and their actions are judged, the parable understood, and connections between the parable and its narrative, historical, and reception contexts explained. If the householder/lord of the vineyard stands for God, everything he says and does must, by definition, be good and just and true (as would be the case for God). Allegorising this character requires other aspects of the parable to be allegorised too, rendering the parable unable to speak about the historical economic, social, political and ecological realities it depicts.
Matthew 20:1–15 is sometimes read as a fictional abstract yet realistic story about economic and political structures that facilitated the growth of large estates, forced peasant families off ancestral lands, and reoriented agriculture toward profit and trade rather than the sustenance of local populations. Imagining ourselves into the story, we hear the parable as if among the crowds and the disciples. This enables us to attend to the fraught history and power dynamics of interactions between the householder/lord of the vineyard and the workers, question their perspectives and probity, and critique the structures that render the workers so vulnerable and the householder so rich. Heard this way, the parable presents a familiar situation as a problem that we listeners can identify, question and, potentially, transform. How then should we interpret the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard? Jesus’ example prohibits the categorial endorsement or exclusion of either approach, allegorical or realistic/political. Although Jesus leaves most of his parables unexplained and uninterpreted, he explains the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3–9 and parallels) allegorically (13:18–23) and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–35) politically: “Go and do likewise” (10:37). Might we not interpret the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard both as a realistic fictitious story that critiques exploitative systems and structures and as an allegorical story that speaks of the reign of God? After all, much well-crafted communication functions on more than one level.
When read allegorically and in narrative, historical and canonical contexts, the parable counters the desire for pre-eminence evident among the disciples, implicit in Peter’s question (19:27) and explicit in the request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee (20:21). There are no hierarchies in the kingdom of the heavens (19:30; 20:16). Jesus assures the twelve that they will be rewarded (19:28)—as will all his followers (19:29; 20:9). If the parabolic lord of the vineyard represents God, God is indeed gracious and God is indeed good. God is indeed entitled to do what God likes with what belongs to God: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all who live therein” (Psalm 24:1).
When read as a fictional abstract yet realistic story and in narrative, historical and canonical contexts, the parable reminds the disciples, the crowds and, possibly, the young man listening from a distance, that having many possessions has a history; it doesn’t just happen. According to Rome, property rights were absolute and elite interests determined what was right: the lord of a vineyard is entitled to do as he wishes with what he owns. The Scriptures, on the other hand, insist that the land—all the land—belongs to God and that people—all people—are accountable to God: it is not lawful for the lord of the vineyard to do as he wishes with what he so blasphemously claims to own!
What of the manager? Most interpreters overlook the manager or treat him as an extension of his master without independent agency. Few interpreters notice the gap between the householder’s direction (20:8) and the payments the last-hired workers receive (20:9) or consider the possibility that the equal payments might not have been what the householder intended. The Greek noun (epitropos) translated “manager” occurs only three times in the New Testament (Matt 20:8; Luke 8:3; Gal 4:2). In Roman administration, the term refers to specific legal roles or positions, most often a person responsible for the care and instruction of children as a guardian (where the father is dead) or a tutor (where the father is alive), sometimes one responsible for household, organisational, or state administration. Its usage in rabbinic literature is similar. Matthew’s decision to have Jesus use an unusual term, one designating a person into whose care someone or something is entrusted with significant decision-making responsibilities, should at least give us pause.
Illustration of Matt 20:1-15 by Eugène Burnand.
Since returning to Australia, the parable still leaves me protesting—at the unjust loss of lands and livelihoods, at the injustice of businesses who choose to be generous to some while paying inhumane wages to all, at the brutal social and economic systems that the parable exposed and the equally brutal systems operational today. But now, with anger comes hope.
The rich can repent and sometimes they do, but the kingdom neither waits for nor depends on the rich. Repentance, as another Gospel reminds us, has practical implications across the economic spectrum: “Whoever has two coats shares with those with none; whoever has food does likewise” (Luke 3:3–14). Repentance continues until all have enough and none have too much, until we are equal. This, I suspect, is where we so often stumble. Like the young man, we are blind to structures that enrich us and dispossess others and have inflated views of our own achievements: “I have kept all these. What do I still lack?” (Matt 19:20). Like Peter, we focus on personal sacrifice and anticipated reward: “Look, we left everything to follow you. What then shall we have?” (19:27). Like the vineyard owner, we claim entitlements and attributes that belong only to God, “Mate, I do you no injustice . . . Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil because I am good” (20:13, 15). Like the first-hired workers, we do not want to be equal. We do not want to be equal, but neither do we want inequality to happen. Inequality increases, despite and against our wishes: “To those who have much, more will be given, and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt 25:29).
In one sense, we are all rich young men. The parable challenges us to push back into the history of economic relations: present hierarchies of wealth and power didn’t just happen; they have a history: how much have we/our ancestors taken? How much are we taking away?
In another sense, we are all managers—of households, relationships and lifestyles, playgroups and churches, workplaces, businesses and institutions, of superannuation accounts and our individual and collective ecological footprints. In today’s world, economic justice doesn’t happen; the logic of acquisition and accumulation reigns. The parable reminds us that, however we are enmeshed in networks of power and privilege, we are not extensions of our masters or cogs in the wheel: we have agency; we need not play by the usual rules. Salt, light, and yeast: we can work within the system to reverse the usual balance of trade. As disciples of Jesus, we are managers in a different vineyard and serve a different Lord. We have influence... How will we use it?
Rev. Dr. Deborah Storie lives and works on Wurundjeri land and enjoys walking in wilderness places and a long association with Manna Gum. Currently Senior Pastor at East Doncaster Baptist, Lecturer in New Testament with the University of Divinity, and Honorary Associate Researcher with Whitley College, she previously lived in Afghanistan while working in community development and other roles with an international humanitarian organisation.
Schottroff, Luise. The Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
Storie, Deborah R. “Matthew 20:1–15: The ‘Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard’ or ‘of a Manager-Disciple?’” In Goud and Cousland (eds), Encountering the Parables in Contexts Old and New. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2022. 196–222.
Ukpong, Justin S. “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16.1–13): An Essay in Inculturation Biblical Hermeneutic.” Semeia 73 (1996): 189–210.
Storie, Deborah R. “‘The Free Enterprise Parable’? Contesting John Howard’s Appropriation of a Story Told by Jesus.” In Storie, Deutschmann and Eastwood (ed), Reading the Bible in Australia. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming.^ back to top