What the Landowner Did and What We Thought He Would
An interpretation of the parable in Matthew 20:1-16. Stephen
Men harvesting grapes.
Ordinary stories sometimes turn into stories about God. One of these
is Jesus’ parable of the good landowner in Matthew 20:1-16.
Of course you can read the parable for yourself. You don’t need me to
get the point. If I can help you at all, it is by doing two things. The
first is by explaining a little bit about the ancient cultural context.
The second is by pointing out some of the major ideas the parable makes
us think about.
The cultural context is all the little things that people are just
expected to know. But if you are not a part of the culture, you might
not know them. For example, there is a certain way of telling time in
this parable, but it is different from our way. Some translations of the
Bible preserve the exact wording: at the third hour, the sixth hour, the
ninth hour, and the eleventh hour. But these times don’t match up with
our clocks at all. The sixth hour is noon, and the eleventh hour is not
an hour before midnight, but an hour before sundown. If we misunderstand
all that, we’ll get the story a little bit wrong. (Most modern Bible
translations make it clear to us what time of day things happen in this
story, so we are okay there.)
The major ideas of the parable are the things that the parable gives
us to think about. This parable leads us to expect one thing, but then
another thing happens. The plot takes an unexpected twist, and our
emotions get caught up in the story. Our emotional response is an
important clue to what the parable is saying to us. It is as if Jesus
has told the story in order to catch us and make us think, hoping that
we will glimpse something of the beauty and goodness of God.
So let us hear the story of what happened one day long ago in a
little village in Palestine.
Village and Vineyard
In the village where this story takes place is a house, and in this
house one of the day workers woke up in the morning. The house is small
and built of stone, since Palestine has plenty of rocks and not many
trees. The ceiling is low, and the roof is flat. There is one window.
Many families only have one bedroom for eight to ten people to sleep in.
Because the houses are small and dark and smoky, people like to stay
outside all they can. The door to the house does not open to the street;
it opens to a little yard. But this is not the family’s private yard:
they share it with three or four other families. The women of the
families bake bread in the same outdoor oven. The children of the
families play together and learn together. You can imagine that the
neighbors know one another pretty well!
An alleyway leads out to the street. The men duck out by the alleyway
and take off to the marketplace. Every village has a marketplace. The
marketplace is the center of the village’s public life. People buy and
sell in the marketplace. Lawsuits are judged there. Men who are out of
work go there early in the morning hoping to be hired. If there is no
work, they are glad to be out of the house and with other unemployed
fellows like themselves.
The ancient remains of little houses and yards and streets, like I
have just described, have been uncovered by archaeologists in
Capernaum—where Peter and Andrew had a fishing business together and
which Jesus made the home base of his ministry. If the village of the
parable is anything like Capernaum, it has perhaps five blocks of houses
On the outskirts of the village is the farmland and pasture land.
Near the village in the parable there is a vineyard. The man who owns
the vineyard is well off compared with most other people. He has a large
house and plenty of land, and he pays people to work for him. He grows
grapes. He sells some of them as table grapes in season. But fresh
grapes do not last long, so he makes the rest into wine, raisins, and
The landowner and the villagers need each other. To grow grapes and
harvest them and preserve them takes a lot of manual labor. At
times—especially at harvest time—the vineyard employs all the available
men of the village. Without workers, the vintner can lose an entire
year’s crop in just a few days. So he needs a good relationship with the
men of the village, since he looks to them to get his crop in.
The village needs the vineyard, too. Palestine was a relatively poor
province of the Roman Empire. Without employment and daily wages,
families went without bread. So the day laborers and the grape grower
work together for their mutual good. They supply the manpower he needs
to keep his vineyard going, and he pays them the wages they need to keep
their families going.
Hiring the Laborers
The story opens early one morning in the harvest season. The sun is
barely up when the landowner goes to the marketplace and hires workers
for his vineyard. He will pay each of them a silver coin called a
denarius. This is the standard daily wage for a working man.
Everyone knows this, and everyone thinks it is a good wage. So the
landowner sends the men out to his vineyard.
In the middle of the morning the landowner goes again to the
marketplace, and sees more out-of-work men. He says, “You go to the
vineyard, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.” This time the
landowner doesn’t mention an exact amount. He only says he will pay what
is right. The men understand by this that he will pay them for the part
of the day they work. Everyone expects that, and everyone thinks it is
The landowner goes to the marketplace again at noon and again in the
middle of the afternoon. Each time he hires more men with the same
understanding about their wages, that he will pay them what is right.
The landowner must be anxious to get his crop in, because he goes one
last time just an hour before the end of the work day. And sure enough,
there are still people there. The landowner says to them—well, of course
he doesn’t speak English to them, but what he does say is translated in
our pew Bibles—“Why have you been standing here all day long doing
Now really I think that that is not a good translation for two
reasons. First, it is out of the question that these men will have
actually stood up in the marketplace all day long. They have been
sitting down. Second, the word translated “doing nothing” really means
“out of work.”
The landowner is clearly exasperated. He has more work in his
vineyard than the workers can do. It is a race against time to gather
the grapes before they spoil on the vine or before the rainy season sets
in. The landowner is even more exasperated that there are unemployed
people in the village just when he wants all the hands he can get, and
these fellows are just hanging about.
So he says to them, “What are you doing here, out of work as
you are?” It is plain that these men have come to the marketplace to
announce their intention of getting work, but it is equally plain that
they have not sweated unduly over this. The landowner cries, “Why are
you here when the work is out there!”
They give a lame excuse: “No one has hired us.”
So the landowner hires them and sends them to the vineyard for the
last hour’s work.
The Day’s Wages
Now it is getting dark, and the landowner tells his foreman to call
the workers in and pay them. In ancient Palestine, day laborers were
paid at the end of each day’s work. Moses even wrote the custom into
Israel’s law: “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer
until morning.” The poor had no buffer of ready cash in the bank. The
poor were always one day away from destitution. They must have their
denarius or next day their families will have nothing to live on. So
the workers crowd around the foreman’s table, and he opens his bag of
coins to pay them. He begins with those who were hired last.
So far there is nothing out of the ordinary in this tale. This day in
the life of vineyard and village has been no different from other days.
Every detail of the story has been exactly right. It is so familiar that
everyone knows what to expect. The men who worked only one hour will be
paid for one hour’s work. Those who worked half a day will be paid half.
Those who worked for the full day will be paid a full denarius.
Everyone will go home satisfied. The men hired last will only take home
a little money, but at least they spent most of a pleasant day relaxing
with their friends. The people who worked hard all day will at least
have a good day’s earnings to show for it.
But now the story takes an unexpected turn. Here is where we have to
listen as carefully as we can. Here is where the parable will catch us
and make us think. Here is where the parable tells us what it has to say
The people who were hired last and only worked one hour receive a
full day’s pay. The people who have only worked a fourth of the day
receive a full day’s pay. And of course everyone knows what everyone
else is being paid. How do they know? Because they are all crowded
around the table. And how do I know that they are crowded around the
table? Because an old professor of mine who went every summer to Israel
told us in class one time, “You can’t get people in the Middle East to
stand in line!”
So everyone is crowded around the foreman’s table, and they all know
what is going on. At first everyone is overjoyed. The people who only
worked a short while are happy because they have been paid for a whole
day. The people who worked all day are happy because they are thinking,
“We will be paid more! We will be given two danarii! Maybe
But when everyone has been paid, every man has received the same: one
Fury in the Workplace
Everyone has reason to be pleased—those who have been paid what they
signed on for, and naturally those who have been paid more than they
expected. But the men who have worked all day are furious. They will not
let the other men go home. They march them to the landowner’s house, and
they give the landowner a piece of their mind.
Ancient Palestine was a polite society. People could certainly
express their grievances, but they were expected to remember their
manners. They would not just blurt things out. They would use a
respectful term of address—something like Sir or Madam. And they would
lead up to the point carefully. The workers in the parable, if they had
remembered their manners, would have chosen one man to make a polite
speech. The speech would go something like this:
“Master! What is your servant that you should look upon a dead dog
such as I? Behold, if I have found favor in your eyes, let me take it
upon myself to speak to my master. Suppose it were found that a man held
back from his neighbor that which was his. Far be it from you to do such
a thing! Far be it from you! A small thing—one or two silver denarii—what
is that between you and me?”
And so forth and so on. I know I am exaggerating. But all I have done
is piece together phrases that really do occur in polite speeches in the
Bible. (See 2 Sam. 9:8; Gen. 18:24-25, 27; 23:15. The polite “Master”
and “Behold” and “Find favor in your eyes” occur too frequently to need
But the workers forget their manners. They all talk at once, and they
grumble against the landowner. They sling their arms around and point at
the poor fellows who were hired late and say, “Look at these people!
These last only worked one hour, and you have treated them equally with
us! With us! With us who have borne the burden of the day’s
work—and the scorching heat!”
The Landowner’s Response
The landowner is a good man. He stays calm. He speaks to the crowd
kindly. He directs his response to one of the men—the one that should
have brought the grievance while the others stood quietly by—and he
remembers to call the man by a polite term of address.
“Friend,” he says, “I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with
me for one denarius? Take what is yours and go. For it is my
fixed intention to give to this last one as I have given to you. Am I
not permitted to do what I wish with the things that belong to me? [Or
perhaps: Am I not permitted to do what I wish on my own land?] Or are
you envious because I am generous?”
Here the story ends. The last scene of the parable is frozen in time.
The landowner stands on the porch of his house. The workers stand in the
yard. And the question hangs in the air: “Are you filled with envy
because I am good?”
Major Ideas in the Parable
There is no one way to respond to this parable. We will respond in
different ways, because the parable will catch us in our own individual
condition. If we think God will only give us a little of his goodness,
the parable announces that he will give us the full, round, silver coin
of his beauty. If we think we are among the deserving few, the parable
announces God’s judgment against envy and exclusion. For this is the
same God who declares, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy!” I
cannot possibly tell you how you should respond to this parable. The
best I can do is list out the major ideas that seem to me to be present.
The Symbol of the Vineyard
In the Bible, the vineyard is often the symbol for the people of God
and the work of God. Israel was the vine God had taken from Egypt and
planted in the promised land, and God was the one who tended the
vineyard and gave it everything to make it grow.
Five of Jesus’ parables draw their imagery from the vineyard, and he
calls himself the true vine, his Father the true vine-grower, and his
followers the vine branches bearing good fruit. Jesus can assume that
his hearers will understand that a parable about a vineyard has to do
with issues rising from the way God deals with his people. (For people
as vineyard, see Ps. 80:8-16; Is. 5:1-7. The parables with vineyard
imagery are Mt. 9:17; 20:1-6; 21:28-32; 21:33-41 and parallels; Lk.
13:6-9. The I-am saying is in Jn. 15:1-11.)
The Generous Favor of God
One of these issues revolves around the question, who receives the
favor of God? Jesus made it clear that God calls and welcomes anyone and
everyone, and he makes a place for everyone in the kingdom of God—just
as the good landowner was eager to employ all the fellows he could find.
Not all of the voices of the faithful were saying that in Jesus’ day.
Not all of the voices of the faithful are saying it today. In the rage
and fury of the day workers of the parable, we can recognize the accent
of people who were scandalized that Jesus offered the goodness of God to
tax collectors, harlots, and sinners. It is often hard for the long-time
sons and daughters of faith to accept that God treats people who work
one hour equally with those who have served him always.
Grumbling: Lack of Faith
It is worth noting that the word for the workers’ discontent is
“grumbling.” That word has a long history in the Bible. The people
grumbled against Moses. The people grumbled against Jesus. In the Bible,
grumbling means lack of faith. When people grumble, it means that they
should be trusting and obeying God, but instead they are judging and
condemning him. When the workers grumble, the landowner must first
defend his own character: “I am doing you no wrong. Anyway, am I not
permitted to do what I wish with my own things—or on my own land?” The
parable says that God can be trusted, even though people often do not
trust him. The parable says that God has the right to use his own
judgment even though people might want to sit in judgment on God.
The Source of Anger
We need to locate the source of rage at the landowner’s action. The
men who have worked all day are angry because others have been treated
equally with them, and because they want to decide what can rightfully
be decided only by the landowner. That is the source of their anger.
The source of our anger may be different from theirs. I think we hear
this parable, and the first thing we want to say is, “It’s not fair!”
Some moral philosophers tell us that the rage for fairness is a
typically American concern. Some languages don’t even have a word that
means fair. But with us, fairness is the bedrock of ethics. Do we hear
this parable and think right away that the landowner is in the wrong?
That might come from our preoccupation with being fair and our
disapproval when things are not fair—when life is not fair, or people
are not fair, or a sports team has an unfair advantage. Therefore, in
everything I have said so far today, I have belabored the point that the
landowner is a good man. I have done this because many of us will reach
the end of the parable and say, “That was unfair! The landowner is not
fair, therefore he is not a good man, he is a bad man!” If that sounds
like your reaction, then this is the place where the parable catches
you. Your emotional response is a clue to the message Jesus has for you.
If you insist on pressing the point, let us say the landowner is
not fair. But he is good. Let us even grant that, by American
standards, God is not fair. But he is good. He justifies the
ungodly. He treats sinners as if they have never sinned. He forgives
behaviors that scream for retribution. That is not fair. But it
is good. We need to hear this if we think that not to be fair is the
same as not to be good.
The Goodness of the Landowner
Every thread of the story leads us back to the same point: the
landowner is a profoundly good and compassionate man. He goes in search
of workers, and he will give work to anyone who needs it. He responds to
an angry crowd with self-restraint and kindness. Most of all, he feels a
sense of responsibility to the poor of the village. Each denarius
he pays out, even to men who have not strictly earned it, means that
eight or ten people will have food for the next day. Therefore he bids
his bag of silver coins be opened and given generously to the men of the
And this is the way the kingdom of God is. God plants his people like
a vineyard and welcomes everyone to come and have a part in it. He is
compassionate toward the poor who live from one day to the next, and he
wants us to be compassionate, too. He has the right to do what he wants
on his own land, but he will always do what is right. For the God who
calls us to our place in his vineyard is a God of deep and astonishing
The landowner’s speech at the end is pivotal to our
understanding of the parable, so almost predictably the translation
difficulties pile up here.
The words translated “on my own land” are ambiguous: the
sentence might mean, “Am I not permitted to do what I wish with the
things that belong to me?”
The last part of the landowner’s speech has to be
paraphrased to make any sense to us. He literally asks, “Is your eye
evil because I am good?” The idiom of one’s eye being “evil” is almost
opaque to us, but here is what can be said about it. Because we so often
want what we see, the Hebrew language saw a relation between the eyes
and desire. The tree in the garden was irresistible to Eve because “it
was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Potiphar’s wife “cast her eyes
upon Joseph,” saw that he was good-looking, and desired him (Gen. 39:7).
Hebrew wisdom recognized that there was no limit to the things we might
see and desire: “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never
satisfied are the eyes of man” (Prov. 27:20. See also Eccl. 1:8; 2:10;
4:8; Ezek. 6:9; 24:16, 21, 25). Eyes can also express ill will. When a
person’s eye is said to be evil toward someone, it means he is giving
him a dirty look (Deut. 15:9; 28:54, 56). The person in a rush to get
rich “hath an evil eye”—that is, his eyes have a stingy, miserly look
(Prov. 28:22 KJV). When Job says, “My adversary sharpens his eyes
against me,” he means that his enemy is giving him a glance that means
murder (Job 16:9). These are by no means all of the emotions associated
with the eyes: there are also happiness, pride, humility, and others.
The point is that the day-laborers see something they dislike. Their
complaint that others have been paid equally with them indicates
that their emotion is envy or something close to it. So we are probably
not too far wrong in translating, “Are you filled with envy because you
see my generosity?”