The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

How are wages, wealth, and inheritance understood in this story?

 Matthew 20:1-16  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This Gospel reading is traditionally read in churches on the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is also the ninth Sunday before Easter. (Septuagesima Sunday) It tells us that we are all sinners and in need of the Grace of Jesus Christ!

Rembrandt_-_Parable_of_the_Laborers_in_the_Vineyard

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt (1637)

Rembrandt uses darkness to engage the viewer in this scene of two laborers arguing with the landlord about their pay as the workers to the right talk among themselves. The wife of the landlord is the accountant and sits at the table with the open ledger book. This parable is only found in the Gospel of Matthew (a former tax collector) a landowner is paying his workers at the end of the day. The controversy developed when the workers who labored all day received the same wages as part time workers who worked for only a few hours. The perspective Rembrandt creates is for the viewer to look at the scene from the outside, perhaps through a window. This painting is at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The excerpt below is from a sermon Martin Luther preached on Septuagesima Sunday in 1528, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the ninth Sunday before Easter.

“Hence the substance of the parable in today’s Gospel consists not in the penny, what it is, nor in the different hours; but in earning and acquiring, or how one can earn the penny; that as here the first presumed to obtain the penny and even more by their own merit, and yet the last received the same amount because of the goodness of the householder. Thus God will show it is nothing but mercy that He gives and no one is to arrogate to himself more than another. Therefore He says I do thee no wrong, is not the money Mine and not thine; if I had given away thy property, then thou wouldst have reason to murmur; is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own ?

Now in this way Christ strikes a blow first against the presumption of those who would storm their way into heaven by their good works; as the Jews did and wished to be next to God; as hitherto our own clergy have also done. These all labor for definite wages, that is, they take the law of God in no other sense than that they should fulfill it by certain defined works for a specified reward, and they never understand it correctly, and know not that before God all is pure grace. This signifies that they hire themselves out for wages, and agree with the householder for a penny a day; consequently their lives are bitter and they lead a career that is indeed hard.

Now when the Gospel comes and makes all alike, as Paul teaches in Romans 3:23, so that they who have done great works are no more than public sinners, and must also become sinners and tolerate the saying: “All have sinned”, Romans 3:23, and that no one is justified before God by his works; then they look around and despise those who have done nothing at all, while their great worry and labor avail no more than such idleness and reckless living. Then they murmur against the householder, they imagine it is not right; they blaspheme the Gospel, and become hardened in their ways; then they lose the favor and grace of God, and are obliged to take their temporal reward and trot from him with their penny and be condemned; for they served not for the sake of mercy but for the sake of reward, and they will receive that and nothing more, the others however must confess that they have merited neither the penny nor the grace, but more is given to them than they had ever thought was promised to them. These remained in grace and besides were saved, and besides this, here in time they had enough; for all depended upon the good pleasure of the householder.”

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org

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