Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 20.1-16
Proper 20 - Year A

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The Revised Common Lectionary assigns no lessons from Matthew 19. However, as the comments below indicate, chapters 19-20 should be read together. They are the beginning of a new section in Matthew's gospel.

Chapter 19 begins with the formula that signifies the end of one of Matthew's five sections: "When Jesus had finished saying these things" (see also 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; and 26:1). Jesus' Galilean ministry is finished. That is where he has spent his entire ministry (in Matthew). He is heading towards his destiny in Jerusalem. Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) writes:

In chapters 19 and 20 Jesus begins to address his disciples about the nature of following him and how differently the children of the kingdom live from the normal cultural expectations of the day. These chapters cover such topics as marriage, divorce, celibacy, children, rank, privilege and money! One could certainly consider preaching a sermon on Matthew 19-20, setting forth the nature of the life of Christian discipleship. [pp. 168-9]

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) titles his section on these two chapters: "The Alternative Households of God's Empire." He writes:

The coherence of these two chapters resides in pervasive cultural understandings of households. ... They [Aristotelean tradition, Neopythagoreans, and Hellenistic Judaism] understood the household to consist of four dimensions, namely, three relationships (husband-wife; father-children; master-slave) and the male's task of earning wealth. A power dynamic controlled the relationships in which the husband/father/master ruled over the wife/children/slaves. The household was hierarchical and patriarchal in that the male held power over women and children. It was marked by strict gender differentiation. ...

The sections of chapters 19-20 reflect this household pattern: the husband-wife relationship (including divorce, 19:3-12), children (19:13-15), procuring wealth (19:16-30), being slaves (20:17-28). In addition, 20:1-16 is a parable about a householder administering his estate and hiring workers.

But while the chapters utilize this household structure, they do not endorse this cultural norm. Rather, siding with some other minority cultural views, the two chapters subvert this hierarchical and patriarchal structure by instructing disciples in a more egalitarian pattern (cf. 20:12). Husbands are not to rule over wives but to participate in a "one-flesh" relationship (19:3-12); all disciples are children, there are no parents (19:13-15); following Jesus, not procuring wealth and status, defines discipleship (19:16-30); all disciples are slaves like Jesus, there are no masters (20:17-28). The parable of the householder in 20:1-16 exemplifies God's distinctive and different ways of ordering life. The concluding story of Jesus healing the blind men who beg for mercy offers disciples hope that they too will be enabled by Jesus' power to live this alternative and against-the-grain existence (20:29-34). That is, as Jesus journeys to Jerusalem to die, the chapters provide disciples with instruction on an alternative household that befits the empire or reign of God. [pp. 376-7]

Eugene Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible) offers this introduction to the section Matthew 19:1-20:34: "Instructing the Disciples En Route to the Passion."

Matthew 19:1-26 is quite literally devoted to the new understanding of family (cf. 12:46-50), dealing with the place of divorce, remarriage, celibacy, children, and young people in the new Christian community. Matthew then grounds the radical reversal of cultural understandings called for by inserting and modifying a Q pericope (19:27-30 = Luke 22:30) and by presenting a parable intended to deal with the resentment generated within the community by this grand and gracious reversal (20:1-16). Matthew understands the theme of both the eschatological vision and the parable to be "the last shall be first and the first last" (19:30; 20:16). The eschatological reversal is already lived out in the career of the Son of Man, whose suffering and death are vindicated by God (20:17-19), but whose way of life is still misunderstood by ambitious and jealous disciples (20:20-28). Thus those who now confess their faith in Jesus with proper messianic titles still need to have their blindness healed -- which Jesus is able to do (20:28-34). [p. 384]

All three, Jensen, Carter, and Boring, note the importance connecting our text within the two chapters, but especially with 19:16-30 -- The Rich Man. 20:1 begins with the word "for" (gar) which implies a connection to what goes on before. It denotes a reason. Perhaps we could even say that it introduces an answer to the question: Why will many who are first be last and the last first (see 19:30)?

Besides this connection: Both texts end with nearly identical statements about the first being last and the last first (19:30; 20:16). "Last" and "first" are used often in our text: vv. 8, 10, 12, 16, see also 20:27.

I think that they are also connected by the idea of being "paid," not by what one does -- either by doing good deeds or keeping the commandments or working in the vineyard -- but by the graciousness of God/landowner.

Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion) writes concerning the rich man story, which also applies to our text: "... we must realize that, when the young man encounters Jesus, two very different worlds collide: this world, with all its prevailing customs and values, and the radical new way of life called for in the kingdom of heaven." [p. 220]

It might be noted that what kept the rich man out of fellowship with Christ was not anything evil, but, we might call it, "his goodness" -- the keeping of the commandments and the assumption of (divine) blessings of his wealth. They are what disabled him from trusting God to do the impossible. Or as Long (Matthew) puts it: "Being rich, therefore, simply intensifies the basic human desire for self-justification" [p. 222]. Similarly, those who begrudge the landowners generosity were those who felt that they had earned what they received, rather than see their work and wages as gifts.

We can also see that in both stories the main characters are rich men. One who can't part with his possessions; the other is possibly "generous" [see footnote on 20:15 in RSV & NRSV -- of the 105 times agathos is used in the NT, it is translated "generous" twice in NRSV, here and James 1:17. Most often it is translated with "good".]


The parable is divided into two parts. Vv 1-7 deal with hiring laborers, and vv. 8-16 with paying them.

This parable can find us doing or thinking what we think is "right" (by our standards) -- yet be coming up short according to God's. It upsets our world of assumptions.

There are many gaps in the parable. We are not told why the landowner is in need of so many workers. We are not told why the last hired workers were idle or why they were not seen standing in the market place earlier in the day. While we may try and fill in the gaps: it was harvest time; they were lazy; they were "hiding," (note that in v. 6 he "finds" these last workers rather than "sees" them as in v. 3); such embellishments can be fun and fanciful, but they are saying more than the text indicates.

As Jesus is pictured in 18:15 as foreseeing a "member of the church sinning against you," so also he knows that there will be conflict between the long-time members and the new-comers. Many years ago I remember reading that this was the biggest gap in a study of LCA congregations. I think that it has widened as some of our congregations have been effective in reaching the unchurched and non-Scandinavian-Germans and have brought them into our communities of faith. Some of our newer members don't even know what lutefisk is -- (and they should be thankful for that <g>) -- but the long-timers sometimes resent "all those new people coming and taking over and changing my church."

Supporting this idea, Gil Rendle (The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge) suggests that many congregations are bimodal -- that is, they have a large group who have been members for 20 years or more and another large group who have been members 10 years or less. Those differences are more important about how they view life within the congregation, than their age grouping, e.g., boomers. He quotes an anonymous speaker: "There are a hundred ways to clean a kitchen -- unless you're in my mother's kitchen." A little later he applies this:

The pinch that many congregations experience comes not from an inability to attempt changes that speak to the new culture. A wonderful quantity and variety of experimentation are taking place in congregations that have found ways to invite and engage new cohorts of people in practices of faith and community. The pinch comes when congregational leaders attempt new ways to engage new people while established members are looking over their shoulders telling them they are "doing it wrong." [p. 11]

That's what we see in this parable. The long-time workers tell the owner that he's "doing it wrong."


The landowner has "hired" (misthoomai) the workers (ergates), which implies an offer to pay (misthos) them for their work. In contrast, Mt 21:28 has a father telling his son, "Go and work (ergazomai) in the vineyard today," which may not involve payment for work done.

"What do you pay your volunteers?" is a question raised by experts in volunteerism. We don't pay them with money, but what kind of recognition, self-fulfillment, joy, sense of accomplishment, etc. do they receive for their work?

An agreement (symphoneo) is reached between the landowner and the first workers. (Symphoneo was used in 18:19: "if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.")

A denarius for a days work does not indicate a generous landowner. It was the minimum wage a family in poverty could exist on. This agreement speaks against interpreting this parable primarily as an illustration of God's generosity. The wages aren't that great. The workers have barely enough to live on. They remain in poverty, but their needs for this day will be met. Thus it may be better to translate agathos in v. 15 as "good" than as "generous". It was good for the landowner to give the workers a minimum wage that was enough to live on for the day. It was not a generous wage.

An interesting picture can be created with the word "idle" (argos = lit. "not working" which can imply "doing nothing" or "being ineffective"). The "cure" for being unemployed (at least in the parable's picture) has to come from someone else being willing to invite you to come and work. This results in two benefits: the hiree is given what is needed (work & wages) and the hirer receives what is needed (work done).

Does God need us to work? That seems to be a theme in Matthew where Jesus says: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (9:37b-38). Perhaps our great emphasis against works-righteousness (which is centered on getting what one deserves, i.e. "What do I have to do to be saved?") has kept us from seeing the importance and necessity of good works (which is centered on responding to God's grace, i.e. "You are saved, what are you going to do?").

The "cure" for our unfulfilled and nonproductive lives is not going out and finding something to do to fill up the time that benefits just me; but hearing our "owner's" invitation to work in his vineyard. One commentary on this passage suggested that the generosity of the owner is not the equal wages, but the invitation extended to all to come and work (Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 275). Their work is beneficial both to the worker and to the landowner. Patte writes:

In brief, the householder needs workers in his vineyard; the workers meet his need. People who are idle need work; the householder meets their need. The hiring process is beneficial to both the householder and the workers in the same way that seeking the kingdom is both being a blessing for others and for God and being blessed. [p. 275]

In contrast to the first hired workers where an agreement was made about their wages. The other hired workers are told (v. 4): "I will give you whatever is right (dikaios which can also be translated, "just," "fair," or "proper"). DBAG says: "The neuter denotes that which is obligatory in view of certain requirements of justice." This parable raises questions like: "What is right?" "What is just?" "What is fair?" God's answers are not always the same as ours -- and we may not always like God's answers.


I find it interesting that it is the "manager" or "steward" (epitropos), not the owner, who calls the workers and "gives them their pay/reward" (misthos). They are the ones who dispense what the owner considers right and just. They are also the ones who take the flak from those who disagree. Who might they represent today?


The whole problem at the end of the parable is the landowner's fault -- not because he paid them all the same, but because he paid the last first. Remember, as I said near the beginning of these notes, this parable comes as an explanation of Jesus statement: "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Mt 19:30). Now we see what happens when this is acted out.

If he had paid a denarius to the first ones hired first, they would have gone home and not seen the last one's hired getting paid the same amount. The payment order allowed the first hired -- the long term workers (or church members?) to witness the last one's getting paid, which resulted in the first hires to think that they would get more (v. 10).

The word for "think" (nomizo) does not refer so much to a rational process (as logizomai), but "to assume," "to presume," "to suppose," based on what one expects to happen or what is "customary" or the "rule" (which are meanings for the root nomos). Usually such assumptions are wrong as in its other uses in Mt: 5:17; 10:34.


Their complaints, as I see it, are three:

(1) "They assumed they would receive more"

The desire for more is usually considered greed, which undoubtedly led them to desire more than they had been promised, but I don't think their real complaint was as much about the money as the other two listed below.

(2) "You have made them equal to us."

They assumed a hierarchy based on time worked, which should have been indicated by a difference in wages paid. They make a distinction between "us" and "them" and that "we" are better than "they." "We" deserve more than "they." Such a distinction is usually unhealthy for congregations and the world wide Christian community.

(3) "[we] have born the burden of the day and the heat"

They do not see their invitation to work (and wages earned) as a sign of grace, but as a burden to be borne. When living the Christian life is seen as a burden, some faulty "seeing" is at work.

Robert Smith (Matthew, Augsburg Commentary) has this wonderful summary: "It is simply a fact that people regularly understand and appreciate God's strange calculus of grace as applied to themselves but fear and resent seeing it applied to others." [p. 236]

In a similar way, the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:23-35) suggested a great appreciation for God forgiving all of my sins; but a desire that God (and I) should punish all those who had sinned against me.


In v. 13 the word for "do wrong," adikeo, is related to dikaios of v. 4. It could be translated, "act unjustly," or "be unfair to". The workers' thoughts of injustice stemmed from comparing themselves with others and their own expectations of what was just. There is an "I-thou" conversation in v. 13 -- a worker talking with the landowner, who addresses the worker as "friend" (hetairos, a word only found in Matthew, see also 22:12; 28:50 -- this word does not carry quite the affection of philos, which is only found in Matthew at 11:19).

Is it all right to argue with God about "those other people?" About the way God seems to handling problems in the world -- unfairly in our opinion?

About "fairness:" We might define "fairness" as "keeping one's word." The landowner kept his word to all the workers. His agreement with the first hired was for a denarius, and that's what they were paid. His word to the others workers is that they would be paid what was "right" or "fair". And he decided that a denarius for each of them was "fair". When God promises something, that will happen.

A friend, a high school teacher, when students complain, "That isn't fair," answers with something like, "You're right, the county fair doesn't start for another four months." In further discussions, we thought he could also answer, "You're right. A fair is what you pay a taxi driver."

I used the idea of fairness as keeping one's word in a stewardship sermon on this text and contrasted it with statistics about how many people had not kept their promises concerning their financial giving. Is that fair to promise something and then not carry through?

The owner claims the right to pay his workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his own volition -- thelo often translated "to wish" or "to desire," occurs in vv. 14 & 15 as "to choose". It is the verbal form of the word we pray in the Lord's Prayer: "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It is also in the present tense -- indicating that God continues to "wish" to give to the last as to the first.

I've often used the illustration of a teacher deciding to give As to all the students in class. My guess is that the students who had earned their As would be angry at the "unfair" teacher -- even though they had received what they had earned. Their anger at the teacher would blind them to her graciousness. The other students would be overjoyed at their good fortune. The goodness of the teacher would be obvious to these other students.

Once, when I mentioned this schoolroom analogy to a group of pastors, one of them had done just that as a parochial school teacher. He gave As to all the students in his religion class for high school seniors. "How can you grade their religion?" was his comment. He didn't say how the students reacted, but he was called into the principal's office and criticized for his "graciousness." He shouldn't have given everyone As. Parables may not always work in real life.


Verse 15b is strange. Literally: "Is your eye evil because I am good?" [NRSV: "Are you envious because I am generous?"]

The word "good," connects this story with 19:16-17:

However, one's "evil eye," can keep one from seeing God's goodness; and, in fact, can turn it into injustice. There is another verse in Mt where the words "eye" and "evil/unhealthy" occur:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (6:22-23)


I think that the major contrast in this passage is between our hard work and God's gracious will. Centering on our work creates a hierarchy of believers -- some better than others and people with that belief, will be unable to see the goodness of God because they are blinded by a sense of their own goodness. Centering on God's gracious will creates a unity of believers -- all receive the same benefits and with that, the ability to see the Light with their eyes.

How is that lived in congregations? Usually poorly. Do we really consider infants and children as equal members with adults in the kingdom of God? I'm sure that most of you have heard arguments against including children in the sacrament of communion. Don't most of the arguments center around a hierarchical understanding of something that adults have more of: faith, knowledge, understanding, etc.? (Jesus seems to suggest in Mt 19:13-15 that children may have more of what is really necessary than us adults.)

Are the biggest givers to a congregation considered "more equal" than the single mother on welfare?

Should we treat members differently if they are "active" or "inactive"? "weekly attenders" or "C and Eers" (Christmas and Easter attenders)? hard workers or seldom workers? responsible volunteers or irresponsible volunteers?

However, can we talk about people in terms of those who have responded to God's invitation to work in the vineyard (whenever the invitation came to them) and those who have refused the invitation (cf. Mt 22:1-10)? I think that there is a distinction; but I'm not sure that we have the ability to decide who's in and who's out.


I was part of a discussion on this text where most of us identified with the first hired. We just assumed that we would have been the first to be hired and we had to deal with our resentment towards the others who were hired and paid the same. However, someone in the group identified more with those who had been hired last. There are those in our midst who assume that nobody would pick them. They live their lives waiting for someone to notice them and their needs. Maybe the landowner didn't see them during his numerous trips to the marketplace because they were "invisible." Who are the "invisible" people in our churches? In our communities? How do we extend God's invitation to come and work and be rewarded to them? How do we "see" them as one of "us," rather than one of "them"?

A few other struggles with this verse.

What does the desire to be number one indicate from our faith perspective? Whether it is the USA? a congregation, or an individual? Is it wrong to try to be the best at something?

On the other hand, I don't think that striving to be the worst we can be, so we can claim to be the last, is what Jesus intended for us.

What about the vast majority of us who are somewhere in the middle? We're not the greatest and we're not the worst. We're just mediocre. Does the verse say anything to us?

Striving to be first or last, is still human striving. The key to the passage is that whatever position we might be in, our heavenly reward comes solely as a gift from God.

A final quote from Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible): "Grace is always amazing grace. Grace that can be calculated and 'expected' (v. 10) is no longer grace. (cf. 22:11-14)" [p. 394]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901