The Historical Jesus and the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers


Parable of the Vineyard Laborers, Jacob Willemsz de Wet.
Parable of the Vineyard Laborers, Jacob Willemsz de Wet.

In the ongoing search for the Historical Jesus, critically important for many scholars is determining authentic Jesus material in the Gospel accounts. Scholars apply multiform methodology in their interpretations of canonical material, but there are several criteria that the majority employ to determine the historical character of a passage of scripture. Qualities such as the originality or dissimilarity of gospel material from other known sources, multiple independent attestations to a narrative or saying, or the overall thematic coherence are vital to determining authentic Jesus material in the modern historical-critical methodology.[1] Concerning gospel material, even the most skeptical scholars generally agree that Jesus spoke in parables. Thus, proper contextualization and interpretation of parables provide scholars a wealth of information concerning the Historical Jesus. Using material from contextual and New Testament studies, we will examine here the parable of the Vineyard Laborers found in the Gospel according to Matthew 20:1-16 and seek to understand how this parable was received and understood by its original audience, as well as in the gospel and modern contexts.


Many scholars believe that the parable of the Vineyard Laborers, while only appearing in the Matthean account does preserve an authentic parables of the Historical Jesus, primarily due to its genuine originality of theme and general coherence of defying cultural expectations.[2] The parable begins as follows: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”[3] Here, the parable introduces a number of concepts to its audience. First, this narrative concerns itself with defining and perhaps explaining the concept of the Kingdom of God. Next, the hearer learns that the plot concerns a householder, a man of importance, honor, and means. At this point the audience first encounters cultural dissimilarity. This particular householder specializes not in subsistence crops for daily living, but instead owns a vineyard for producing wine, a specialty crop that indicates his elite status in society. However, the Historical Jesus indicates that this householder leaves his house and seeks laborers early in the morning, an action that would undoubtedly cause some level of confusion for the original audience, as elite landowners in the first century Mediterranean context did not hire their own day laborers but instead often relied on brokers or foreman to do so.

The parable continues: “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” Here the landowner not only doles out work orders throughout the day, but also continues to hire workers himself. The original hearers of this parable were likely relieved to hear about the inclusion of a broker in the next part of the narrative, as “when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’” Commentators do not mention much about the socially acceptable order for compensating employees at the end of the work day. One can be sure, however, that if the landowner had simply paid his workers in the order that he hired them, a great deal of confusion in avoiding the parable would have been avoided.

“And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” Paying a day’s wages to workers who had not completed a full day’s work also did not fit into the ancient Mediterranean context very well. Generally, the social elites would control what the peasantry would receive using the cultural system of negative reciprocity. To exhibit a quasi-charitable attitude toward his worker would make the master appear to exhibit what anthropologists refer to as ‘general reciprocity,’ which according to Mediterranean cultural standards should only be the form of treatment granted to kin. To treat those who are not kin as family would have been perceived as strange by those in the surrounding village. We cannot be sure what role societal honor and shame played in gauging the original reaction to the situation presented in the parable to this point. The householder, who was almost certainly elite, has exhibited several rather odd or aberrant behaviors. He was hired workers himself instead of using a broker or foreman, has done so several times, paid his workers in a strange order, and now appears to be compensating his workers at highly generous rate for their minimal work. Whether the householder would be viewed with honor for helping his fellow villagers or be seen shamefully as a fool by the original audience remains hard to gauge at this point.

Jesus continues his story: “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?’” Clearly those who had worked the longest for the householder had taken note of his generous payment of those who had not worked nearly as long and were hoping for balanced reciprocity, that the householder would pay them a graduate rate for their work. Once they received the rate that they had signed up for, they begin to grumble against the householder, who responds with a question, which in the Ancient Mediterranean context was always an honor challenge: “Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” Why did the workers grumble? In addition to purely hoping for more funds from the generous master, it has been suggested that to pay some workers generously and others less so would be to shame those workers who were not paid as well. Further, economics was commonly viewed as a zero-sum game in the ancient world, meaning that if some workers received additional benefits, they would come at the expense of other workers.


John Dominic Crossan
John Dominic Crossan

Some scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, presume the original parable to end following verse 13, pointing to literary features and arguing that later verses confuse the message further, seek to soften the master’s stance, or connect the material to other texts that Matthew places near the narrative in his gospel.[4] Other scholars include portions of the following material (v. 14-16) in their interpretations: “’Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” Here the householder takes great issue with the response of the workers, asserting that he controls his wealth and generosity to the earlier workers and that he has honored the earlier arrangement. While easier to interpret when shorter, scholars have argued that this material remains far too confusing to have been added at a later time, as the original audience would likely have thought to master shameful for being generous and familial to his workers, and perhaps losing his cool when receiving an honor challenge from his workers.  The sentence, “So the last will be first and the first last” seems the likeliest to be additional or narrative material, as it ties nicely into Matthew’s thematic concerns, though it has been argued that Matthew places this parable at the location based on thematic concerns.  

For the original audience of this parable, the historical Jesus has used a counter-cultural master of a house to demonstrate that the kingdom of God may appear foolishly generous to some and harsh to others. No one would expect an elite householder to be generous to workers who had not put in a full day’s work, nor would that householder be looked upon highly for his social aberrance. Stepping back from the interpretation of the parable to consider the broader picture of the Kingdom, we can learn that the Kingdom of which the historical Jesus speaks does not always conform to expectations, even the hopes of those who are included in the kingdom.

Now looking at the parable of the Vineyard Laborers from the perspective of the gospel narrative, the parable fits well into the Matthean thematic section on sacrifice for the Kingdom of God, that those who sacrifice now will receive a greater reward later in the kingdom.[5] In this view, it would be easy to interpret the parable as an allegory for those who work for the kingdom of heaven, that all who work will be included and those who have been working for a long time should not grumble for receiving the same reward as those who began their work late. Especially in light of the story concerning the sons of Zebedee following this parable, such an interpretation by the evangelist seems possible. If the evangelist edited the original form of the parable as some argue, it seems likely that the added material be found in verses fourteen through sixteen, as the material in those verses best fits the theme of the evangelist.[6] Conversely, one could argue that the later verses should be seen as part of the original parable, especially if one understands Jesus (even if only in part) through the lens of a social reformer, for those verses argue for the most radical form of equality.

Contextualizing this parable for Christians in the modern American setting, we must first determine which form of the parable to work from. In looking at the shortened ‘critical’ version of the parable, one could draw that those who belong to the kingdom should live in a manner that defies social customs that do not promote equality. Followers of Jesus, like the master of the house, should not find it beneath them to engage in activities that society may find to be socially unacceptable, such as interacting with those who are homeless or special needs. Looking at the longer version of the parable, while the socially radical message still fits, a modern version would have a more tempered approach to it. Certainly, social elites should level the playing field and interact with those who are of different social stratum than themselves, but not in a manner than wholly destroys all societal distinctions. Employees should be justly or even generously compensated, but in a reasonable manner that does not undermine the future of the enterprise.[7]

The parables of the Historical Jesus were designed to deliver a message in a manner that the audience would not soon forget, and thus one expects to find a good deal of material that would be socially or culturally original. [8] In examining the parable of the Vineyard Laborers, we have seen that a good deal of the material would have appeared odd or aberrant to the original audience. The behavior of the householder would have set this parable apart as a lesson on how the Kingdom of God may appear foolishly generous to some and harsh to others. The recording of the parable within the gospel context presents the parables in the context of other stories concerning equality within the Kingdom, a context that oft shapes the modern American Christian use of the parable. While there are a variety of interpretations for the parable of Vineyard Laborers, in considering the original context of the parable, we can learn that the Kingdom that the historical Jesus speaks of would have used some culturally backward examples to teach people that the kingdom does not always conform to our expectations.


[1] Current scholars must of course rely more fully on interdisciplinary scholarship, as recent literary and contextual studies have begun to show that using somewhat ad hoc criterion often presents a distorted and ‘personalized’ interpretation of material.

[2] DeMaris, Richard. Lecture. Valparaiso University. April 9, 2012.

[3] All quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated.

[4] Hultgren, Alfred. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. 39, Footnote 26

[5] Matthew 19:16- 20:28

[6] Hultgren, Alfred. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. 39.

[7] It is difficult to apply a specific title to a message on this parable in the context which we have examined it. Certainly in the Gospel context the theme of equality within the Kingdom of God where the first and last will have different positions would have a great deal of emphasis. Perhaps a title such as “Ancient Mediterranean Culture Looks at the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers” would be an appropriate title, though certain modification would be necessary.

[8] Additional works consulted for this examination include John Dominic Crossan’s In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (Harper and Row: New York, 1973) and Richard DeMaris and Dietmar Neufeld’s Understanding the Social World of the New Testament (Routledge, London and New York. 2010).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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