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. 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. 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.” 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. Continue reading