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The parable in 20:1-16 explicitly illustrates the point that the first will be last and the last . . . first (19:30; 20:16); Matthew uses this principle to frame the parable and hence summarize its primary point. The principle appears at the same point in Mark, though Matthew alone includes this parable of laborers in the vineyard.
Jesus may have defended outcasts in this parable. Whether one thinks of Gentiles or of other excluded classes, recognizing the exaltation of the socially, ethnically or morally excluded fits Jesus' emphasis elsewhere (as in 22:1-14; 23:12; Lk 14:11; compare 1 Cor 1:26-31). In Matthew's context the emphasis is probably on disciples who humble themselves and sacrifice much but are amply rewarded, in contrast to those who only pretend to follow without sacrifice (19:21-30; 23:2-12). Jesus speaks of rank in the day of judgment (5:19).
Jesus' hearers could relate to the story he told. Rich landowners (Jas 5:1-5), vineyards (Song 8:11; m. Kil'ayim 4:1-8:1) and hirelings (Jn 10:12) were important features of Galilean life in this period. Other Palestinian texts support the plausibility of various details of the text (such as the way idle workers are hired). Other Jewish teachers also could portray God as the master of one's labor, who would pay the reward of one's work (m. 'Abot 2:14). Many Galileans seem to have owned small homes and worked their own fields or crafts (Goodman 1983:34), but many others were peasants working the estates of a handful of well-to-do absentee landlords (see Horsley and Hanson 1985:59). Sometimes workers hired themselves out to work for others for a period of time up to six years (Klausner 1979:180), but temporary help was cheaper for employers. Harvest required an influx of extra workers-most to harvest, and some to guard crops in the fields and gathered sheaves against thieves and animals. A few lesser-paid donkey drivers, sometimes boys, were often required as well (N. Lewis 1983:122-23). Landowners typically drew from the ranks of the landless-sometimes homeless-poor for such brief and urgent tasks (Goodman 1983:38-39).
A day officially began at sunset, but Jewish people reckoned hours from sunrise at about 6:00 a.m. (Jeremias 1972:136 n. 21); the third hour was thus between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. and the eleventh hour (v. 6) between 4:00 and 5:00. Twelve-hour workdays were customary only during harvest time. In Jesus' story the landowner finds extra workers sitting idle in the marketplace because they have not been hired.
God rewards his servants according to grace. As in verse 8, employers paid wages in the evening (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15; Jeremias 1972:136; Goodman 1983:39). The landowner pays equal wages to all the workers, a full day's work for each. Those who have worked all day lose nothing; justice is served, but mercy is added. Jewish hearers would consider it pious to give wages even to those not expecting it (Test. Job 12:3-4; p. Baba Mesi`a 6:1, 2; compare Jos. Ant. 20.219-20).
Those who treat God's grace as his obligation are evil. Nevertheless, those who have labored all day complain (Mt 20:11; compare Lk 15:2); Jesus' hearers may have been shocked that workers would openly react so negatively to a benevolent landowner from whom they might need future favors. But the landowner puts them in their place, politely shaming them by reminding them that they are objecting not to injustice but to generosity. In verse 15 he is generous (literally "good"; compare 19:17); they are envious (literally, have an "evil eye"-are stingy; see comment on 6:23). In verse 13 he singles out one, perhaps the primary murmurer (Jeremias 1972:137), but whereas the workers have neglected to greet him with the requisite title (20:12; compare Lk 15:29), he offers a polite title, Friend (Mt 20:13)-which Matthew always uses to shame one who has arrogantly presumed on another's grace (22:13; 26:50).
In later rabbinic parables a landowner provides one who labored two hours with pay equal to that of others who labored all day because he accomplished more in his two hours than they had all day; or he pays a hard worker, symbolizing Israel, much extra. By contrast, the image in Jesus' parable is of unmerited grace; the owner realizes that an hour's fraction of a day's wage would not sustain a family (Jeremias 1972:37; France 1985:289). But a parable of grace also challenges those who operate only on a principle of merit, despising the showing of mercy because they feel it unfairly raises others to their own standing (Jeremias 1972:38, comparing Lk 15:25-32).