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God’s Generosity:
Interpreting the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

by Meghan Sullivan

Wine plays a significant role in the New Testament but so, too, do vineyards. In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, a vineyard represents the kingdom of heaven. The vineyard itself, however, is not central to the teaching behind this parable; rather, the parable focuses on God’s generosity.

In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, a householder continually hires laborers to work in his vineyard. The laborers hired in the early morning hours are promised a denarius (a Roman coin) for one day’s work. The next three groups that are hired are promised a wage of “whatever is right” (Matt. 20:4 RSV). Although the promised wage is not specific, these groups join the early morning laborers in the vineyard. Those hired in the last hour of the workday are not promised anything at all but are simply told, “You go into the vineyard too” (Matt. 20:7). At the end of the day, the householder pays each laborer one denarius. When those who have been working all day complain about the injustice of this payment scheme, the householder replies, “Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you” (Matt. 20:14). Jesus concludes the parable with the statement, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).

This passage toys with our modern sensibility of hard work and just reward. We can easily sympathize with the early morning laborers who worked hard all day and received just as much in payment as those who worked for just one hour. However, the parable is not about hard work, rewards, and justice; the parable is about God’s grace and generosity.

Interpreters from early Christianity onward agree that the householder represents God. However, theologians and Scripture scholars of the last several centuries have also disagreed about the meanings of the passage. St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church who is best known for his Latin translation of the Bible, explained that the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
is about faith. Those who are sent to work in the vineyard are analogous to people who come to believe in Christ at different stages: from the womb (i.e. John the Baptist), during adolescence, as adults, and as the elderly. All people, regardless of when they come to believe in Christ, receive the same gift in the kingdom of heaven.

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard was widely discussed during the Protestant Reformation because of its relevance to the faith versus works debate. In this debate, Protestants argued that faith alone guaranteed salvation, whereas Catholics proclaimed that faith and good works were necessary for salvation. Protestant leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin both focused on the role of grace in the parable. They noted that, in the parable, God’s grace, represented by the denarius given to each laborer, functions independently of works.1 Furthermore, the workers hired earlier in the day represent people who demand a reward for their works. The workers hired later in the day represent people who know that they cannot demand anything from God, and it is these workers who have the right idea.

Catholics interpretations are similar to these Protestant interpretations in their understanding that all people receive grace. Catholics, however, qualified this statement by saying that different people receive different dwelling places in heaven. This teaching comes from John 14:2, which states, “In my father’s house are many rooms.” Similarly, Thomas Aquinas believed that the parable meant that there is “one salvation for all,” but people participate in this salvation by varying degrees.2 More recently, Catholic scholars have explained that the same eternal life exists for all people, but there are different degrees of closeness to God in eternal life.

Despite these diverse interpretations, it is clear that the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is about God’s generosity. God’s generosity transcends human notions of justice and compensation. As Thomas G. Long says, “God is generous. God’s generosity spills over the levees we have built to contain it and surges mercifully over the landscape of human life.”3 The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard reminds us that God’s generosity permeates every aspect of human life; all we have to do is open our eyes to see it.

1. Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortris Press, 2001), 527.
2. Luz, 529.
3. Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 227.

 


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