Jesus told his disciples they will sit on twelve thrones and rule in the coming kingdom of heaven (19:28). The disciples served Jesus from the beginning and they may have thought of themselves as important to the establishment of the coming kingdom. After all, they have left everything to follow Jesus! Compared to the Pharisees, the disciples are late-comers to the messianic kingdom. The Pharisees have been looking for the Messiah for a long time and they have been preparing themselves for the messiah’s arrival. Jesus tells this parable about workers in a vineyard to illustrate what he means by “the first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 19:30).
Hiring Workers for the Vineyard (20:1-7). Jesus responded to Peter’s question about the disciples’ reward for leaving everything to follow Jesus (19:27) by promising them that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (19:28) and that they will receive a hundred-fold what they have left (19:29). That sequence ended with the enigmatic statement: “the first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
How does this relate to the kingdom of heaven? The kingdom often reverses cultural expectations. Those who assume they are going to get into the kingdom are left on the outside, and people who have no expectation of entering the kingdom are welcomed. Even among those who enter the kingdom, those who expect to be in the first places are in the last, and those who are in the last places are welcomed to the best seats.
Like Matthew 8:11-12, at least some people in Second Temple Judaism may have thought of themselves as more worthy of entry into the kingdom than others. That Jesus would say people (diaspora Jews or Gentiles) from the east and west would sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while the “subjects of the kingdom” will be cast outside where there is darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth implies some ranking!
Like most parables, Jesus describes a scene familiar to his listeners. These day laborers are not slaves, but men hired in the town agora for some project which required extra workers. Most modern readers overlook the fact slaves may have had an easier life than the free person. Day laborers were often hired for difficult work for low pay.
The owner agrees to hire the men for one denarius for the day, from sun rise to sundown. One denarius for a day’s work is a subsistence wage. (a coin with about 4 grams of silver, worth about $3 in December 2021, one gram is $.74). A person needed about a half-denarius to live and 200 denarius a year was the “poverty line” (Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 370)/. If the laborer had a family, a single denarius would barely feed his family. For skilled jobs, someone might expect to make more, but in rural areas (like Galilee), an unskilled day-laborer might make only half this amount. Matthew uses the verb συμφωνέω, a word used when both sides come together (BDAG) and agree on the wage for the day. Luke used the word in Acts 15:15 to describe the agreement reached between the various parties at the Jerusalem council.
As the day progresses, the vineyard owner sees workers standing around idle in the marketplace and hires them to join the original workers. With the original workers, the owner went out to hire them, with these subsequent workers he sees them standing around idle and gives them some work. The owner does not need more workers, but the idle people need the work (Nolland, Matthew, 809).
The symbolism of the parable would also be very clear to a biblically literate Jewish audience. A vineyard is one of the key symbols for Israel in the Old Testament: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isaiah 5:7). Jesus develops the metaphor of Israel as a vineyard in the parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46). In that parable, the workers in the vineyard are the religious leaders, from the Pharisees to the Temple aristocracy, all of whom are plotting to kill Jesus. These leaders understand the parable was spoken against them.
Those who were hired to work the vineyard would be immediately understood as the leaders of Israel; in the Old Testament the king, judges, prophets, priests, and sages. The people who were put in charge of Israel. This is a clear image for Israel and her leaders, similar to an American who sees a political cartoon with an eagle, a donkey and an elephant. Everyone knows the eagle refers to America; the symbols for the Democrat and Republican political parties are quite clear to anyone who knows the culture.
Who are the laborers in the vineyard? The workers who toiled all day in the heat of the day sometimes are understood as the disciples since in the immediate context Jesus has promised them priority in the Kingdom of God. It is more likely the workers hired first are the Pharisees and the other “great men of the synagogue” who had been working very hard to keep God’s Law.
The people hired later in the day are those who have only recently come to understand Jesus as the Messiah: the disciples, but also the poor, the “tax-collectors and other sinners” who have flocked to Jesus’s ministry. Earlier in Matthew, when Jesus looked at the crowds, he said the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; ask the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into this harvest field (9:37-38). Jesus followed that saying immediately by appointing his twelve disciples. After telling the twelve they would sit on thrones in the coming kingdom, Jesus tells this parable of a “lord of a harvest” is sending workers into this harvest field.
After working all day in the “scorching heat” the owner calls his workers together to pay them for their work. Everyone is in for a surprise!