In the first part of this parable, Jesus describes a typical scene anyone in the audience could relate to. The owner agrees to hire the men for one denarius for the day, from sun rise to sundown. But when the day ends the owner of the vineyard pays the workers who were hired last a full day’s wage (“the first will be last, and the last will be first”).
The last hired would be people who were not the best workers. Perhaps they were late getting to the marketplace, or they had a reputation for being slackers. Whatever the reason, they were not people who you hired first. The Law requires laborers be paid at the end of the day (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15). A day laborer lives in poverty and needs his wages to meet daily needs and feed his family.
When the last hired workers receive a full day’s wage, the workers who have faithfully served for the whole day expect to be paid more for their efforts. But they are disappointed when they were given what they agreed to in the first place. There is no reaction recorded from those who only worked an hour and received a full day’s wage. It is easy enough to imagine them being exciting at the owner’s generosity.
The workers who worked all day long grumble when they receive only one denarius, the same as those who only worked an hour at the end of the day. The verb (γογγύζω) is a low muttering, speaking under your breath. It is used “to express oneself in low tones of disapprobation” or “behind the scenes talk” (BDAG). The verb is imperfect, implying an ongoing action, “they were grumbling” for some time before the master spoke to them. Although there are exceptions, grumbling is almost always negative.
This grumbling should evoke a significant story from the Old Testament. This is the word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe the grumbling of Israel during the wilderness period. n Numbers 14:27 Israel murmurs against the Lord even though he has brought them out of Egypt in a great demonstration of power and he is sustaining them in the wilderness with manna and water.
The workers believe they are due more since they worked all day. They “bore the burden of the day” and the “scorching heat.” The laziest of the lazy only worked for an hour at were paid the same…how can that be fair?
The master replied to one of the grumblers, calling him “friend.” Matthew uses this word (ἑταῖρος) in several places when a superior addresses someone who is about to be judged. The word would be used to address someone you do not really know, someone who is not a friend (BDAG). It is more polite than “hey buddy.” In Matthew 22:12, the king addresses a man not properly prepared for the wedding banquet, he is cast out into the darkness, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In Matthew 26:50, Jesus addresses Judas when he arrives at the garden to identify Jesus, “friend, do what you came to do.”
The owner of the vineyard simply points out he is being fair: I promised you a denarius, and I gave you a denarius (v. 14). He is free to do whatever he wants with his money (v. 15)! The final words from the owner are ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι; The KJV has a literal rendering of the phrase, “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” The ESV translates “or do you begrudge my generosity”; the NIV and NRSV has “Or are you envious because I am generous?” John Nolland (correctly) suggests this is a reference to the way people’s eyes indicate their true emotions (Matthew, 812). The owner can tell by looking at the grumbler he is angry at the owner and envious of the last workers.
“The Last Will Be First, and the First Last” (Matt20:16). This is the punchline of the parable, although like many of the concluding lines for parables, there is a kind of openness that allows later hearers and readers to meditate and think about what Jesus meant.
This verse is often quoted to comfort people who are oppressed or marginalized (“hey, don’t worry, you will get your reward in heaven!”) But given the context this parable appears in Matthew, the line does not comfort the last as much as warn the first. In the previous paragraph Jesus promised Peter and the other disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:27-30) and in Matthew 20:20-27 James and John request the privilege of sitting on either side of the messiah when the kingdom comes. The disciples are promised the elite seats in the kingdom and at least two of them are negotiating for preferential status!
Looking back to the beginning of the discipleship discourse, the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom. In Mark 9:30, they are arguing about which one of them was the greatest!
The warning of the parable is the ones who were the first to believe (the old-timers) are not any better than the ones who have only recently accepted Christ as their savior. To draw the application to the contemporary church, there is no reason to think an elderly saint who never misses a service is of any more value to the body of Christ than a child in the nursery; the adult Sunday School teacher is no more valuable than a disruptive junior high boy.
God’s grace is given to all, but not everyone understands what they received. Jesus’s point is like the other brother in the Prodigal Son parable. In Luke 15 the other brother clearly represents the attitude of the Pharisees who grumble when Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (15:1-2 uses the same word, γογγύζω). The grumblers complain because “these people” are being received by the Messiah, but they have only just come to faith, and they have not sufficiently cleaned themselves up (in the opinion of the Pharisee) to be right with God.