Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

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Painting of the parable, by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid-17th century

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (also called the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard or the Parable of the Generous Employer) is a parable of Jesus which appears in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament.

In Matthew Matt 20:1–16, Jesus says that any "laborer" who accepts the invitation to the work in the vineyard (said by Jesus to represent the Kingdom of Heaven), no matter how late in the day, will receive an equal reward with those who have been faithful the longest.


For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard, and when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you, and they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise, and about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us, he saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first, and when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny, and when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen...

— Matthew 20:1–16, King James Version


The word translated "penny" in the King James Version of this parable is the denarius, a silver coin which was the usual day's wage for a laborer;[1] the hours here are measured starting at about 6:00 AM, so that the eleventh hour is between about 4:00 and 5:00 PM.[2] The workers are poor men working as temporary farmhands during the harvest season,[2] and the employer realizes that they would all need a full day's pay to feed their families;[1][2] the payment at evening follows guidelines in the Hebrew Bible:[1]

You must not keep back the wages of a man who is poor and needy, whether a fellow-countryman or an alien living in your country in one of your settlements. Pay him his wages on the same day before sunset, for he is poor and he relies on them: otherwise he may appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 Revised English Bible

This parable stresses God's unmerited grace, rather than any sense of "earning" God's favour.[1][2] In this way it resembles the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1]

The parable has often been interpreted to mean that even those who are converted late in life earn equal rewards along with those converted early. An alternative interpretation identifies the early laborers as Jews, some of whom resent the late-comers (Gentiles) being welcomed as equals in God's Kingdom.[3] However, Arland J. Hultgren writes:

Painting of the parable by Rembrandt, showing the workers being paid that evening (1637)

While interpreting and applying this parable, the question inevitably arises: Who are the eleventh-hour workers in our day? We might want to name them, such as deathbed converts or persons who are typically despised by those who are longtime veterans and more fervent in their religious commitment, but it is best not to narrow the field too quickly. At a deeper level, we are all the eleventh-hour workers; to change the metaphor, we are all honored guests of God in the kingdom, it is not really necessary to decide who the eleventh-hour workers are. The point of the parable—both at the level of Jesus and the level of Matthew's Gospel—is that God saves by grace, not by our worthiness; that applies to all of us.[4]

Some commentators have used the parable to justify the principle of a "living wage",[5] though generally conceding that this is not the main point of the parable.[5] An example is John Ruskin, who quotes the parable in the title of his book Unto This Last. Ruskin does not discuss the religious meaning of the parable but rather its social and economic implications.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 2007, ISBN 0-8028-2501-X, pp. 746–52.
  2. ^ a b c d Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 1999, ISBN 0-8028-3821-9, pp. 481–84.
  3. ^ Both interpretations are discussed in Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible (1706).
  4. ^ Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Eerdmans, 2002, ISBN 0-8028-6077-X, p. 43.
  5. ^ a b William Sloane Coffin, The collected sermons of William Sloane Coffin: the Riverside years, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, ISBN 0-664-23244-2, p. 109.