Lexegete ™ | Year A | Matthew
NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 21, 2008 (Lectionary 25)
Psalm 145:1-8 (8)
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 (1, 45)
MATTHEW, APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST
September 22, 2008 (transferred from September 21)
Ezekiel 2:8 3:11
Psalm 119:33-40 (33)
1a. CONTEXT: Matthew 20:1-16
In order to understand this parable, one must know both the literary
context and the way the parable has been interpreted down through the
This particular story is found only in St. Matthew's Gospel. It occurs as
an insertion in a part of Matthew's Gospel which adheres very strictly to
St. Mark's order. Indeed, Matthew replicates the exact sequence of stories
found in Mark 10: 13-45, with the single exception that today's Gospel
intervenes between Mark 10, verses 31 and 32l. It is almost as if Matthew
wishes to give an expanded illustration of the general principle stated in
Mark 10:31 (par. Mt. 19:30): "Mary that are first will be last, and the last
It is also striking and significant that our Gospel is placed by St.
Matthew within a larger group of stories that deal with the theme, "status
in God's Kingdom." This section includes a) Mt. 19:13-15. The kingdom
belongs to children; b) 19:16-22. One who is rich on earth does not
necessarily have "treasure in heaven;" c) 19:23-30l. Jesus talks further
about riches and the reward due his disciples; d) 20:1-16l. Today's Gospel;
e) 20:17-19. The Son of Man will be crucified; and b) 20:20-28. The
greatest disciple must be a slave. Following close on the heels of this
section is the logical culmination of these stories, the passion narrative
of the One who achieves status by dying, which begins in chapter 21.
Throughout the entire section, one is struck by the jarring
juxtaposition of opposites. The last are contrasted with the first, the
least with the greatest, the slave with the ruler, those who sit at God's
left hand with those who sit at God's right. The purpose, as we shall see,
is to shock us into thinking differently about greatness in God's eyes.
Interestingly, interpreters have historically not been much drawn to
this prominent theme of "status," preferring a more allegorical treatment
of the parable. Jeremias relates that "already from the time of Irenaeus
the hours of the fivefold summons were taken to symbolize the periods in
the history of redemption from Adam onwards; from Origen's time they
symbolized the different stages of human life at which men (sic) become Christians" (Parables, p. 33).
If we have outgrown these rather wooden parallels, we do cling to the
familiar allegorization that sees our task in life as "a call to work in God's
vineyard." In an illuminating article on preaching, Gerhard Forde takes
Christian preaching on this text as an example of the common moralistic
bent of modern sermons ("God's Rights"). Our task, in other words, is to go
to work in the vineyard; it is never too late lllto do so! Even the
traditional title for the parable--"Laborers in the Vineyard"--places the
emphasis on our work rather than on the shocking pay schedule of the
Protestant preachers have also been tempted to find Reformation
themes in this passage. Our human equality in God's eyes, for example,
would seem to be shown by the equal pay given to all workers regardless
of how long they worked (20:8-10). But this is surely a minor detail
compared to the shocking fact that the last to be hired received so much
more than they "deserved" (See Jeremias, p. 36).
One begins to sense the original "Sitz im Leben" of the parable when one
notes, with Jeremias (p. 37f.) that this is a "double-edged parable." There
is , in other words, both the hiring of the laborers and the indignant
reaction of those who "deserved better." Just as in the Parable of the
Prodigal Son there is the return of the prodigal, which produces the
father's extravagant reaction (Luke 15:11-24)l and the equally outraged
reaction of the elder son (15:25-30). Jesus was in his day surrounded by
those "good people" who were in like manner offended by God's grace. In
particular, Norman Perrin (Rediscovering, p. 116) finds the original
context of today's Gospel in "the offence caused by Jesus' acceptance of
the 'tax collectors and sinners' who responded to the challenge of the
forgiveness of sins." The parable was told to "vindicate the Gospel against
its critics" writes Jeremias, by showing "how...loveless and unmerciful
was their criticism" (Parables, p. 38).
1b. TEXT: Matthew 20:1-16
Laborers in the Vineyard
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius  a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’  16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
 20:2 A denarius was a day's wage for a laborer
 20:15 Or is your eye bad because I am good?
1ομοια γαρ εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων ανθρωπω οικοδεσποτη οστις εξηλθεν αμα πρωι μισθωσασθαι εργατας εις τον αμπελωνα αυτου: 2συμφωνησας δε μετα των εργατων εκ δηναριου την ημεραν απεστειλεν αυτους εις τον αμπελωνα αυτου. 3και εξελθων περι τριτην ωραν ειδεν αλλους εστωτας εν τη αγορα αργους:
4και εκεινοις ειπεν, υπαγετε και υμεις εις τον αμπελωνα, και ο εαν η δικαιον δωσω υμιν. 5οι δε απηλθον. παλιν [δε] εξελθων περι εκτην και ενατην ωραν εποιησεν ωσαυτως. 6περι δε την ενδεκατην εξελθων ευρεν αλλους εστωτας, και λεγει αυτοις, τι ωδε εστηκατε ολην την ημεραν αργοι; 7λεγουσιν αυτω, οτι ουδεις ημας εμισθωσατο. λεγει αυτοις, υπαγετε και υμεις εις τον αμπελωνα. 8οψιας δε γενομενης λεγει ο κυριος του αμπελωνος τω επιτροπω αυτου, καλεσον τους εργατας και αποδος αυτοις τον μισθον αρξαμενος απο των εσχατων εως των πρωτων. 9και ελθοντες οι περι την ενδεκατην ωραν ελαβον ανα δηναριον. 10και ελθοντες οι πρωτοι ενομισαν οτι πλειον λημψονται: και ελαβον [το] ανα δηναριον και αυτοι. 11λαβοντες δε εγογγυζον κατα του οικοδεσποτου 12λεγοντες, ουτοι οι εσχατοι μιαν ωραν εποιησαν, και ισους ημιν αυτους εποιησας τοις βαστασασι το βαρος της ημερας και τον καυσωνα. 13ο δε αποκριθεις ενι αυτων ειπεν, εταιρε, ουκ αδικω σε: ουχι δηναριου συνεφωνησας μοι; 14αρον το σον και υπαγε: θελω δε τουτω τω εσχατω δουναι ως και σοι. 15[η] ουκ εξεστιν μοι ο θελω ποιησαι εν τοις εμοις; η ο οφθαλμος σου πονηρος εστιν οτι εγω αγαθος ειμι; 16ουτως εσονται οι εσχατοι πρωτοι και οι πρωτοι εσχατοι.
2. ANALYSIS - Matthew 20:1-16
Modern interpreters of the parables, led by "structuralists" such as
John Dominic Crossan, have emphasized the inherently disturbing purpose
of all parables. In summarizing the conclusions of this new scholarship,
Joseph Sittler writes
"The parables shock the mind into opening to the unenvisioned possible;
they madly exaggerate in order to jolt the consciousness of the religiously
secure; they are an assault upon the obvious" (Gravity, p. 110).
Today's Gospel very much exemplifies this iconoclastic aspect of all
parables. The actual analysis of the present text is not so complex, while
the interpretation of it is exceedingly complex.
Matthew 20:15 - ei ho ophthalmos sou poneros estin hoti ego agathos
eimi? - A literal translation of the Greek would be, "Or is your eye evil
because I am good?" The response of the householder emphasizes his own
sovereign freedom to do as he wishes, in this case his freedom to be
gracious. Again, the parallel with the father in Luke 15:31 is striking.
3. STRATEGY - Matthew 20:1-16
Three avenues for preaching on this parable seem particularly fruitful:
1. God's offensive grace. Following Jeremias, who titles this parable
"The Good Employer" (Parables, p. 247)l, the emphasis of the sermon might
rightly be upon who GOD is rather than who WE are. But if God is "good,"
then God's goodness does not always bring us pleasure as, say, a "good
meal" would. Indeed, God's grace produces indignation before it does
anything else, as our paraable shows.
Thomas Merton contrasts the "consistent and logical world of justice,"
in which you and I spend most of our waking hours, and "the inconsistent
realm of mercy" (Raids, p. 31). But, writes Merton, "the world can only be
'consistent' without God. His (sic) freedom will always threaten it with
inconsistency--with unexpected gifts" (Ibid.).
This sovereign inconsistency is especially sounded in 20:15b: "Am I
not allowed to do as I wish with what is mine?" asks the householder.
Gerhard Forde picks up this theme in an outline for a sermon on this text
entitled "God's Rights" (p. 26). "It is God's right to make you his (sic) own,"
writes Forde. A preacher might play with examples of our resistance to
this gracious freedom. In what ways to we feverishly attempt always to
be first in line to work in the vineyard? In what particular circumstances
are we quick to scorn those who "get more than they deserve?" In what
respect is God's "unfair grace" good news, even for those of us early
workers and elder brothers of the world?
2. Our Work Ethic. Joseph Sittler wrote that he sometimes "preache(d) to a
cliche" (Grace Notes, p. 40) in support or critique of conventional wisdom.
So, for example, you have heard it said that "the best things in life are
free." Do we really believe this? Our fast-paced, get-ahead society
suggests the opposite, that the best that life holds is hard-earned, not
free. Psychologists, after all, rate vacations among the most stressful
life events, trailing only such monumental losses as death and divorce.
To relax is stressful: simply to take life as it comes produces anxiety!
We might feel more comfortable wtih a rabbinical counterpart to
today's Gospel, quoted by Norman Perrin (Rediscovering, p. 116f.). In the
rabbinical version, the man who works only a few hours also receives a
full day's wages. But he deserves it! To those grumbled the king (in this
version) said, "What cause have you for grumbling? This man did more in
the two hours than you in a whole day." Again, the best in life is hardly
free, even when it appears to be.
The preacher will want to illuminate the parable's perspective, which
seems to support the cliche mentioned above. Are we so certain that our
cleverness and hard work have achieved what is most precious to us? In
the parable, as in life, the perception that the workers had earned their
pay was illusoryll. The householder in fact had decided to give them all a
full day's pay, without regard to how long or hard they had worked. Which
makes our wages more on the order of a GIFT than an earning.
3. Religion versus Morality. In speaking about the Parable of the prodigal
son, Chaplain James Ford of the U.S. Senate says, "There you find the
difference between morality (the older brother) and religion (the prodigal).
The older brother obeyed all the rules--and never learned anything about
the father's love" (quoted in Lutheran Partners, August/September '84, p.
10). aOne finds the same contrast in our own double-edged parable. Or, in
the words of Monica Furlong (Merton's biographer), "Christians have to
choose between the safety of morals and danger of love" ( quoted in a
The ones encompassed by the category of "the last" in our Gospel
(20:16), are not those who have obeyed society's written or unwritten
codes. They include children, who "don't know any better." The include
those who "sell what they possess and give to the poor." They include
those willing to achieve greatness by being slaves. They include those
"who stand idle" in the town square. They all try our patience and
challenge us to forsake the refuge of our morals for the unpredictable love
4. REFERENCES - Matthew 20:1-16
Crossan, John Dominic. THE DARK INTERVAL: TOWARDS A THEOLOGY OF
STORY. Niles, IL: Argus Communications, 1975.
Forde, Gerhard O. "God's Rights," LUTHERAN PARTNERS, March/April '86,
Jeremias, Joachim. THE PARABLES OF JESUS. 2nd Revised Edition. New
York: Scribner's, 1963.
LUTHERAN PARTNERS (LCA). "Interview with Jim Ford." August/September '84, p. 10.
Merton, Thomas. RAIDS ON THE UNSPEAKABLE. New York: New Directions,
Perrin, Norman. REDISCOVERING THE TEACHING OF JESUS. New York:
Harper and Row, 1976.
Sittler, Joseph. GRACE NOTES AND OTHER FRAGMENTS. Phila.: Fortress
___________. GRAVITY AND GRACE: REFLECTIONS AND PROVOCATIONS.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.
5. MUSIC SUGGESTIONS - Matthew 20:1-16
HARK THE VOICE OF JESUS CALLING (LBW 381) was based on today's Gospel.
It fits, however, in the company of those who identify "our working in
God's vineyard" as the major theme of the parable. A better choice is the
Hymn of the Day suggested by the LBW: "SALVATION UNTO US HAS COME"
(LBW 297). This Reformation-era German hymn will be musically
challenging for most congregations. Thought should be given to having it
used as a "hymn of the month" or at least to having the choir sing the first
stanza as a helpful introduction to the congregation.
COME, LABOR ON (HB 541)
RISE UP, YE SAINTS OF GOD (HB 551, LBW 383)
FROM GLORY TO GLORY ADVANCING (HB 326)
O MASTER LET ME WALK WITH YOU (LBW 492, HB 659,660)
RISE, O CHURCH, LIKE CHRIST ARISEN (ELW 548)
Exegete: Rev. Richard Priggie is Campus Pastor of Augustana College
[ 639 38th St Rock Island, IL 61201-2210 ] email: firstname.lastname@example.org
6. FURTHER RESOURCES
Because today's gospel possibly opens the door upon moral and ethical
Concerns --just when many are “world weary” from the recent social and
political scene--some titles might be worth considering as resource reading:
1. If you have not seen the film FROZEN RIVER, I highly recommend it to you. Here’s a good basic introduction from the Sundance Festival:
2. The wonderful book of Kierkegaard’s writings compiled by Charles Moore as PROVOCATIONS
Is now available online in Acrobat format at this address:
Highly recommended (esp. chapter 23) !!!!
3. Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament
By Scott A. Ellington. Wipf & Stock, 2008
From the publisher: Ours is a world characterized by change. Often the most fundamental changes in our lives result from experiences of profound suffering and loss as we are wrenched from our familiar world and driven into one that is alien. In the midst of such loss, we are compelled to choose between trying to cling to the remnants of a reality that is passing away and trying to make a home in a strange new world. Biblical prayers of lament wait for us at this crossroad of loss and newness.
Prayers of lament are marked both by loss and by the inexplicable silence of God. Everything we believe about God's justice and goodness is placed in doubt by his hiddenness. The cry of lament is an act of tremendous risk. To lament is to abandon the sinking ship of religious certainty and strike out in a small dingy, amidst stormy seas, in search of a hidden God.
Faced with God's silence, the biblical writers are willing to place at risk their most fundamental beliefs and to lament. The Psalm writers risk the loss of the Exodus story by crying out to a God who has failed to save, demanding that he once more part the chaotic waters and make a way in the desert. Job risks the loss of a moral God by confronting God with his injustice. Jeremiah risks the loss of the covenant by calling out for God to return yet again to a faithless partner and a failed marriage. Matthew and John the Revelator recognize that the coming of Messiah is impelled by the cries of innocent sufferers. Throughout the Bible, lament risks the possible loss of relationship with God and presses for a new, though uncertain, experience of God's presence.
4. A photomontage of important images from the past decade our so can be found on TO DIE FOR from Panoramica. This collection of beautiful, provocative, and unsettling images is the product of Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps, whose work in photomontage takes political satire to biting new heights …This program, which can be set to run in a continuous loop, is sure to provoke some intense conversation. 8 hrs. Soundtrack: English Dolby Digital stereo. See the remarkable cover photo of Tony Blair copying himself to a cell phone here:
www.artrepublic.com/articles/8-the-peter-kennard-print-downing-st-tried-to-ban-now-at-artrepublic.html © 2008 PANORAMICA DVD
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