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 Old Testament guidelines:[1]

Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the LORD, and it be sin unto thee.

— Deuteronomy 24:14–15, King James Version

In contrast to Rabbinic parables with a similar theme, 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.

In Islamic texts[edit]

A somewhat different parable in Islamic faith[6] has been recorded in Islamic Hadith:

The Prophet said: "Your example and the example of the people of the two Scriptures is like the example of a man who employed some laborers and asked them, ‘Who will work for me from morning till midday for one silver coin?’ The Jews accepted and carried out the work. He then asked, Who will work for me from midday up to the afternoon prayer for one silver coin?’ The Christians accepted and fulfilled the work. He then said, ‘Who will work for me from the afternoon till sunset for two silver coins?’ You, Muslims have accepted the offer. The Jews and the Christians got angry and said, ‘Why should we work more and get lesser wages?’ Allah said, ‘Have I withheld part of your right?’ They replied in the negative. He said, ‘It is My Blessing, I bestow upon whomever I wish.’ [7]

In another version, Muhammad is recorded to have said:

The Prophet said, “The example of Muslims, Jews and Christians is like the example of a man who employed laborers to work for him from morning till night for specific wages. They worked till midday and then said, ‘We do not need your money which you have fixed for us and let whatever we have done be annulled.’ The man said to them, ‘Don’t quit the work, but complete the rest of it and take your full wages.’ But they refused and went away. The man employed another batch after them and said to them, ‘Complete the rest of the day and yours will be the wages I had fixed for the first batch.’ So, they worked till the time of ‘Asr prayer. Then they said, “Let what we have done be annulled and keep the wages you have promised us for yourself.’ The man said to them, ‘Complete the rest of the work, as only a little of the day remains,’ but they refused. Thereafter he employed another batch to work for the rest of the day and they worked for the rest of the day till the sunset, and they received the wages of the two former batches. So, that was the example of those people and the example of this light which they have accepted willingly.” [8]

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.
  6. ^ Alfred Guillaume, Traditions of Islam: An Introduction to the Study of the Hadith Literature, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7661-5959-0, p. 140.
  7. ^ Sahih al-Bukhari 3:468, 469; 1:533; 4:665
  8. ^ Sahih al-Bukhari 3:471; 6:539