Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

「For the kingdom of the skies is like a human [1] landowner [2] who went out as the morning [3] to hire workers for his vineyard. Having agreed with them one denarius per day, he sent them to his vineyard.

And having gone out around the third hour, he saw other ones standing idle on the marketplace [4]. He told to these ones: 『you too go to my vineyard and I will give you what is just [5]』. And they went there. Again having gone out around the sixth hour and the ninth [hour], he did likewise.

Around the eleventh [hour] having gone out, he found other ones idle and he tells them [6]: 『Why are you standing here the whole day idle?』 They tell him: 『no one has hired us.』 He tells them: 『You too go to my vineyard.』

When arrived [happened] the evening, the lord of the vineyard [7] tells his manager: 『Call the workers and pay them their wages, from the last ones until the first ones.』 And having come, the ones around the eleventh hour received a denarius each. And having come, the first ones thought they would receive more; and [8] they received a denarius each, too. When receiving [9], they complained against the landowner, saying: 『These last ones have worked one hour, and you have made [10] them the same as us, who carried the burden during the day and the heat.』

Answering, he told one of them: 『My friend [11], I’m not mistreating you; didn’t you agree one denarius with me? Take away yours and go. I want to give the last one, like you. Isn’t it allowed for me to do what I want with my goods? Or is your eye evil because I am kind? [12]』

Thus the last ones will be the first, and the first ones, the last.」

Matthew 20:1-16


[1] Most translations don’t include the noun 「ἀνθρώπῳ」 since we all take for granted that a landowner is a human being. But since there is already a noun, why is there a stress on his humanity with the use of that noun? I chose the adjective 「human」 to avoid substantival redundance, but I assume the fact that the parable is introducing a human – and not divine – landowner has its importance. In one of his last blogs, Benedictine monk Andrew Marr expresses an interesting view on this question: is the landowner really the god of Jesus or is he just a normal human master, capable of being unfair with other men?

Andrew Marr: ‘A Man, a Landowner’ (

[2] Etymologically, an οἰκοδεσπότῃ (οἰκοδεσπότης) is the master of a house. We assume that the vineyard is part of a ‘house’, or a property.

[3] The phrase 「ἅμα πρωῒ」 (‘at the same time’ or ‘with the morning’) originally implies a parallel in the day/sun movement and the landowner’s movement out. Time has a major role in the parable. The whole story works in unity with the time elapsed during one day. We know the symbolic aspect of days and nights. A day is a lifetime. Or even the life itself.

[4] 「ἐν τῇ ἀγορᾷ」: on the marketplace. The parable is not only about time, but also about the cosmos. We have both the vineyard (countryside) and the marketplace (city) as two poles unifying the different aspects of human life. Nature could be the real actor of this parable.

[5] Some versions translate 「δίκαιον」 as ‘right’ or ‘reasonable’. The concept of ‘right’ may perfectly match too, but there is no reason for translating by 「reasonable」 unless we make a clear inference on the link between what is reasonable and justice. Since the whole parable introduces the issue of human conception of justice, this word has a specific impact here. The adjective clearly relates with the original concept of ‘justice’. Human beings expect that ‘justice’ would be related to worth and merit in efforts provided while working – or efforts provided in their whole life, if we follow the symbol.

[6] Historical present appears mostly in parables, related to the function of ‘saying’ or ‘telling’. Should it remind us that the ‘Word’ has no tense and bears no time?

[7] The word 「κύριος」 (master, lord) appears here for the first time in the parable, and even as a synonym for the previous 「οἰκοδεσπότης」 (landowner), it doesn’t have the exact connotations.

[8] In the original text, there is no word to express the opposition with the previous sentence.

[9] The object (the denarius) is not repeated in the sentence. It may be for concision purpose, but this gives an impression of insisting on the action of ‘receiving’ and the contrast with the complaint right after.

[10] The verb chosen is 「ἐποίησαν」 (to make) and not ‘to give’, as if there was no acknowledgment in the receiving. Workers don’t receive their wages, they are ‘made’ one way or another. Is their identity at stake? The landowner gets a significance importance in each of the workers life, as if their own identity was under the whole control of this pay moment.

Strangely enough, no mention is made anymore of the sixth and ninth hours workers. The parable ends with payment of the first and the last ones, not the ones in the middle. Most human beings are neither the first nor the last ones. We all know that there are people before us and people after us. Where did those ‘middle’ or ‘average’ people go? We assume that they are paid as well. But they are not the focus anymore. Personally, I often look for the middle ones, because no one is the best or the worst and that’s always that grey area that puzzles me. It may appear for the reader, that they are the ones who are not complaining, even though they might have – a bit – to complain about; or they might feel satisfied because they received as much as the ‘first ones’ who worked more than they did.

[11] ‘Comrade’ or ‘associate’ would be closer to the original 「ἑταῖρε」 as Greek has another word for a real intimate friend. But in English these words would be a bit incongruous here.

[12] Someone who is 「ἀγαθός」 is, of course, a ‘good-doer’. English adjective 「kind」 might be more popular. We can’t avoid observing the main difference between the two concepts used in this parable: the ‘δίκαιον’ (what is ‘just’, justice) and the ‘ἀγαθόν’ (what is ‘good’, kindness). The parable starts with questions about justice and ends with questions about kindness.

Who is this landowner? A human or a god? A god of kindness or a pagan, tough and unfair god? That was the question in the beginning. But another question appears to me now: who are the workers – if not only us as mortal creatures? Or better said: what kind of ethics are they supposed to represent in contrast with the – supposed – kindness of the landowner? This kindness obviously appears as unfair. Unfair, because it doesn’t follow the expected conventions in an economical deal. You can’t run a business by giving the same salary to everyone regardless of their economical value. These economical rules, as we see them set in the parable’s symbols, are not only the society’s rules, but also the rules of nature. Time, marketplace, workers and vineyard, are all elements of nature. They know how this is ‘normally’ ruled. They know how this is supposed to run. But there is a traitor to these social and natural rules: it’s the landowner. His ethics in retribution are violently going against rules of society and rules of nature. He – whoever ‘He’ is – is knowingly against nature itself, because His ways are terrible ways for a natural business.

Jean-Sébastien Desnanot


「Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐξῆλθεν ἅμα πρωῒ μισθώσασθαι ἐργάτας εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ. Συμφωνήσας δὲ μετὰ τῶν ἐργατῶν ἐκ δηναρίου τὴν ἡμέραν ἀπέστειλεν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ.

Καὶ ἐξελθὼν περὶ τρίτην ὥραν εἶδεν ἄλλους ἑστῶτας ἐν τῇ ἀγορᾷ ἀργοὺς καὶ ἐκείνοις εἶπεν· 『ὑπάγετε καὶ ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν ᾖ δίκαιον δώσω ὑμῖν.』 Οἱ δὲ ἀπῆλθον. πάλιν δὲ ἐξελθὼν περὶ ἕκτην καὶ ἐνάτην ὥραν ἐποίησεν ὡσαύτως.

Περὶ δὲ τὴν ἑνδεκάτην ἐξελθὼν εὗρεν ἄλλους ἑστῶτας καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· 『τί ὧδε ἑστήκατε ὅλην τὴν ἡμέραν ἀργοί;』 Λέγουσιν αὐτῷ ὅτι 『οὐδεὶς ἡμᾶς ἐμισθώσατο.』 Λέγει αὐτοῖς· 『ὑπάγετε καὶ ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα.』

Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης λέγει ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος τῷ ἐπιτρόπῳ αὐτοῦ· 『κάλεσον τοὺς ἐργάτας καὶ ἀπόδος αὐτοῖς τὸν μισθὸν ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῶν ἐσχάτων ἕως τῶν πρώτων.』 Καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ περὶ τὴν ἑνδεκάτην ὥραν ἔλαβον ἀνὰ δηνάριον. Καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ πρῶτοι ἐνόμισαν ὅτι πλεῖον λήμψονται· καὶ ἔλαβον τὸ ἀνὰ δηνάριον καὶ αὐτοί. Λαβόντες δὲ ἐγόγγυζον κατὰ τοῦ οἰκοδεσπότου λέγοντες· 『οὗτοι οἱ ἔσχατοι μίαν ὥραν ἐποίησαν, καὶ ἴσους ἡμῖν αὐτοὺς ἐποίησας, τοῖς βαστάσασι τὸ βάρος τῆς ἡμέρας καὶ τὸν καύσωνα.』

Ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς ἑνὶ αὐτῶν εἶπεν· 『ἑταῖρε, οὐκ ἀδικῶ σε· οὐχὶ δηναρίου συνεφώνησάς μοι; Ἆρον τὸ σὸν καὶ ὕπαγε. Θέλω δὲ τούτῳ τῷ ἐσχάτῳ δοῦναι ὡς καὶ σοί· ἢ οὐκ ἔξεστίν μοι ὃ θέλω ποιῆσαι ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς; Ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;』

Οὕτως ἔσονται οἱ ἔσχατοι πρῶτοι καὶ οἱ πρῶτοι ἔσχατοι.」

Painting Credits: Ng Woon Lam, Morning Market at Kowloon, 2017


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