Sunday, September 17, 2023

Fairness v. Justice

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Matthew 20:1-16, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments, and especially your corrections, are always welcomed.

For an article I published on this text, entitled “The Politics of Just Wages,” please feel free to visit

The pericope begins a new chapter and launches directly into a parable. When it comes to interpreting the parable with regard to its literary context, the story that precedes this parable would be important. Since this parable begins a new chapter in Matthew, it is important for the interpreter/preacher to make that connection. Too often the chapter/verse divisions in the Scriptures impose a separation that the text itself does not warrant. I will address this question, as well as a “situation-in-life” question about this text below, after the exegesis.

1 Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐξῆλθεν ἅμα πρωῒ μισθώσασθαι ἐργάτας εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ:
For the reign of the heavens is like a human homeowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐξῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
μισθώσασθαι: AMInf, to let out for hire, farm out. In Middle, as here, to have let to one, to hire, to engage the services of any one, contract.
1. Unlike last week’s pericope (Mt. 18:21-35), the opening here has an active indicative verb, “is” with the word “like” as an adjective predicate for that verb, Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ. Last week we saw the phrase, ὡμοιώθη βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, which comes out more like ‘the reign of the heavens is likened to ...’ 
2. Like the pericope from last week, Matthew begins the parable with a 2-subject phrase that does not translated smoothly into English. Last week it was ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, “a man a king” and this week ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ, “a man a homeowner.” I’m trying out the phrase this week of “a human homeowner,” to see if the construction is an adjectival phrase meant to use ‘heaven/human’ to compare what we see in this person to what is in ‘the reign of the heavens.’
3. The word οἰκοδεσπότῃ, for which “homeowner” seems fine enough as a translation, is actually a combination of οἰκο, which means “house,” and δεσπότῃ, which transliterates as “despot.” While “despot” has tyrannical overtones in English, I’m not seeing the same in the lexicons for δεσπότῃ. You have no idea how badly I want to go with the option, “Paterfamilias.”

2 συμφωνήσας δὲ μετὰ τῶν ἐργατῶν ἐκ δηναρίου τὴν ἡμέραν ἀπέστειλεν 
αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ. 
Yet having bargained with the workers for a denarius per day, he sent them into his vineyard.
συμφωνήσας: AAPart nsm, συμφωνέω, 1) to agree together 2) to agree with one in making a bargain, to make an agreement, to bargain
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  
1. While it is easy to gloss over the participle, “having bargained” here as just part of the set up for the real drama of the story, it comes back later as being the grounds on which the homeowner defends his actions. They talked it through – one might imagine a bit of back-and-forth bartering – and they agreed on this price.

3καὶ ἐξελθὼν περὶ τρίτην ὥραν εἶδεν ἄλλους ἑστῶτας ἐν τῇ ἀγορᾷ ἀργούς: 
And having gone out around the third hour, he saw other unemployed workers standing in the marketplace.
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
εἶδεν: AAI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know
ἑστῶτας: PerfAPart apm, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 
1. The adjectives ἄλλους (other) and ἀργούς (unemployed) are the same case (accusative), number (plural), and gender (masculine). Although they are separated from one another in the word sequence, I am combining them to be “other unemployed workers.” Other translations use ἀργούς to modify the manner of their “standing in the market” as “idle,” since the participle ἑστῶταςἐν (standing) is also accusative, plural, and masculine. While “idle” could be read non-judgmentally, it is often read quite judgmentally, particularly when it comes to employment. My translation would suggest that while they are not employed the disposition of their “standing in the marketplace” is that they are looking for employment.

4καὶ ἐκείνοις εἶπεν, Ὑπάγετε καὶ ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα,καὶ  ἐὰν  δίκαιον δώσω ὑμῖν. 
And he said to these, “You also go into the vineyard, and if so I will give to you that which is just.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ὑπάγετε: PAImpv 2p, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
δώσω : FAI 1s, δίδωμι, 1) to give
1. The word δίκαιον (just, or “right” in many translations) will re-appear in its opposite form in v.13 below.
2. Unlike the negotiation of the first employees, the homeowner and the workers have a vague understanding in the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours.

5οἱ δὲ ἀπῆλθον. πάλιν [δὲ] ἐξελθὼν περὶ ἕκτηνκαὶ ἐνάτην ὥραν ἐποίησεν ὡσ αύτως. 
Then they went. [Then] again having gone out around the sixth and ninth hour he did in like manner.
ἀπῆλθον: AAI 3p, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
ἐποίησεν: AAI3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc

6περὶ δὲ τὴν ἑνδεκάτην ἐξελθὼν εὗρεν ἄλλους ἑστῶτας, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί 
ὧδε ἑστήκατε ὅλην τὴν ἡμέραν ἀργοί;
Then around the eleventh hour having gone he discovered others standing, and says to them, “Why have you been standing here all the day unemployed?”
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
εὗρεν: AAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
ἑστῶτας: PerfAPart apm, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἑστήκατε: PerfAI 2p, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 1a) to bid to stand by, [set up]  
1. Verse 6 is where the story is a bit vague and the interpreter has some decisions to make. The homeowner has been to the market several times and only now discovers the workers. The assumption of his question is that they have been there all along. That is a genuine tension within the straightforward reading of the story itself.
Pablo Jiménez (see below) is right to point out the assumptions that this tension brings out of many commentators, displaying their prejudice against workers. To wit:
“Joachim Jeremías's remarks border on the offensive: ‘Even if, in the case of the last laborers to be hired, it is their own fault that, in a time when the vineyard needs workers, they sit about in the marketplace gossiping till late afternoon; even if their excuse that no one has hired them (v. 7) is an idle evasion (like that of the servant in Matt. 25.24), a cover for their typical oriental indifference, yet they touch the owner's heart.’”
Jiménez continues:
“These commentators ignore that seasonal workers usually have to attend several "work calls" during the day. They go from job site to job site until they are hired. They may even go to a new job site after completing an assignment. In short, these sad remarks advance one of the main tenets of the ideology of the powerful: the idea that the poor are lazy.”
2. I do have to say that Jiménez’ reference to going from job site to job site, or having finished a partial day job and looking for more, do not fit the text entirely. My approach would be to take the text at face value – The text does not necessarily depict the workers as “idle” if that means lazy or non-industrious. The text does not offer reasons why the workers were not seen by the homeowner in his first few rounds of going to the marketplace. The text presents the unemployed workers’ excuse without judgment. And the text assumes a familiarity with how first-century day-labor marketplaces work – which seems not to be a safe assumption for 21st century readers.
3. To me, the determination of some interpreters and commentators to depict the eleventh hour workers as idlers is the same kind of meritocratic criticism of the homeowner’s disposition toward them that the first set of workers make. 

7λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Οτι οὐδεὶς ἡμᾶς ἐμισθώσατο. λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑπάγετε καὶ 
ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν ἀμπελῶνα. 
They say to him, “Because no one hired us. He says to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐμισθώσατο: AMI 3s, μισθόω hire, to let out for hire, farm out. In Middle, as here, to have let to one, to hire, to engage the services of any one, contract.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ὑπάγετε: PAImpv 2p, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
1. I recently attended a conference on homelessness where the opening speaker said, “Do you know the #1 reason why people are homeless in Orange County? It’s because they don’t have a home.” The speaker’s point was to begin by taking the situation at face value, rather than to jump to conclusions regarding motive, responsibility, etc. That same kind of reasoning seems to be  at work here when the question, “Why aren’t you employed?” is answered with “Because nobody has employed us.” And the answer is not challenged by the homeowner or the narrator. It only seems to be challenged by commentators.

8 ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης λέγει  κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος τῷ ἐπιτρόπῳ αὐτοῦ, 
Κάλεσον τοὺς ἐργάτας καὶ ἀπόδος αὐτοῖς τὸν μισθὸν ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῶν 
ἐσχάτων ἕως τῶν πρώτων. 
Yet evening having come, the lord of the vineyard says to his foreman, “Call the workers and give to them the wages starting from the last to the first.”
γενομένης: AMPart gsf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Κάλεσον: AAImpv 2s, καλέω, 1) to call 
ἀπόδος: AAImpv 2s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due
ἀρξάμενος: AMPart nsm, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
1. “Starting from the last to the first” seems to be the detail that connects this parable to the previous text in Matthew 19.

9καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ περὶ τὴν ἑνδεκάτην ὥραν ἔλαβον ἀνὰ δηνάριον. 
And those having come around the eleventh hour received one denarius.
ἐλθόντες: AAPart npm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 
1. These workers had not been promised anything, per v.7, although some early manuscripts have the homeowner offering them what is just, as in v.4.

10καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ πρῶτοι ἐνόμισαν ὅτι πλεῖον λήμψονται: καὶ ἔλαβον [τὸ] 
ἀνὰ δηνάριον καὶ αὐτοί. 
And those having come first supposed that they would receive more; and they received one denarius also.
ἐλθόντες: AAPart npm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἐνόμισαν: AAI 3p, νομίζω, 1) to hold by custom or usage, own as a custom or usage, to follow a custom or usage  1a) it is the custom, it is the received usage  2) to deem, think, suppose
λήμψονται: FMI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 

11λαβόντες δὲ ἐγόγγυζον κατὰ τοῦ οἰκοδεσπότου
Yet having received they were muttering against the homeowner.
λαβόντες: AAPart npm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it 
ἐγόγγυζον: IAI 3p, γογγύζω, 1) to murmur, mutter, grumble, say anything against in a low tone  1a) of the cooing of doves  1b) of those who confer secretly together  1c) of those who discontentedly complain
1. I love the way γογγύζω is defined as murmuring or “the cooing of doves.”

12λέγοντες, Οὗτοι οἱ ἔσχατοι μίαν ὥραν ἐποίησαν, καὶ ἴσους ἡμῖν αὐτοὺς 
ἐποίησας τοῖς βαστάσασι τὸ βάρος τῆς ἡμέρας καὶ τὸν καύσωνα. 
saying, “These the last worked one hour, and you made them equal to us the ones having born the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
λέγοντες: PAPart npm λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐποίησαν: AAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make
ἐποίησας: AAI 2s, ποιέω, 1) to make
βαστάσασι: APPart apm, βαστάζω, 1) to take up with the hands  2) to take up in order to carry or bear, to put upon one's self  (something) to be carried
1. The word ποιέω is a rather flexible term, referring in this story to the homeowner “doing” the same by going to the marketplace in the sixth and ninth hour to find workers. Here, it refers to the eleventh hour hires who “work” one hour. A very interesting connection, however, is in Matthew 19:16, when the rich young man asks Jesus, τί ἀγαθὸν ποιήσω ἵνα σχῶ ζωὴν αἰώνιον; What good shall I do in order to have eternal live? The meritocratic mentality that challenges both the early workers and the commentators of this text is introduced as early as the rich young man’s question.

13 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς ἑνὶ αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Ἑταῖρε, οὐκ ἀδικῶ σε: οὐχὶ δηναρίου 
συνεφώνησάς μοι; 
Yet having answered he said to one of them, “Friend, I did you no injustice; did you not settle on a denarius with me?
ἀποκριθεὶς: AAPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἀδικῶ: PAI 1s, ἀδικέω, 1) absolutely  1a) to act unjustly or wickedly, to sin, 
συνεφώνησάς: AAI 2s, συμφωνέω, 1) to agree together  2) to agree with one in making a bargain, to make an agreement, to bargain
1. It is a little curious – and I confess I’ve never noticed it before now – that the homeowner answers “one of them.”
2. The homeowner’s response picks up on the bargaining of v.2 as well as the intention of giving “just” wages in v.4.

14 ἆρον τὸ σὸν καὶ ὕπαγε: θέλω δὲ τούτῳ τῷ ἐσχάτῳ δοῦναι ὡς καὶ σοί. 
Take what is yours and go; but I wish this to give to the last as also to you.
ἆρον: AAImpv 2s, αἴρω, 1) to raise up, elevate, lift up 
ὕπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω
θέλω: PAI 1s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
δοῦναι: AAN, δίδωμι, 1) to give

15 [ἢ] οὐκ ἔξεστίν μοι  θέλω ποιῆσαι ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς;   ὀφθαλμός σου 
πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι; 
Is it not lawful for me to wish to do in this to them? Or, is your eye evil because I am good?”
ἔξεστίν: PAI 3s, ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful
θέλω: PAI 1s,  θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
ποιῆσαι: AAN, ποιέω, 1) to make
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The phrase “is it lawful?” is an echo of 19:3 when some Pharisees came and asked Jesus if it were lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The answer there was that some laws of Moses were concessions to human weakness, not reflective of God’s design.
2. The reference to the eye being “evil” is an echo of Mt. 6:22-23, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

16Οὕτως ἔσονται οἱ ἔσχατοι πρῶτοι καὶ οἱ πρῶτοι ἔσχατοι.
So the last shall be first and the first last.
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Again, the paradoxical formulation that invites the interpreter to remember how this parable is connected to c.19.
2. The voice changes back to Jesus, as the narrator and now the commentator on the parable.

So, what is the story that immediately precedes this parable, and how might that story shape the way we interpret it?
Matthew 19:16-30 is a very familiar story of a rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After preliminary answers, Jesus instructs him to go, sell as that he has, give it to the poor, and to follow him. The young man went away grieving because he had many possessions. The disciples follow with a comment that they have given up everything. Jesus’ reply to them ends with the paradox of discipleship – many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.
Per my note in v.12, I believe the way the rich young man posed his question – in terms of “what good must I do to inherit eternal life?” – shapes the doing-centered work of the laborers. It does not, however, shape the grace-centered allocation of the homeowner.
It strikes me that the paradoxical statement at the end of Matthew 19 connects that story directly with the parable that follows. The one-hour workers are the last to be hired, the first to be paid. The all-day workers are the first to be hired, the last to be paid. And, in terms of value rather than timing, the all-day workers are resentful that being the first hired did not result in being the most enriched. It strikes me that everything about this parable takes a slightly different shape when we see it in relation to the story of the rich young man and the disciples.

I think it is important to recognize that this scene of workers, gathering at a place in search of day-labor hire, is part of the economic difference between NT parables and many of the OT stories. Where in the OT there are often Fiefdom or Serfdom scenarios (some of which persists in stories like last week’s parable of the servants of the king), the combination of losing family lands and subsequent growth of cities full of landless people in search of hire is a NT phenomenon, at least partly if not chiefly due to the economic structure of the Roman Empire. I cannot recommend highly enough an article by Pablo Jiménez, “The Laborers of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16): A Hispanic Homiletical Reading,” in Journal for Preachers, January 7, 1997. (
By being sensitive to the dynamics of day-laborers and their quest for employment, Jiménez detects quite a bit of privileged bias in many commentators’ approach to this text (long before “privilege” became the popular word to describe this bias.) Even if one does not end up agreeing with all of his interpretive points, the article as a whole might prevent a host of misbegotten sermons on Sunday.

The scenario of many landless persons looking for hire is contrary to the Sabbath Economics of the Hebrew Bible. It is a result of debts not being forgiven every seven years or forfeited family lands not being returned every fifty years or the prohibition of “joining land to land” not being observed, and so on. (See Ched Myers for an explanation of the term “Sabbath Economics” at The mere presence of a place where the landless gather in search of day labor is itself a testimony that the imperial economic structure is contrary to the Sabbath Economics of the OT. So, one question facing the interpreter of this text from the get-go is, “How are we to encounter a parable that is built on a structurally unjust scenario?”
The challenge of this parable – to 21st century interpreters and hearers just as it was to the early hired workers in the story – is over our sense of fairness, particularly as we tend to define “fair” in terms of merit. We simply cannot imagine labor economy or justice apart from basing reward on work. The alternative vision here is that the homeowner is basing the pay on something other than what is earned by the work. Perhaps he is simply paying each according to what they need, regardless of how much they have actually worked for it.
In some people’s eyes, that would make the homeowner unjust. (Is that what the “evil eye” is all about?) A 21st century version of the early workers’ complaint might include the words “socialist” or “undeserving v. deserving poor” in their argument.

In Jesus’ eyes, the homeowner is both just and well within his lawful right to be gracious.


  1. Thank you, especially for Pablo Jiménez, “The Laborers of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16): A Hispanic Homiletical Reading,” in Journal for Preachers, January 7, 1997.

    1. Thanks, Dr. Kay. It is a marvelous resource.

    2. An additional note: Justice, Economics, and the Uncomfortable Kingdom: Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16 by Karen Lebacqz sees the link to Jubilee

  2. Very eye opening. I hope I can do this scripture justice. I realize now that I was approaching it from white privilege even though I try to see things from other points of view. Thanks!

    1. I'm having that same journey. Thank you for chiming in.

  3. Hello Mark, This posting is a bit late for preaching on the 24th, but I am puzzled and intrigued by a line in verse 7 that is included in the old KJV but omitted in other translations. The homeowner says to the 5:00 workers go into the vineyard AND I WILL PAY YOU WHAT IS JUST. The word is dikaios which I believe is used as the equivalent of the Hebrew mishpat, the term found in Micah 6:8 "do justice". This line would support your premise that what the landowner did may not have been fair but he was doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly before God --Howard Chapman

    1. Hi Howard,
      Yes, some of the old manuscripts had an extended v.7, especially the manuscripts that were available to the KJV and other older translations. The more recently discovered, but older still, manuscripts do not contain the phrase in v.7, although they do have it in v.4. It seems that somewhere along the line a copyist "fixed" v.7 a little bit.
      So, your point of connecting "just" with Micah 6:8 works great with v.4 and with the opposite term in v.13, "I did you no injustice."
      Good to hear from you.

  4. Curious: Do you know if the murmuring/cooing of doves in verse 11 is the same word used in the Septuagint to when the people are complaining to Moses . . .?

    1. In the LXX of Exodus 16:2 it is a form of the same word, διεγόγγυζεν.

  5. For you... just put this line in the sermon "The landowner, homeowner, or paterfamilias in this parable, isn’t being generous, he is being just. Barely.
    But just."

    1. If they were field workers we could say, "Barley justice is barely just."

  6. I wonder whether the grumbling on the part of the first (the second, third etc don't seem to grumble) is not only against the equal pay that is given by the householder but that by giving equal pay for unequal labor, he was making the last equal to the first (v 12). All laborers are equal not just in pay in pay but in rank, status etc. It's that equality that bothers them as much as anything. Just a thought - but not irrelevant today.

  7. It seems to me that fairness or unfairness is closely allied to living in time. In Eternity, fair and unfair just don't come into it - everyone lives in the presence of God, whether they were faithful Christians from birth or converted in the last instant of life. If everyone gave freely and only took what they actually needed, without thinking of fairness, the world would be very different.

  8. The workers hired first negotiated with the landowner for a set wage, but the rest simply trusted the owner to pay them. This situation reminds me of something I read once: "God is a giver, not a negotiator." Trusting God --giving God a free hand, rather than insisting upon what we think is right-- leads to more than we can ask or imagine.

    1. That reminds me of what my mentor told me when we were going to become parents. He said that our child would challenge and push us, but we ought not negotiate with terrorists. :)

  9. My mind went not to the previous story in 19, but to the next section vv. 17-19 with Jesus again speaking of his death and resurrection. The verb apostelo has a commissioning tone to it. The vineyard owner is "commissioning/sending" the workers to the vineyard. Does this perhaps suggest that the story is Jesus preparing the disciples for what they will receive as those "sent" by him? I don't know...just thinking.

  10. Just that when ἀργὸν is used elsewhere in Matthew (Matt 12:26) it has a negative connotation, so it may well have been intended here for emphasis.


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