The stories around [the parable] are dominated by concern for who is first and last. Matthew wishes to use the stories to break the attractive power of wealth and status for believers. A rich young man (first in society) approaches Jesus with questions about being first with God. Jesus instructs him to sell all (to become last in society), which is more than the man can contemplate. Jesus warns his disciples that being first in wealth does not make one first with God. Jesus assures his disciples that, as they have become last in the eyes of the world to follow him, they will be first with God. After the parable of the vineyard owner, the mother of James and John seeks to secure first rate positions for her sons. Jesus then instructs not to be concerned for status and power, but to be great only in service.What further light is shed on this parable’s concern with social status when we notice that the wage which each laborer receives, whether they work one hour or twelve, is a single denarius: the standard minimum day’s wage for an unskilled worker? It is barely enough, but still enough to feed oneself for the day. It is the monetary equivalent of being given today our daily bread.
In the middle of these stories of being first or last, the parable of the workers in the vineyard stands... The whole sequence of stories seeks to undermine ordinary human aspirations of being first. Because God in Christ has given believers everything that matters, striving to be first in status or wealth profoundly misses the point of living.
Homily Service: an ecumenical resource for sharing the word. Vol. 41, No. 4 (1 September 2008 – 25 November 2008), p. 28.
Aaron J. Couch is co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, where he shares ministry with his wife, Melinda J. Wagner.