Jesus told his disciples this parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage of one denarius, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So, they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
Around 6 o’clock, when evening came, the lord of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage of one denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more for their twelve hours of labor; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.”
But he replied to the ringleader, “Friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not make an agreement with me for one denarius? Take your denarius and go! I wish to give to this last one the same as I give to you. Is it not permissible to do what I wish with the things that are mine? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.
(Matthew 20: 1-16)
Knowing the historical context in which this parable was told can lead to some unusual and even disturbing conclusions about its meaning. In first-century Palestine, work was scarce and poverty widespread. Day laborers were peasants who had lost their land through indebtedness. If they were no longer needed as tenant farmers for the new landowners, they would become part of the “expendable” class. They were on a downward spiral and were desperate for work to survive. They did not have many options. They could choose between day labor or robbery. If they were too weak for either of these, they would become beggars at the gate (like Lazarus) until they died of hunger and disease. When Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), reflecting on the fate of peasants in a time of war, said that the life of humanity was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” it could aptly apply to the expendable class in the time of Jesus.
Jesus brings together the social extremes of an agrarian society: the elites and the expendables. And he arranges this meeting at a time when the elites were dependent on the lowliest of laborers. To ensure a timely harvest, the landowner needed their labor.