This parable continues the context in the previous chapter. The Pharisees resented how Jesus was inviting the poor and unfortunate peasants into His teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was part of the false doctrine that possessing material wealth in the Covenant Nation was the primary evidence of God’s favor. The Pharisees, rabbis in particular, despised the peasantry as accursed of God, based on the evidence that they were poor. Rabbis often kept back some of their more arcane teachings from the peasants because they were “unworthy.” Of course, this gave them great advantage over the poor in matters of the Law, which tended to keep the peasants poor and themselves rich.
Jesus had said His famous line about how the Kingdom of Heaven reverses the order of things from the way the Pharisees did it. He used the bulk of an old Talmudic parable, but changes it to mean something else. Still, the whole scene is drawn from everyday life.
It was quite common during harvest season to hire peasant day laborers. The Law of Moses said that such laborers should be paid a full wage regardless of whether they were your cousins in the village of some Gentile stranger passing through, and you had to pay them at the end of that day (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). The standard wage for a day’s labor in Jesus’ time was a silver denarius, typically for 12 hours.
So this landowner went out just about dawn (6AM) and hired those who stood ready in the marketplace. They all contracted for the standard denarius. The man came out again at 9AM, noon, 3PM and 5PM. In each incident, he promised to pay what was just. In the minds of most, that would indicate some pro-rated portion of a denarius based on the duration of work. They all agreed and went to work.
At about sunset, the owner told his manager to call the workers and pay them, starting with the group that came to work last. He then paid each a full day’s wage. While not specifically commanded, this is hinted at in the Law of Moses, in that this was their livelihood. It was so very little in the first place that it just barely kept them and their families alive. So this minimum wage, as it were, was also quite common in that day, particularly since those hired last weren’t slackers hiding from the labor, but simply never got offered a job. They would have worked all day, but the owner missed them on previous sweeps of the labor pool. They just never got the word until very late in the game.
That’s the whole point here: They never got the word. When they did get it, they jumped on it. Like the all-day workers who were paid last, the Pharisees grumbled at the idea that they had been so very faithful for such a long time, and here God gives the same blessing to someone who just barely got started. These worthless peasants were getting healed just for showing up out on the streets, but Jesus never came to their yeshivas (rabbinical academies) to see if they needed any miracles.
After all these years of struggling in God’s vineyard of Israel, the rabbis had not accomplished much. Indeed, the peasants were suffering without much shalom at all — demons and diseases were pandemic. And the Pharisees grouched about having to shepherd these accursed peasants who didn’t pay their fair share of support for the leadership. And here Jesus is telling these nasty nobodies that God loves them and wants to bless them in ways that have nothing to do with material wealth. He tells them to obey the Pharisees, but don’t act like them. All the true wealth of God’s shalom wasn’t good enough for the Pharisees, and they griped about it.
But as Jesus said in the previous chapter, these peasant disciples of His would be welcomed into the Kingdom first, and would sit on thrones to assess those who came to the Heavenly Courts for their final judgment — such as the Pharisees. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.