The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) comes up every year in the One-Year pericopal system of our church. I have preached on it a number of times, and have always interpreted it (for homiletic purposes) in this way: just as the householder ‘hires’ those who are standing idle in the market place and sends them into the vineyard to work and agrees with them on a set wage, so also our Lord’s call into the vineyard is a call to believe, and it is an act of grace on His part that he brings us into the Church, which is His spiritual vineyard. Like the householder, our Lord does not play favorites and is impartial, and gives his blessings equally to all in the vineyard regardless of how long they have labored. The people who complain because they think they deserve more than those who only worked one hour are, on one level, the Jews and Pharisees who did not like to see Gentiles receiving the same status as them, and on another level, they represent those in the Church today who think that their status before God is a result of their works. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” This I have always seen as the complaint of the Jews concerning the Gentiles. Thus, this Parable, as I have preached it in the past, teaches that our place in the Kingdom is by grace, and that the same reward is laid up for all believers. I think this is a pretty typical way this parable is interpreted and preached in our churches.
Having said that, here is another possibility I’ve toyed with. The Parable is not about the call to faith at all, but the call into the Holy Ministry. The vineyard, of course, is a metaphor for the Church (drawn, of course, from the Old Testament). This is congruent with John 15, in which the Father is called the “Vinedresser,” and Christ himself the “Vine.” Psalm 80 speaks of Israel as being the “vine” that has been brought out of Egypt. Also:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Isaiah 5:7)
Notice, however, the language Jesus uses with regard to the workers: the ‘laborers’ are ‘sent’ into the vineyard to work. In the Old Testament, those who are ‘sent’ are the Prophets. “I did not send them, yet they ran” says God concerning the false prophets (Jeremiah 23:21). In the Gospel of Luke, the Parable of the Tenants also uses this language of ‘sending.’ The ‘servants’ are each sent to the Vineyard.
This ‘sending’ language in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard suggests to me that those sent to work in the vineyard represent the prophets and apostles. The context of this parable is even more suggestive that the Parable is not simply speaking of the Call of faith into the Church, but the Call of the Ministry. At the end of Matthew 19, the disciples hear what Jesus says to the rich young man who did not want to part with his possessions. Peter says to Jesus: “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus answers by saying:
(28) “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (29) And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (30) But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, therefore, is Jesus’ extended answer to Peter’s question about what they will have for leaving everything and following Christ. They will receive the ‘Prophets’ reward’. This is Christ’s admonition to those who serve as “laborers” in the Vineyard of the Church (i.e. called ministers of Christ) not to forget that Christ called them and sent them into the vineyard to work. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).
I’m sure there is more that could be said, but these are my initial thoughts. I’m open to suggestions though.