The Parable of the Fair Employer and Rabbinic Parallels

One of my favorite parables in the gospel accounts is the parable of the fair employer found in Matthew 20.  What’s really cool about this parable is that it has numerous parallels in rabbinic literature, as is the case for several of Jesus’ parables.  We’ll start out with the parable as it’s told in Matthew 20, and I’ll also include some of the rabbinic parallels after the gospel story.  Matthew 20:1-16 reads:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

One parallel account in rabbinic literature is the Parable of the Laborers in the Orchard:

“R. Hiyya taught: to a king who had an orchard into which he brought laborers without revealing to them the reward for planting each of several kind of trees in the orchard.  Had he revealed to them the reward for planting each kind of tree in the orchard, the laborers would have picked out the kind of tree for whose planting there was the greatest reward and planted it; thus, the work of the orchard would have been neglected in one section and not neglected in another section.  Even so, concluded R. Abba bar Kahana, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not reveal to Israel the reward for heeding difference precepts of Torah.  Had he revealed it to them, Israel might have picked out the most rewarding precept and heeded only that one.  Then the Torah would be neglected at one Section and maintained only at another section.” (Pesik. Rab. 23/24)

One additional parable from rabbinic literature that has to do with the topic of grace or works:

“How do the righteous come into the world?  Through love, because they uphold the world through their good deeds. How do they depart — also through love.  R. Simeon ben Eleazar told a parable.  To what may the matter be compared?  To a king who hired two workers.  The first worked all day and received one denarius.  The second one worked only an hour and yet he received a denarius.  Which one was more beloved?  Not the one who worked an hour and received o denarius!  Thus Moses our teacher served Israel one hundred and twenty years and Samuel served them only fifty two.  Nevertheless both are equal before the Omnipresent!  As it is said, “Then the Lord said to me, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me'” (Jer. 15:1); and thus He said, “Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name” (Psalm 99:6); concerning them and others like them he says, “Sweet is the sheep of the laborer whether he eats little or much” (Eccl. 5:12).  (R. Zeira, j. Ber. 5C, ch. 2, halakah 8) 

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