From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 20:1-16a
The parable of the vineyard workers shines a spotlight on the extravagant generosity of God. The late hires received from the divine landowner the same compensation as the early arrivals, yet this was neither earned by their efforts nor owed to them according to the terms of the contract. It was not something they deserved or merited. It was simply a gift that the Lord was free to bestow at his good pleasure.
The early hires, however, mistook divine generosity for divine injustice. Theirs was an instinctive human reaction to an unfulfilled expectation (“we should have gotten more than the latecomers”) combined with a perception of unfairness (“the latecomers got a better hourly rate than we did”). Many of us can relate to the perspective of the disgruntled workers; their initial reaction— and perhaps ours—is to think they have been cheated.
But this is not the case, as the landowner explains in verses 13–15. The injustice lies instead with the grumbling laborers, who have become envious of the others. Envy is not simply jealousy, which is the desire to attain or possess what another person has. Envy is the sin of being upset at another’s good fortune. Scripture traces its beginning back to the devil himself (Wis 2:24).
The parable thus conveys a theological message about God’s goodness as well as a moral message that cautions readers against envy. The challenge is to rejoice at the liberality of God manifest in the lives of others. None of us is deserving of his grace or has a claim on his blessings. We all have reason to be grateful that the Lord is “generous” (v. 15).