Of course, the laborers grumble because they feel this is unfair. And yet they were paid the wages they expected, so it’s not that they were shortchanged! They just thought it was unfair for the short-time workers to be paid what they received. It’s a typical kind of jealousy, though, when we chafe that people whom we consider “undeserving” receive more than we think they should. Similarly, we might praise God for unexpected blessings for ourselves but fuss when we see others receive blessings (pp. 38, 40). Wehrli compares the grumbling laborers to the elder brother, who had always been loved and cared for but hated the fact that his useless brother was an object of the father’s wonderful love (p. 40).
Wehrli clarifies that this parable “does not teach that it is never too late to repent. ...Furthermore, the parable makes nothing of the idea that it is never too late to begin work... Neither is the parable an analogy for employer-employee relationships as if it were trying to picture the ideal business behavior” (pp. 40-41). I had thought of the parable as story of God’s welcoming the repentant, but Wehrli notes that the focus is the generosity of God rather than human behavior, and that our ideas about dessert and merit are irrelevant because God gives freely in God's own kingdom (p. 41).
He also notes that verse 16 actually fits better with Matthew 19:30 and Luke 13:30, rather than with this parable, since in the parable the first and the last are paid equally (p. 41).
Turning to Jeremias’ book (p. 37), I found that he adds another dimension to the story. “[The vineyard owner] sees that [the servant who worked an hour] will have practically nothing to take home; the pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. It is because of his pity for their poverty that the owner allows them to be paid a full day’s wages. In this case the parable does not depict an arbitrary action, but the behavior of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. This, says Jesus, is how God deals with me. This is what God is like merciful. Even to tax-farmers and sinners he grants an unmerited place in his Kingdom, such is the measure of his goodness” (37).
I wonder how many of us completely miss that aspect of the vineyard owner; we focus on the mercy of God, which is Jesus’ point, but we think that the owner is indeed being arbitrary in his goodness. Even though the parable is not about human business practices, we can certainly be inspired by the vineyard owner's compassion and sympathy.
(1) Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).