What is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard?
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard was spoken by Jesus Christ and is recorded in Matthew 20:1-6. The labourers in the vineyard has become celebrated in modern economical discussions by its pregnant phrase "To this last." Calderon, the Spanish poet, renders its meaning well, "To thy neighbour as to thee".
But among parables it is one of the hardest to work out, and is variously expounded. In the main it is an answer to all Pharisees and Pelagians who demand eternal life as a recompense due to their works, and who murmur when "sinners" or the less worthy are accepted, though coming late to the Divine call.
It might seasonably introduce the Epistle to the Romans, which proceeds on identical lines and teachers the same lesson. Yet no one has denied its authorship to Christ. (Cf. Romans 3:24-27; 4:1; 9:20, esp. "O man, who art thou that repliest against God?") The attitude of Christ towards publicans and sinners which gave offence to the Pharisees (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30), affords the clearest comment on the parable as a whole. Some critics reject the last sentence, "Many are called", as an interpolation from the parable of the marriage feast.
Early mystical views understand the labourers to be Israel and the heathen, Irenaeus, Origen, Hilary adapt the different hours to stages of the Old Covenant. St. Jerome compares the prodigal son, for which this may be St. Matthew's equivalent lesson. Note the "evil eye" and other references to it (Deuteronomy 15:9; 2 Samuel 18:9; Proverbs 23:6).
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).